Skip to content
Legal Marketplace

Practice Innovations: If you are not first, are you last?

Aaron Boersma  Strategic Projects Lead / Global Affairs Finance / Google

Aaron Boersma  Strategic Projects Lead / Global Affairs Finance / Google

The ways in which law firms deliver services is evolving, and so too must their acknowledgment of the maturity of a particular practice area if they want to retain their competitive advantage

I grew up in a small town in the deep south of Louisiana. As such, Will Ferrell’s character Ricky Bobby from Talladega Nights was a significant part of our small town’s pop culture. That meant the tagline, “If you ain’t first, you’re last” became the battle cry for any competitive setting.

The statement seems harmless enough, placing a simple emphasis on winning; however, it breeds the belief that if we are not the absolute first, there is no consolation or purpose. While in a head-to-head competition, the loser always finishes last, but what happens when we are competing on a much broader playing field? In the legal industry, what happens when a law firm is not the first to market in a particular practice area?

In the 2010s, when self-driving vehicles began to make their way into the market, there was a limited population of lawyers whose practice focused on self-driving technology to help auto-making companies navigate the regulatory unknowns or address the nuances that self-driving vehicles would face in litigation. The access to such a niche practice area was limited, not just because the technology was new, but because the practice areas that supported those technologies were still in their infancy.

As self-driving technology became more prevalent, case law naturally built up, competition within this niche became more fierce. This is a prime example of a maturing practice area and it represented a shift in how law firms would compete for years to come.

Industries evolve, the markets for new technologies and industries grow, and eventually, so does the competition. As this happens, how law firms deliver and win work from their clients evolve too. Acknowledging the maturity of a particular practice area is the key to unlocking a law firm’s competitive advantage.

Be first to market: Early in a practice area’s lifecycle

Law firms that are first to market are the true pioneers. These are firms that are trusted advisors that can help navigate the unknowns in the early days of a corporate client and industry. There will only be a select group of firms that are at the forefront of an industry; and as an industry grows, these law firms that were first to market will have to either have to adapt to stay competitive as more law firms enter the market.

Be smarter than the market: A maturing practice area

While there are very few firms that are first to market, the number of law firms entering the market will grow as the practice area for a particular industry starts to mature over time and the case law begins to build. That means, however, that those law firms will have to differentiate themselves by their expertise. More mature clients and industries don’t just need services, they need the best services that enable their core business to thrive.

Be better than market: A fully mature practice area

When practice areas start to have decades of case law, it’s not just enough to have the right expertise but legal services have to be delivered in a way that empowers the business to grow. While expertise will always be a consideration, law firms in mature practice areas have to think beyond what services they provide and think more about how they provide those services. Factors like lower costs per matter, faster resolutions, and proactive project management can start to differentiate a law firm from the rest of the pack. This is where the overwhelming majority of law firms are competing for work every day.

Be yourself: All the time

Law firms have to embrace the fact that pure expertise is not going to provide the same competitive advantage in a mature practice area that it did when a practice area was in its infancy. When law firms are able to lean into the level of maturity in which their practice area exists, their growth potential accelerates by a multiple.

To be sure, most successful law firms are not the first ones to blaze a trail into a new practice area. Instead, these firms have found ways to embrace the maturity of their practice area and help their clients’ businesses to flourish.

Ricky Bobby might have hit the mark in our hearts, but when it comes to competing in the practice of law, we might have to change his guidance a little: “If you’re not first, you’re definitely not last.”

More insights