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Four Key Questions to Ask About Your Competitors

We all know the adorable adage about lawyers that they don’t want to be first, but they want to be first to be second.

Having worked in legal for almost 18 years, I’ve seen this proven to be true over and over again. And as a result, it means that we can learn a lot from what our competitors are doing. It doesn’t mean that we copy them, by any means, but it does mean that when we ask ourselves some challenging questions in the context of our own firm or business activities, we can improve our own goals and focus.

I’ve found there are four key questions that we can ask about our competitors that help us identify what we could be strengthening in our own firms and businesses, and when we review these regularly, we can stay ahead of the marketplace. As a note, when you’re reviewing your competitors, you want to limit this to 3-5 of them, since these are in-depth tactics.

How are they innovative?

When you look at your competitors, ask yourself, how are they innovative? Are they launching new practice areas or segments to the same key practice areas that you have in order to address current needs? Are they a firm that’s offering only alternative fee pricing? Do they work especially collaboratively? Have they hired other types of professionals in-house to address a widening legal marketplace and client needs? Really look critically at the way that those firms are being innovative and how that applies to what your firm’s plans and goals are. How is their innovation different from yours? I’m going to put a STRONG caveat here and say that innovation for the sake of innovation is useless – when a firm innovates, it MUST be because it is going to benefit the client and/or the business – for example, you’ve changed the firm’s internal process management, which has resulted in better efficiencies and the firm is now more profitable. That is GREAT innovation. But if the firm says “WE NEED TO BE INNOVATIVE!!” and the only answer to that is “because everyone else is being innovative,” or “Our clients expect us to be,” then you’re using it as a buzzword and not because there are practical changes to be made for the better.

What are the questions they’re asking (and answering)?

This one is two-fold – the first piece involves more of the internal side of things. Join industry groups and engage with your fellow professionals to see what kinds of questions they’re asking and answering. This should be a top-down activity encouraged throughout the firm, from your administrative professionals to your marketing folks to your lawyers and paralegals. Everyone should be networking with their competitive counterparts to see what the challenges and solutions are that they’re facing. Yes, it feels like you’re giving away the farm, but honestly, you’re not. No one is going to trade events to share the firm’s deep dark secrets. I promise. But we all benefit from sharing best practices about what works and what doesn’t work (plus, who doesn’t love a little commiseration now and then with people who really understand what you’re whinging about?). I have an email chat with the heads of other networks and while we never share anything proprietary, it benefits all of us to discuss things that we’ve run into before, share non-proprietary things so that no one is reinventing the wheel, and identify mutual bumps in the road.

The second piece is external – look at the content that they’re producing. What issues are your competitors looking at critically with their content, and how are they answering the questions surrounding them? It’s more than just developing content for your firm – it’s about seeing the trends that are being well-addressed by your competitors. Go a step beyond that and look at HOW they’re addressing those critical issues – this isn’t just about content after all, but the type of content. Are they offering long-form articles? Client alerts? Lots of webinars? Are they regularly being quoted in trade publications? How are they achieving that? Did they start a podcast or video series? Also, simply just putting out that content doesn’t matter if it’s not achieving results – if they’re putting out that content, but not then being noticed and converting those thought leadership pieces into new clients or more work for existing clients, then it’s not effective. While it’s challenging to obtain real data on that from outside the firm, you can get some idea over time if you’re paying attention to the firm’s trends.

What are the additional client benefits they offer?

There are firms that are doing some really innovative and smart things. Look at your own competitors for the technology, training, web information portals, webinars, and more that are being offered as an additional benefit to their legal services. Look both at what the firms are offering that you as a firm should also be extending to your clients and potential clients, but also at what your competitors are missing that you could be filling the gaps for.

Sometimes, you may feel that you have to assume what this is. And often, you do. But not always. So how do you come up with the “next best thing”? Two ways. First – don’t get stuck in the legal industry. Often, we can be navel gazers and because we want to be first to be second, we only want to do what another law firm has already done. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can look at what has also worked in other industries. Remember that the legal industry is also a service industry. So see what accounting or banking firms have done for their clients and what might be translatable for the law. HSBC did an absolutely brilliant campaign a few years ago, coupled with airline travel, which would have been amazing to do for our organization if we had their budget (alas, we don’t). But sometimes, you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for if look sideways instead of down.

Second, ask your clients what they need. Many times, we want to come to our clients with the answers. And that is absolutely essential when your client is asking you about a legal issue. But when you’re talking to them about how they want information delivered and what is currently happening with their business, those are the areas that they are expert in. You don’t have to know everything about everything – have casual, candid (non-billable) conversations with your clients and you may learn the best way to communicate with them or a new issue that you can solve, and as a result, what you can do for potential new clients.

How do they differentiate themselves (and are they really different)?

Quality, service, talented lawyers – these are not differentiators. These are your ticket to the show. Look at your competitors and ask yourself whether, if you took away the firm’s name, you would be able to guess who it was simply by their tagline or other collateral materials. Identify which of your competitors, if any, is truly different and memorable. How do they accomplish that in your marketplace? How can you show your clients and potential clients that you’re both different from them AND entirely unique?

A couple of other things that competitors can offer you is insight into the technology that they’re using that might be of interest and value to you – depending on the tech, you may need to have insider knowledge of what the firm’s using to get this information, but some of their outside-facing technology efforts can be informative too. As I mentioned with content, your competitors can also be a great source of information on trends as well. Are they showing an increased focus on associates? Lateral hires? Flashy recruitment programs? New branding initiatives? What are their website trends? Not all of these trends are things you need to necessarily embrace or jump into, but they’re all relevant in terms of informing the decisions that you’ll want to be making as a firm in terms of where you want your own focus to be in those same areas.

What other questions are your competitors answering for you? Share your insights in the comments.