This article was first published in Entrepreneur & Investor and can be read here.
At the last count there were almost 11,000 practicing law firms in England and Wales. Although factors such as the steep rise in the cost of professional indemnity insurance and changes in the provision of Legal Aid mean that this figure is actually lower than at any time since records were first published in 2009, it still represents a crowded and highly competitive market place. Whilst some of this reduction can be accounted for by the number of firms opting for mergers and acquisitions as a means of strengthening their place in the market, it is also indicative of a sector which throws up as many challenges as it does opportunities.
The vibrant nature of the market for legal services was underlined by the publication of the UK Legal Services Market Report in February of this year, which found, amongst other things, that revenue growth in the sector was expected to have hit 6% during 2014 and stay at this level for the next two or three years. Other findings in the report included the fact that UK Legal Services, as of 2013, employed 316,000 people, two thirds of this number being based outside London, and generated 1.6% of the total UK GDP. Given this backdrop, the challenge for a boutique firm lies in both breaking into the sector initially and then crafting and maintaining a profile which will enable them to grow and prosper.
Since the introduction of the Legal Services Act, it has often been stated that law firms need to ‘get big, get niche or get out’, and while this is a somewhat sweeping simplification, it does contain a strong element of truth. For boutiques to thrive in a market place which is often dominated by larger firms, the key lies in being better in highly specific areas, and these areas will be dictated by factors such as your own personal history and expertise or, in some cases, geographical location. Whichever specific field you operate in, you’ll be in a position to attract clients reassured by the fact that the area in which you work is one in which you are highly experienced and focussed, and the fact that you concentrate on this niche area means that you build a firmer foundation of knowledge and experience as time passes. Upon initially entering the market place, it may be tempting to try to offer the widest possible range of services, in the misguided belief that this will maximise the customer base available to you, and therefore turnover and profits. However, a smaller, boutique, firm doing this will be in direct competition with some of the largest firms in the UK, firms which are able to cut costs though economies of scale and outsourcing. Although it is true that these tools are available to boutique firms, the degree to which they can be utilised will be limited when compared to larger companies. Instead, a boutique firm is more likely to achieve success by focussing on the quality of the service provided, rather than the quantity of areas covered. Indeed, a firm which becomes truly established within a particular area may, in time, find itself being utilised by larger firms which lack a division dealing with this speciality.
The most important consideration when deciding which areas of law you wish to specialise in (and a niche can consist of several separate areas which overlap and are interlinked) is to approach the question from the point of view of prospective clients. Utilise market research in order to ascertain whether there is a genuine demand for legal services in the specialisms, sectors and/or locations within which you wish to excel and operate.
Identify the firms who will be seeking the same kind of clients as you, and analyse exactly how they set about generating income. The fact that there is competition out there needn’t be discouraging, as it demonstrates an existing demand, and the key to exploiting this demand will lie in focusing upon what makes you better than the competition. It could be something as simple as a highly personalised and user-friendly approach to your clients, or flexibility around the manner in which you charge, offering both fixed price fees and hourly rates depending upon the clients’ preference.
Whatever it is that makes your firm unique, you need to ensure that it forms a key plank of any marketing you undertake, emphasising not merely what you do, but the way in which you work that marks you out from the competition. Keep your message simple and focussed, presenting it in a manner which will be accessible to those working outside your speciality. By utilising opportunities such as blog posts you’ll be able to showcase your expertise in a manner which will both attract clients and reassure them as to your know-how and experience. As well as marketing yourself to the public in general, make sure that other professional bodies, such as accountants, business advisers and insolvency practitioners, know about the services you offer. By creating networks of this kind, you’ll not only draw in more work initially, you’ll also craft a reputation as being a trusted and effective partner. Utilise every channel available to get your message out there, and, even more importantly, in front of the kind of people who will form your client base. Social media will be an invaluable tool for doing this, as will the creation and dissemination of useful and informative content. If you can establish yourself as a voice which offers help and commands respect even amongst people who’ve yet to utilise your services, you’ll have gone a long way towards persuading them to do so once the need arises. Your website will play a major role in achieving this, and should be designed, built and written as professionally as possible, utilising a voice and vocabulary which will be easily understood by your target market.
The fact that you specialise within a niche or several niches in one particular area, means that, in time, you’ll be able to streamline the processes and paperwork, developing systems which mean you can handle cases more quickly and at a more competitive rate.