A law firm's marketing strategy is a set of coherent and integrative choices that sets a law firm up to win in the market they’ve chosen to compete in. This is not the same thing as planning for law firms—despite how often they’re confused.
Strategy is like a beacon for your law firm. If you don’t have one to guide you as you try to get from where you are to where you want to be, you’ll drift off course, waste time, and sometimes crash.
While we’d love to say that most law firms need only to refresh their current strategy—the more common reality is that very few law firms have anything that would remotely pass as strategy.
What worked for you 10 years ago won’t necessarily work today. And while you shouldn’t change your strategy very frequently, we recommend you revisit periodically to see if what was true about the world in the past is still true today.
After reading this article, you’ll know what strategy is, why you shouldn’t confuse it with planning, and how to develop one for your own firm.
Strategy vs Planning vs Tactics
Before we dive into what strategy is, let's make sure we understand what it isn't.
- Strategy: A set of choices that sets you up to win, where you want to win, how you want to win.
- Plan: A set of activities (or things) that you’re going to do but don’t guarantee that you will win (i.e., get the results you want). See Law Firm Marketing Plans.
- Tactics: The different ways you can do activities.
Defined ByExamples from ChessStrategyCoherent choicesForcing your opponent to trade Queens early because you can play fine without them while they historically struggle.PlanActivitiesUsing the Ruy López opening.TacticsTasksAdvancing a pawn, castling, and pinning.
To develop a real strategy, there are five choices you have to make:
- What does winning look like?
- Where will we compete so that we win?
- How will we compete so that we win?
- What capabilities must we have to win?
- What enabling management systems do we need to win?
As you answer each of these questions, don’t think of them as being a linear top-to-bottom waterfall but instead as a set of questions that reinforce one another in a ripple-like fashion. Meaning the answer to “how will we compete” can cause you to revisit and revise your “definition of winning” or “where to compete.”
Define What Winning Looks Like
Everything follows from strategy. Without one, you’re just moving chess pieces around without gaining ground.
Answer the Question: What does winning look like?
Your firm has to define what winning looks like. And you must want to win.
A company must seek to win in a particular place an in a particular way. If it doesn't see to win, it is wasting the time of everyone involved (Martin, Playing to Win).
When you define what winning looks like, you give everyone else a map they can follow. It creates alignment and organizes everything else below it—at least better than the alternative does, which is just a hodgepodge of uncoordinated initiatives.
Tip: When developing what winning means for your firm, focus on what your clients want, not yourself or your firm. If you’re not in the business of serving the market, you won’t survive for long.
Decide Where to Compete to Win
This is where things get a bit more specific. Both where to compete and the next choice, how to win, are the core of strategy.
This is where you begin to define what segment of the market you’re going after and why. You’ll need to answer questions like:
- What markets are we competing in, and what markets are we not competing in?
- What clients are we serving, and what clients are we not serving?
- What marketing channels will we use to reach potential clients, and what channels will we avoid?
- What services will we provide, and what services won’t we provide?
In doing so, you’re effectively defining your:
- Service category
- Client segment
- Distribution channels
This is not an exercise to approach with a cavalier attitude either. Anyone can pick a place, service, type of client, and marketing channel to compete in—what you want is to decide one to compete in and win.
Let’s look at two examples of what this might look like in practice: the losing (read: lazy) approach and the strategic approach.
Example A: The Losing Way
Background: A personal injury lawyer in Chicago.
- Geography: Chicago and surrounding suburbs
- Service Category: Personal injury
- Client Segment: Anyone injured due to negligence
- Distribution Channels: Some TV advertising, SEO, and posting on social.
Why won’t this win?
Because it’s the same playbook every other losing firm uses—plus or minus a few distribution channels.
But we can turn this into something better by adding more specifics and addressing the reasons why we’re choosing these over others.
Example B: The Winning Way
Background: A personal injury lawyer in Chicago.
- Geography: Chicago and surrounding suburbs because of our partner’s deep roots within the community from East Chicago to Highland Park.
- Service Category: Personal injury—specifically focused on workplace injuries and wrongful death before expanding into other subcategories of PI.
- Client Segment: Focused on construction workers before expanding into other industries because all three partners grew up in the Chicago construction industry and worked in it every summer during college.
- Distribution Channels: Only two platforms. We'll use informative and entertaining TikTok videos to generate demand and awareness because three of our senior partners have families in the construction industry and can create interesting and funny clips that people will watch and enjoy. And we'll use SEO to capture that demand whenever people do get hurt and start searching for specific information online—both for what to do and who can help.
Notice how each of these choices supports and reinforces one another? That’s a common theme you should aim for throughout every facet of strategy development.
Decide How to Compete to Win
When you decide where to compete, you’re selecting the battlefield you’ll fight on. How to compete to win is determining what the circumstances on that battlefield will be.
When the Americans were in desperate need during the American Revolutionary War, John Paul Jones was sent to France for aid, where he devised a bold strategy to divert the world’s most powerful Navy away from America by raiding the British coastline itself. After setting fire to several ships, spiking canyons, and fleeing before anyone could respond.
John Paul Jones knew they couldn’t win against the British in conventional warfare yet, choosing instead to hit them on the battlefield of his choice (where) in a way he could win (how).
While business isn’t the same as war, the principles translate.
When deciding how to compete, your goal is to stack the deck in your favor. To set yourself up where you make the rules of the game such that you have an unfair advantage over your competition.
To do this, you have to ask yourself: what will enable me to create unique value that I can consistently deliver to clients in a way that’s so distinctive that they have no reasonable alternative?
There are two paths you can when doing this:
- You can win based on cost, or
- You can win based on differentiation
Based on Cost
Law firms that want to win on cost have to focus on being more affordable and having better margins than competing firms, enabling them to outlast them until they have to shut down. This path isn’t one we’d recommend.
Brands that do this usually win based because they have a software component that enables them to reach a larger geographic market with low enough overhead costs that they can still come out ahead. Examples include companies like DoNotPay, LegalZoom, and Rocket Lawyer.
Unless you have plans to develop software and go-to-market with a product-led motion, you should think about taking the path toward differentiation.
To be different, you have to articulate what winning looks like for you and where you will compete to the point where you can truly be unique and where the incentive to ever compete against you is low or the barrier too high.
So how can you differentiate yourself? You won’t find the answer reading a blog post.
Looking at what your competitors are doing won’t work either (by definition, that’s the worst thing you can do).
Talk to your clients. Seek to deeply understand them. Watch for what they aren’t saying—the things they want but don’t know they want. Ask them what their search for an attorney looked like, why they chose you over someone else, and what they liked and didn’t like while you’ve represented them.
Oh, and don’t lead questions while doing so. You know how that turns out.
Your customers determine the market—not your competitors. They’re the best source of information that far too many firms leave untapped.
Identify What Capabilities You Must Have to Win
The capabilities you must have to win should follow from the previous decisions you’ve made. They should align with your core capabilities as a firm or be something you can obtain.
These are the things that, when done at your best, enable you to win how you want to win, where you want to win.
Focus on the capabilities you have that reinforce one another. Not just the things that you’re good at. Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean your clients will care. And if they don’t care—you won’t have a competitive advantage.
A lot of firms we talk to about this say things like, “excellent service, always available, fight to get them the best outcome possible.”
These are sine qua non.
Of course you need to have those. What you need to ask yourself is, “What are the capabilities I must have to win, how I want to win, where I want to win, in the way I want to win?”
For a law firm, this may have less to do with your ability to practice law and more with your ability to let the world know your firm exists.
Determine What Management Systems You Need to Win
This is the bureaucratic layer underpinning everything else. Think of these as the systems you need to measure, assess, and make decisions about your progress toward winning.
For example, let’s say your firm defines winning as being the first firm that comes to mind anytime a Chicago construction worker gets hurt on the job.
A few things you might do to make that a reality include creating content construction workers will watch, like, and share when scrolling on social media, sponsoring programs that help people get into the trades, and routinely speaking at events where they attend.
How will you measure whether or not any of that’s working?
Here are a few ideas:
- Ask people who submit forms on your website how they heard about you using a freeform text field.
- Hire market researchers to poll the audience to assess how top-of-mind your firm is relative to other firms for the specific contexts you want to be remembered for.
- Read the comments people leave on social. Are they from people working in industries you want to represent, or are they all friends and family?
Avoid myopic thinking that everything can be measured, either. Not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything that can be measured matters.
Management is about more than measurement. It’s the systems and processes that need to be in place to get you from where you are to where you want to be.
Anything else is a distraction.
Good Strategy Doesn’t Guarantee Success, But Neither Does Luck
Going through the motions planning things to do and tactics to try in the hopes something will stick is just busy work.
If you don’t feel like you’re winning. Not growing the way you want to. Revisit your strategy.
A good strategy doesn’t guarantee you’ll win, but the lack of a good one (i.e. a coherent one) is a recipe for losing.
Want some guidance or direction? You know where to find us to schedule a call.