So stated Tom Peters, the management guru who co-wrote In Search of Excellence and many other books. It conveys the same message as Jack Trout’s Differentiate Or Die.

The "die" part of Trout's warning doesn't refer to sudden, traumatic failure. It's more akin to death by a thousand cuts. If you think about it, you've probably already seen signs of it.

  • The longtime client who now puts "your work" up for bid

  • The uncomfortable discussion about reducing your rates

  • The senior people with whom you've always had "a good relationship" don't call back right away, or at all

  • Another law firm being selected for a transaction that's always been in your sweet spot - and you learned about it through the legal media or rumor mill

Are any of these clients angry with you or dissatisfied with your work? Not necessarily. It may be that, because this class of legal work is mature, everyone who does that work has become indistinct, and they're now lumped together in the "capable law firm for [legal service category]." Because the choice of firm that performs it has become less risky, and therefore less significant, the choice may have defaulted to whomever they had contact with at the time the need arose.

If you're comfortable being part of a large, indistinct mass of capable law firms that are seen as relatively interchangeable, do nothing. You're already there. Together, you can drive prices downward to where, in the face of rising operating costs, you're in danger of extinction.

If, however, you aspire to be perceived as a firm or lawyer of impact, with the pricing power that goes with it, you've got to be distinct. There aren't many ways to do that, but they include:

  • A different perspective on an ongoing category of business problem, and a fresh approach to solving it ("Everybody treats this as an HR/employee exit problem, but it's really a trade secret problem...")

  • Innovative service delivery methods that reduce cost, speed up delivery, eliminate redundancies and align better with clients' operations (Think back to the original big-transaction electronic deal rooms that made real-time document collaboration a reality.)

  • A precise focus on a narrowly-defined market segment, where you're the industry expert of record ("Sarah is the organic restaurant lawyer; nobody knows that space like she does.")

As Jack Trout (and his late partner, Al Ries) sagely teach us in the first two principles offered in their seminal work, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing:

It’s better to be first than it is to be better.
— The Law of Leadership
If you can’t be first in a category, set up a new category you can be first in.
— The Law of the Category

How can you be first? How can you be different?

It doesn't have to be world-changing, like Henry Ford's mass-production line. It can be something simple like Ungaretti & Harris becoming, in 1995, the first law firm to offer a written client satisfaction guarantee, signed by all the partners.

Or the first lawyer to represent only other lawyers.

Or the first bank to finance tort litigation.

You get the idea. Now come up with a first for your practice.

Mike O'Horo

RainmakerVT is the world's first interactive online business development training for lawyers. You'll learn by doing as you manage an avatar through networking events, sales calls and other common, but challenging, marketplace activities. At each critical juncture, you'll decide what to say or do next, and you'll receive immediate video coaching that explains why that choice was or wasn't the optimal one. You learn, make mistakes, get coaching, and practice -- in complete privacy. RainmakerVT is available when you are, 24/7, from any computer or tablet. You can buy only the specific training you need right now to help you with what you're about to do in the real world.

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