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Thought Piece by Alan Gilmour: How to succeed in a post ABS world

16 January, 2012 - Source: Cogent Elliott

Here, Alan looks at the impact on law firms of 'Alternative Business Structures'.


2012 is going to be a very big and exciting year. We will have the Queen’s Jubilee, the London Olympics and, for lawyers, it is going to be the first full year since the introduction of ‘Alternative Business Structures’ and the arrival of ‘Tesco law’ as competition to long established law firms. Well maybe.

Prior to ABS being introduced last year it was interesting to watch the consolidation going on as law firms acquired or merged to reduce capacity, deliver economies of scale, strengthen their offer, build competitive advantage or drive growth and the top line in what was, and is, predicted to be an increasingly tough market place.

But in all this change affecting the industry, the key question for any firm wanting to build sustainable competitive advantage is “how can I be different?” In a world where legal services are rapidly becoming commoditised, even though this is a market highly dependent on individuals, differentiation and distinctiveness must be considered a key ingredient for ongoing success.

Indeed a recent piece of research concluded that in professional services firms business success was highly dependent on quality, service and distinction but it was on distinction that most firms fell down. No wonder the sector is becoming rapidly commoditised.

So, how do we build distinctiveness and differentiation in a law firm?
This need for distinction goes hand in hand with a strong brand and as businesses consolidate, merge and come together (and even if you are not doing this) there is a great opportunity for law firms to start the process of building a strong brand.

A great brand isn’t just a name and a set of colours, a fancy design and a website. They have to be got right but they do not define the brand. A great brand is relevant and distinctive that tells your clients, prospects and your people what you stand for. It is a promise delivered. In short, it is what people say about you and your business when you are not in the room.

At the most basic level, a strong brand will drive awareness and consideration to help you get on more short lists, improve cross sales and aid retention.
But to really drive out the benefit of a strong brand and deliver top line income requires genuine transformation right across the business.

Now in our work with law and other professional services firms, the role of the partner as opposed to the brand is often given greater prominence when it comes to winning and retaining clients.

It is our view that the attributes of a strong and distinctive brand go to the heart of the unique symbiotic relationship between the brand and the talented professionals who deliver the brand, win the business and build the relationships.

Each can survive without the other but both are more successful when they rely on each other. Could he or she win business without the brand behind and its reputation behind them? Yes, but with difficulty and possibly at a discount.

And where firms have come together to compete more strongly with the new competitors who may emerge in 2012, your brand can act as a rallying point for your people who can come together and unite under a strong brand promise and identity. Critical at a time when your business may be being transformed to cope with a market undergoing major and substantive change. This gives you and your people the opportunity to build a business that stands out from the crowd in terms of what you stand for, the way you behave, the values you live by, the way a quality product is delivered, the way you compete for and win business. An opportunity to build a strong, united, focused business.

We do understand that competing effectively and strongly requires more than just a strongly differentiated brand. Yes, you need to have in place an effective business development strategy and powerful sales engine to drive sales; an internal communications programme that unifies the efforts of everyone in the business; an effective digital strategy that makes it easy for clients and prospects to find you and do business with you; and an intense use of data that will help build and develop relationships right across your firm.

But we would argue that at the heart of these strategies is a relevant and distinctive brand that unifies the collective efforts of the business, gives it purpose and direction, helps differentiates you from the enemy and creates the context and the framework within which you can more effectively compete.

And where do you find this critical point of competitive advantage? In our experience this can be found where three thoughts come together: what are the client needs that you can meet more effectively and/or better than the enemy; what is our differentiating competence that means you can do this; what claims can you make and deliver against that your enemy isn’t, aren’t or can’t?

2012 will be a tough and difficult year for many of us. ABS will pose new questions and give rise to fresh challenges and even challengers. At Cogent Elliott, our understanding of this sector and experience of building brands, convinces us that the development of a strong and distinctive brand is key to driving top line growth and harnessing the huge talent of the individuals within your business.

It’s not too late to make a resolution for 2012 so why not resolve now to make your business more distinctive and more differentiated, and better able to compete and thrive in the post ABS world.

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