If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If a lawyer writes an article, and no one reads it, is it thought leadership?
In either case, maybe. But practically speaking, the label is far less relevant than the result? When it comes to creating content, it doesn’t matter how smart, clever, or well-crafted an article is if it doesn’t reach and engage its intended audience.
For the last two months, lawyers have been pumping out massive amounts of content in order to address the wide and varied implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. The challenge all face is standing out in a marketplace of ideas saturated with so much of the same.
...it doesn’t matter how smart, clever, or well-crafted an article is if it doesn’t reach and engage its intended audience.
Writing and publishing content often feels like tossing a needle into the Internet haystack. That’s challenging enough. But if all you’re doing is recycling the same old ideas, and trying to make them relevant to the biggest audience possible, then It’s not even a needle—it’s just more hay.
The way to stand out is to create content that is more client focused—that is, content created for a very specific, often small, audience. You don't need to reach everyone, just the cohort of individuals and businesses that requires the type contextualized insight only you can offer. By showing up over and over for your audience, you'll generate awareness, and people will come to trust you.
The decision as to the right lawyer for the job will become obvious. After all, why would a client choose an unknown commodity when there's someone consistently showing up in their inbox and social feeds with solutions to the problems they face?
Narrow Your Focus
When you set out to become a thought leader, you must approach the task with the mindset that you must write for someone, not everyone. You must narrow your focus. Businesses and individuals succeed when they focus on less not more.
...approach the task with the mindset that you must write for someone, not everyone.
Across all categories of service offerings, there are continuums of premium brands and commodity ones. Those in the premium category narrow their positioning—the articulation of what they do and for whom they do it—to the point that there are few, if any, available alternatives to what they offer. They solve discrete problems for distinct audiences and do it extremely well. Assuming there is a market for what they offer, and they deliver high quality work product, they dominate and earn healthy profits.
In the context of legal services, this means you don’t have to be the smartest lawyer to be successful, you merely need to be sufficiently narrowly focused to reduce, or eliminate, the competition. A lawyer who offers one area of practice expertise for one industry will be perceived as a more valuable resource to those in the industry than another lawyer who purports to specialize in almost everything for everyone.
The generalist may get an opportunity (if you can call it that) to participate in an RFP process designed to identify the lowest-cost provider for commodity work, while the specialist will get an urgent phone call when it really matters. Law firms also benefit from narrow focus. By way of example, consider Kirkland & Ellis’ dominance in generating high-margin litigation, transactional, and restructuring work from the private equity industry. The objective of narrow positioning is to be perceived as less interchangeable.
there’s a compounding return on expertise...
If you summon the courage to stay in a single lane, you’ll come to know what it’s like to operate at a high level of competence, and you won’t want to go back to the feelings of uncertainty and angst that afflict the generalist who often gets in over their head.
Indeed, there’s a compounding return on expertise—when you’re disciplined enough to maintain your focus, you get better and faster at a rate that’s impossible for a generalist to keep up with. When you deal with the same types of clients with the same types of issues, you start to see patterns and make connections that others can’t. Instead of constantly getting up to speed on an industry and its statutory and regulatory framework, making initial assessments and determining a course of action becomes instinctual.
And, yes, one of the most important benefits of having a narrow focus is that it allows you to create more and better thought-leadership content.
Make Your Expertise Visible Through Thought-Leadership Content
Whether the benefits of specialization redound to you is not up to you. You can’t anoint yourself an “expert” (or even call yourself one under the ethics rules). You can stake a claim of expertise through your narrow positioning, but ultimately it’s up to the marketplace to decide. To influence those you hope to serve, you must make your expertise visible and offer forms of social proof that evidence your assertions. Unless expertise can be validated through referral or reputation, it must be demonstrated through thought leadership expressed in the marketplace of ideas.
One of the most important things a lawyer can do to become a well-recognized expert is to produce and publish high-quality content.
Just as your narrowly focused work has a compounding effect on your expertise, so does the thought leadership content you produce. In his book “Good to Great,” Jim Collins introduced the concept of the “Flywheel Effect,” which describes the increasing momentum that companies achieve when they land on an effective process for producing, marketing and selling products or services. It takes a great deal of effort to turn the flywheel at the beginning, but then it picks up speed and continues to reinforce a business’s advantage. According to Collins, “Each turn of the flywheel builds upon work done earlier, compounding your investment of effort.”
...resist the urge to write for the masses.
There’s a flywheel effect to thought leadership as well. When an expert sets out to produce thought leadership for a narrowly focused audience, the process forces her to crystallize her thinking and sharpen her arguments. Her thought leadership attracts the attention of prospective clients, some of whom will hire her. Through the work she does for those clients, she deepens her expertise. As a result of her experience, she is then in a position to produce more insightful thought leadership. And so on. The flywheel turns faster and faster.
The best way to get the thought-leadership flywheel turning is to resist the urge to write for the masses. Instead, have a specific person with a specific job title in mind and address their needs. Write like you'd speak to them. Fight your instinctive belief that the best way to reach a big audience is to write something that is broadly relevant. Trust that a narrowly focused article that is hyper relevant to a small constituency will make a more significant impact (on your reader, and on your practice).
People want to read content that seems like it was written specifically for them. If you have clearly defined positioning for your practice, it will be far easier to craft and contextualize content that stands out.
People want to read content ... written specifically for them
A good way to get started is to consider what I like to call the Focusing Question: What does my ideal client need to know, understand, or believe before they will do business with me? The objective, of course, is not to sell through your content by overtly pitching your services, but rather to address—with laser focus—the questions, challenges, and opportunities that your audience is grappling with. Do that well, and your audience will come to the logical conclusion that you’re the right lawyer for the job.
There has never been a better time for lawyers to stand out through their thought leadership, because there have never been more unanswered questions due to the rapid pace of change resulting from the COVID-19. To capitalize on the opportunity, think big but act small.
Jay Harrington is the owner of Harrington Communications, a leading digital marketing agency for law, consulting, and accounting firms. He specializes in helping law firms build engaging websites and digital marketing strategies through creative design and storytelling. Jay is author of the recently released book The Essential Associate: Step Up, Stand Out, and Rise to the Top as a Young Lawyer. In 2016, his first book, One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Law Practice, was published. Jay is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, and previously he was a commercial litigator and corporate bankruptcy attorney at Skadden Arps and Foley & Lardner.