American Bar Association (Law Practice Magazine) - The 3 Es of a Law Firm's Value Proposition

“What is their value proposition?” That is the question a fellow legal marketer recently asked me about a firm we were discussing. While seemingly obvious, it stayed with me because it is the vital question that gets at the crux of virtually all aspects of marketing that we do for lawyers and law firms. On a tactical level, legal marketing can include updating and managing websites, handling the proposal process, writing firm materials and bios, sending legal alerts, submitting lawyers for awards, posting on social media and so much more. But at the root of effective marketing, even for a law firm, must be the why. Why does this firm exist and why should it continue to? Why hire this lawyer or team of lawyers and not that one?  

In a nutshell, legal marketing conveys why a client or potential employee should pick your firm. Identifying and communicating the why is the difference between regurgitating your firm’s practice areas and team bios versus telling a story that answers how your firm can best meet client and employee needs. Considering the three Es will help you find the why to inform your marketing efforts. 

The Value Proposition 

A value proposition for a law firm can touch on various elements, such as affordability, size, longevity, diversity, knowledge or a specific industry, history of precedent-setting cases, aptitude for technological innovation and more. While there are a lot of elements to consider, for most firms, the value proposition should be a combination of the three Es: Expense, Expertise, and Extras.  

Expense 

It is no secret that outside counsel budgets have been slashed in recent years and, in some cases especially for smaller businesses, legal budgets are nonexistent until an issue arises. The bottom line is top of mind for most clients--from corporations to privately held businesses to nonprofits to solo entrepreneurs to government agencies. But many firms fail to acknowledge cost in their firm’s marketing efforts. However, by staying mute on financials, firms are leaving out a critical factor in the decision-making process for their clients.  

Steering clear of rates and billing in your marketing efforts can lead to a lot of time and effort wining and dining clients who end up being the wrong fit when conversations about money eventually arise. Cost avoidance can also deter potential clients who may have been attracted to your approach to billing if you had shared it. For instance, a law firm client of mine offers a “pay once, revise for life” estate planning package, whereby clients who work with them can make changes to their estate planning documents throughout their lifetime at no additional cost. While specific dollar amounts are not disclosed in the service description on their website, the expense of working with the firm is contextualized so clients know that if they pick them as their estate planning attorneys, it will be their advisor for life––at no extra cost. Without providing this insight, the firm could simply blend in with every other estate planning firm on the block. 

Obviously, what you provide to a wider audience on your website will differ from specifics that you include in a pitch to a prospect. But either way, share where your firm stands monetarily to give potential clients an idea of what to expect from your firm. For example, are your rates lower given your geographic location compared to competitors? Or on the flip side, do you charge more than the others firm in your practice area because of a specific type of industry expertise such as other advanced degrees, certifications or real-world experience on the client side? Are you open to alternative fee arrangements? Does your firm use software and processes that improve efficiency? 

Acknowledging expense is not all about saving money for the client or being more affordable than your competitors, but rather expressing what clients can expect to get from you and how is that reflected in your pricing structure. Concrete numbers do not have to be included on everything you share, nor should they, but talking about money is "in" and being coy is "out."  

Expertise  

This part of your value proposition sounds obvious, but I am shocked by how many lawyers and law firms do not adequately convey their professional accomplishments and abilities. I had a conversation with a different law firm client about his bio and firm website that reflected a sentiment I hear often, “I don’t want to come off as bragging.” Talking about yourself in a positive light is not easy for most people.  We can all think of someone in our network who flaunts their achievements in a way that makes us cringe and not want to emulate. It’s a delicate balance demonstrating what you can and have done without coming off as excessive or arrogant. This is where your internal or external marketing partner comes in. 

I like to reframe legal marketing as less about bragging and more about sharing what you do and how you do it to help others. It sounds trite, but the law and lawyers change peoples’ lives. Law firms help clients execute and protect their inventions, unite with their families and loved ones, start and acquire businesses, make their workplaces safer and more equitable and the list goes on and on. In one way or another, a legal practice makes someone’s life better (the ethics of whose lives law firms should be making better is a discussion for another time). By embracing and promoting the challenges you overcame, cases you won, and clients you serve, prospects can more easily recognize when you are the right match for them. But identifying those differentiators is just the start.  

Your People 

As they say, there is no “I” in team, and that certainly is the case for law firms. Your firm is nothing without your people. To say it another way, your people are everything. For instance, think about the roles members of your firm held previously and how those experiences enhance your bench. I have partnered with attorneys who held positions in public office, were civil rights activists, worked as engineers and doctors, and served in various other capacities outside of a law firm. Each of those distinctive experiences is part of what makes firms stand out in the crowd. Just like interviewing for a new job, there is always a way to spin something you learned in a past position into a skill that is applicable for the new one. Don’t forget to let your team members' uniqueness shine through – that’s what makes you memorable.  

Thought Leadership

Another critical component of expertise is thought leadership, which are the ways you communicate you are an expert in specific areas. Every attorney will have a preference for certain ways to share what they know––some excel at public speaking, so they present continuing legal education programs and participate in panel discussions around their niche areas of practice. Others prefer to express themselves through writing and will publish articles and books that address trending topics and growing legal areas. Some lawyers give the gift of time, through bar association involvement or participating in industry groups and committees. Thought leadership is how you share with the world beyond your clients what you know and what you can do, all with the intention of attracting the types of clients and matters you are ideally suited to serve. 

Extras 

Expense and expertise are essential to any firm’s value proposition, but there are a lot of accomplished lawyers and firms out there that focus on the same areas and provide similar monetary value. So, what is your firm’s “x-factor” that makes it shine brighter than the rest? Here are some to consider. 

Diversity 

A major differentiating factor for clients, especially in the wake of 2020, is diversity. Who makes up your team and the role they play at your firm matters and can be the difference between winning or losing a client. Notably, Fortune 500 companies and government agencies are increasingly requiring transparency from outside counsel not only when it comes to who is working on their matters and who receives origination credit, but also who composes the team at every level of the firm from partner to paralegal. These disclosures get granular––I’ve responded to countless RFPs and pitches that ask for breakdowns of your team, including the percentage of women, racial and ethnic minorities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, disabled individuals or veterans.  

In addition to the increasing push from large entities to move the needle on legal diversity, members of underrepresented groups want to support and work with law firms that reflect them and their values. To meet this growing demand, firms that can promote the diversity of their teams and their efforts to foster diversity should do so. For example, initiatives like the Mansfield Rule Certification assert that a law firm is committed to “boost[ing] the representation of diverse lawyers in law firm leadership” by meeting various metrics like considering diverse candidates in the interview process and including a diverse team in pitch meetings. Furthermore, organizations like the National Association of Minority and Women-Owned Law Firms connect firms owned by women and minorities with private and public entities seeking to work with diverse lawyers. All in all, diversity is an area of differentiation that isn’t going away any time soon, as progress is glacial. 

Community Involvement 

Another way to set your law firm apart is through your community contributions. Does your team provide pro bono legal advice to underserved communities? Does firm leadership hold roles on nonprofit boards and committees? Does your firm host an annual fundraiser for a local charity? All these efforts show that your firm is well-rounded and cares about the world outside of it. In addition to being the “right” thing to do from a moral standpoint, being involved in your community also provides more opportunities for others to resonate with you. We don’t always know what civic issues resonate with our clients or to what groups they contribute. Philanthropic activities are another way to build connection and commonality with them. Even if your firm contributes time and effort to organizations that are completely unrelated to your practice, they are a worthy part of your value proposition and often a refreshing change from the norm. 

Legal Technology 

I’d be remiss if I did not mention a burgeoning area of the law that has played a more important role in the past two years than ever before––legal technology. Adopting legal technology is a game-changer for firms, especially for those that excel at it. While recent advancements were largely a product of necessity during the pandemic, many firms realized long ago that technology is their friend, not their foe. Allowing teams to access firm systems and software remotely has a positive impact on morale, productivity and the bottom line. Additionally, clients often ask for the protocols and infrastructure in place to protect their confidential information, complete legal work more efficiently, and save on costs. We know law firms are often behind the curve when it comes to innovation, so for those who have embraced technology and continue to, this is a crucial asset to share. 

Don’t Put the Cart Before the Horse 

The reason for this overview on value proposition is simple – it’s the foundation upon which you build out your marketing and business development efforts. I work primarily with small and midsize firms that do not have the same marketing budget and infrastructure that large firms have at their disposal. Given that, they often have specific marketing areas in mind, such as a new website, social media management or proposal writing. However, these tasks are far more difficult and less effective without a well-defined value proposition.  

A firm’s value proposition shapes branding, such as your logo, tagline and description. This branding is then adapted and used across other critical marketing collateral, like a website, social media pages, email campaigns, RFPs, award submissions and more. So, before you jump into the next item on your firm’s marketing to-do list, spend some time thinking about the three Es of your value proposition. You’ll be grateful you didn’t put the cart before the horse. 

©2022. Published in Law Practice, March 2022, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.