As the legal industry grapples with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it may seem premature for law firms, law companies and legal tech vendors to consider how best to compete once life returns to whatever ‘normal’ the future may hold. Yet life will go on – and all legal services businesses will need to equip themselves to survive (and thrive) in the post-pandemic environment.

In this series of short guest articles, professional services business development and marketing veteran Tim Haveron Jones, principal consultant at Provergence, explores the three concepts that legal services businesses should address now – so as to prepare for the highly competitive market landscape that is sure to follow the global crisis:

1. Strategic alignment

2. Market segmentation

3. Positioning and differentiation

Market positioning: clarity of messaging in a post-pandemic world

Naturally, nobody can predict with any certainty what the legal services landscape will look like as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic – but we can be reasonably confident that competition will be more intense, and that it will come from all sides.

Necessity having been the mother of invention, legal services businesses will have increased their adoption of technology and developed new modes of working, and clients’ appetite for non-traditional delivery models will likely have heightened. These factors and more will have blurred the lines that have historically demarcated the industry – potentially creating a tangled, confusing market through which clients must navigate. Legal services businesses whose communication with the market is clearest and most compelling will have a significant advantage in the post-Covid jungle.

One of the most common problems for market-facing personnel (fee earners, account managers, business developers and so on) in legal services businesses is how to handle conflicts. Not conflicts of interest, nor even conflicts with troublesome colleagues – although many of us would testify that those can be a headache, too – but conflicts of brand positioning and messages.

Sometimes, problems arise because different business units or practices within a firm need to adopt differing market positions. For example, one business unit might provide managed services, and therefore require to position itself as an efficient ‘machine’ that can save the client money and hassle – while other practices might operate in a sector where premium advice is delivered and ‘cost’ is a dirty word.

In other cases, the challenge stems from the nuanced expectations and buying preferences of clients in different market segments. For example, a private client or mid-market company may value a firm with a good local presence, that provides services in a very ‘traditional’ way – while a corporate or ‘enterprise’ client may prefer a service provider with global reach and a more innovative (or even ‘edgy’) approach.

As we emerge from the pandemic, clarity of market positioning will be paramount for law firms, law companies and legal tech providers. Those that can best identify client needs and buying behaviours – then respond to those with concise, compelling and targeted messaging – will almost certainly fare best. Businesses in the legal services market will need to be disciplined with respect to marketing messages and to the communication channels they use to articulate them. This will require a two-step process:

1. Defining a positioning portfolio that distinguishes between ‘core’ messages (those that apply to all clients, across all business units or practices) and what one might call ‘segment’ messages (those that only apply to a subset of business units or to one segment of the audience).

2. Optimising the way in which messages are communicated to the market, and to impose discipline between ‘broadcast’ and ‘narrowcast’ techniques.

To minimise the likelihood of messages undermining one another or otherwise ‘blurring’ the positioning of the business to its markets, it will be critical to avoid using ‘segment’ messages in communications that are essentially ‘broadcast’ by nature – in other words, those where the business has little or no control over who receives them. These include general advertising, corporate brochures, public websites and so on, as well as social media platforms that encourage sharing.

Segment or sector-specific messages should only be used in communications that are essentially ‘narrowcast’ by nature – including proposals, credentials pitches where the client is known, one-to-one business development meetings, as well as targeted advertising and media relations where only a certain audience is likely to be reached. Of course, these communications should also include ‘core’ messages, too.

To the extent possible in an era of lockdowns and furlough schemes, law firms, law companies and legal tech vendors should invest time in analysing and segmenting their client base and developing the messages they will need to position themselves clearly in the market and differentiate themselves from their competitors. By so doing, they have an opportunity to hit the ground running when the market begins to return to some semblance of normality.