I stumbled across an old blog post by Carolyn Elefant with the title above. Carolyn applies this to how solos and small firms compete against much larger firms.

Malcolm Gladwell describes that Davids don’t just beat, but dominate, Goliaths when they avoid engaging Goliaths on their terms:

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath. But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said (in Robert Alter’s translation), and picked up those five smooth stones.

What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered in "How the Weak Win Wars," when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.”

Carolyn Elefant goes on to say

“The same holds true for solos. If we try to compete for business head-on against biglaw with fancy offices and a highly leveraged associate system and expense account lunches and costly yellow pages advertising, we’d suffocate under the weight of our overhead. Moreover, clients would have no reason to engage us – they’d just as well hire a real biglaw firm rather than a pallid imitation. So instead, successful solos have created our own playing field , filled with virtual offices and client portals and alternative billing and education-based marketing through blogs and ebooks that offer value to clients without breaking the bank. Consequently, even with the economy spiraling downward, solo and small firms are still attracting business.”

This is extensible to all competition. Competing head-on against anyone is, at best, unnecessary and, at worst, stupid. The little-firm-vs.-big-firm difference is easy to argue against. But what about all the other SmallLaw firms and solos in your town? It's hard to think of them as Goliath. So, how do you avoid competing head-on against other, similarly-situated lawyers or firms?

Differentiate. Literally, be different. At the very least, describe yourself as different.

All those “similarly situated” lawyers occupy the same category, i.e., “local lawyer.” How hard would it be, instead, to shed the label that so many others wear and self-describe as “the restaurant lawyer” or “the trucking lawyer” or “the distribution lawyer”?

Statistically, it’s likely that at least some of those local lawyers’ clients own restaurants, or trucking companies, or distributorships. If only one client from each of those dozens of generalist lawyers were to decide that they’d feel more comfortable with someone who demonstrably understood the trucking business, you’d have dozens of new clients.

Can it be that simple? Yes, actually. Not “easy,” but definitely simple.

Mike O'Horo

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