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Overcoming the “Full Service Syndrome”
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Overcoming the “Full Service Syndrome”

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Overcoming the “Full Service Syndrome”

“Tell me about your firm?” is an easy question.

“Tell me what makes your firm different?” is more challenging.

“Tell me what makes your firm better?” is harder still.

The quality of the answer is typically inversely proportional to the difficulty of the question. Most lawyers can describe in broad strokes what their firm does, but when pressed on how it is different from others, many are unable to succinctly and convincingly craft a response.

The inability to differentiate is a symptom of “full service syndrome,” which is the tendency of large law firms to, first and foremost, describe themselves as “full service.”

In the abstract, this tendency is rational as firms and their lawyers fear that by narrowing their focus – for example to particular services and/or industries – they will miss out on other opportunities. Even small firms, who perceive their size as a disadvantage, often position themselves as “full service” in an attempt to broaden their appeal.

But in reality, the exact opposite is true. By trying to appeal to everyone, they appeal to no one. “Full service,” therefore, is not a strategy – it’s the absence of a strategy. After all, very few, if any, clients are interested in all services a firm may provide. They are typically seeking a very particular, specialized kind of expertise.

The cure for the “full service syndrome” is focus – the narrower the better. Firms should not fear focus. They should fear commoditization and marginalization. And by having a strong and compelling focus, it becomes much easier to answer the question “what makes your firm better?”

The same principles apply to the individual lawyer – the individual equivalent of the “full service” firm is the “generalist” lawyer. Many lawyers position themselves to the marketplace as capable of providing a wide variety of services to clients in a wide variety of industries. This tendency is also driven by the fear of missing out on opportunities due to the misguided notion that the more options your provide to the marketplace, the more opportunities will present themselves to you.

To use a baseball analogy, while the generalist may get more at-bats, the narrowly defined expert will have the opportunity to swing at far more quality pitches.

Establishing oneself as an expert is not easy. It takes strategic thinking, hard work and discipline. The first step in the process is to choose an area of expertise. For most, that means finding an area that is at the intersection of one’s interests, experience, and viable market opportunities. If you can determine what you like to do, what you’re good at, and where market opportunities exist, and then find some commonality among them, you’ll be off to a good start.

Want to establish a more interesting and profitable practice? Well then it’s time for some narrow thinking. What clients need, and what they’re willing to pay a premium for, is deep knowledge and expertise in narrow practices and industries. While the full service firm, or generalist lawyer, may have broad roots, they grow just below the surface. The expert’s roots, on the other hand, grow deep and sturdy.

James Harrington on EmailJames Harrington on Twitter
James Harrington
James Harrington

Jay Harrington is co-founder of Harrington Communications, where he leads the agency’s Brand Strategy, Content Creation and Client Service teams. He also writes weekly dispatches on the agency’s blog, Simply Stated. Previously, Jay was a commercial litigator and corporate bankruptcy attorney at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Foley & Lardner. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism and earned his law degree from the University of Michigan Law School.


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