“City Slickers” and Law Firm Differentiation.

by Ross Fishman
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In the 1991 comedy City Slickers (“Yesterday They Were Businessmen. Today They’re Cowboys. Tomorrow They’ll Be Walking Funny.”), Curly, played by Jack Palance, a wise and wizened cowboy, offers some old-time western wisdom to Mitch Robbins (Billy Crystal), during his cattle-driving vacation:

Jack Palance: “Do you know what the secret of life is?  One thing.  Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean [anything].”

Billy Crystal: “Yeah, but what’s that one thing?”

Jack Palance: “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.”

Interesting advice.

What’s your “one thing?” 

What’s your firm’s “one thing?”

As a leader in a law firm, that’s what you have to figure out too.  When someone needs a law firm th

at does “X,” when does your firm automatically come to mind?

When are you obviously one of the top-three choices?

Typically, the answer is “Never.” 

It’s not that you can’t accomplish this, it’s just that you haven’t tried.  Rarely is that our primary strategic or marketing goal.  What’s your firm’s focus?  Many firms state that their objective is to “get better known,” or “get our name out there.”  With vague goals like that, how do you know if you’re succeeding?  Where is “There?”  How do you know if you’re “Out?”  Your ultimate objective shouldn’t be simply “better.”  It should be market dominance.  And dominance is only accomplished with a singular focus on that narrow goal.

But if your firm were to own a top spot in some practice area in some geographic market, what would it be? What’s your brand?  What do you stand for?  What do you aspire to stand for?

Decades ago, Baker McKenzie was the global law firm. 

If you wanted an English-speaking law firm in some far-flung city or country where you didn’t have a direct connection, there weren’t many options.  Many clients simply looked to see whether Baker McKenzie had an office there.  They were the law firm that stood for “Global.”  If that’s your goal, the activities that facilitate it become relatively obvious.

That was then.

Today, many international firms have thousands of lawyers spread across dozens of countries and even more cities.  Global networks like Meritas, Lawyers Associated Worldwide, International Lawyers Network, and Lex Mundi have banded together hundreds of mid-sized, full-service law firms into a community that operates loosely like an international law firm.  “Global” isn’t enough any longer for Baker McKenzie — or any other firm. 

In 1997, Forbes asked Skadden Arp’s managing partner, Joseph Flom, to identify his “personal hero — the person he most seeks to emulate.”  He selected Richard Branson, the pioneering leader of Virgin Group, because he taught Flom “the value of a brand.”  Flom became the principal architect of Skadden’s underlying strategy which caused its historic rise to the world’s third largest firm, with over $2 billion in annual revenue.

What was his secret?  Focus

Identify exactly what you want to be known for, execute ruthlessly, and market the heck out of it.

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Ross Fishman
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