Get Narrow: How to Align Your Legal Practice to Meet Changes in Consumer Demand

Change is never easy, rarely fun, but often necessary. That’s particularly true in the legal industry, in which client/consumer needs and preferences are changing rapidly, but lawyers and law firms are failing to keep pace.

In all aspects of today’s economy, consumers are trending toward specialization. In the medical field, the general family practitioner’s office is often just the first stop — many times mandated by insurance coverage — on the way to the specialist. The full-service advertising agency model of the “Mad Men” era is being replaced by agencies focusing on narrow industries and service specializations. Many advertising clients are no longer seeking an “agency of record” but rather the best agency to help with a specific project intended to achieve a specific objective. IT and software consultants are developing solutions not for mass markets, but for industries — from healthcare to financial services — that face common challenges.

These changes are happening in response to market demands — consumers are no longer looking for service providers with broad skill sets, but rather are seeking out specialists with very particular knowledge in industries and market segments. Narrow and deep, not broad and shallow, is what clients value.

The legal industry is not immune from these trends. Large, full-service firms are facing increasing competition from smaller, boutique, specialist firms. In some instances price is a factor, as a smaller firm can often charge less or offer a more flexible alternative fee arrangement than its larger competitors. But in many cases the boutique specialist is successful not because it charges less, but rather because it is able to harness all of it energy — from marketing, to creative work product — to address the unique challenges faced by a particular segment of the market. Price is not a factor, at least not a primary one. Specialization is what’s driving the buying decision, particularly for “bet the company” type engagements.

While it’s not easy to offer less options to the marketplace, trying to please everyone makes the options you do offer far less appealing. As journalist and author Herbert Bayard Swope wisely noted, “I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure — which is: Try to please everybody.”

It’s certainly possible to make a living as a generalist lawyer, but in today’s environment it’s far easier to build a practice — a profitable, sustainable one — as a specialist. In this market, narrow is the new big.

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