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Lessons for Small Firms From Mom-and-Pop Retailers on How to Beat Big Competitors

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Last week, I wrote about how the rise of large health networks in the medical profession is making it harder for independent doctors to compete – and pondered whether solos and smalls might face the same fate potentially from the growth of branded lawyer networks. Of course, that’s not the only source of competition for solos and smalls; Richard Susskind has long predicted  that automated, online form platforms will bring about the demise of most general practice solo and small firm lawyers (I don’t agree, but that’s an argument for another post).

Still, the fate of solos and smalls isn’t set in stone. Just as Walmart hasn’t killed off mom-and-pop retailers, there’s plenty that solos and smalls can do to compete. And some of the best ideas come from Dave Ratner, a small retailers who’s successfully held off bigger competitors with the advice summarized here.

One of the tips is “personalize everything you do.”  In the case of Ratner, who runs “Dave’s Soda & Pet City,” a small chain of pet supply stores, personalized service has meant developing Dave’s own brand of dog food, with a message on the can that reads “Thanks for trusting me with the health of the creature you love more than anything in the world.”

There are lots of ways that lawyers can personalize their services. Ditching professional copywriting and ghost blogging services is probably one of the best and most obvious places to start – but there’s more you can do.   

For example, as LawPal’s Yael Citron, why not ditch the 22-page form engagement agreements and replace them with a letter like this one that adopts a more personal tone? Instead of the letter sounding threatening to clients (if you don’t pay on time, we’ll withdraw, if you don’t pay a deposit right now, we won’t start work, if you call more than twice a week, we’ll bill you double, etc…), Citron’s proposed letter explains the reason for various requirements – much as many of the proposed clauses in my 21st Century Retainer Agreement materials do as well.

Competing with big box SEO is hard for solos and smalls; it’s a game that few can win. But if you personalize your service and make yourself memorable, you won’t have to worry about people searching for your firm because through word of mouth, they’ll discover  your firm instead.

  • Paul Spitz

    I am a huge fan of personalizing. When I walk into a coffee place, or a restaurant, or any other kind of retail establishment, if they recognize that I have been there before, that will easily eliminate slight price disadvantages, and sometimes even slight quality disadvantages. I will happily enjoy so-so coffee to be treated as a welcomed return customer.

    Two other keys to competing with bigger competitors with greater resources. One is to offer something that they don’t. If Target, Wal-Mart, and Safeway are all selling Tide laundry detergent, don’t sell Tide in your little store. You have no cost or price advantage. Sell a unique detergent that you can’t find at major retailers. In law, this might be a particular specialty. However, given how in-house law departments have gutted big law firms, I actually think of big law as where you go to find these arcane specialties.

    The other key is to reach out to a clientele that isn’t being served by the big competitors. For years, if you lived in an urban environment, you had to shlep out to the suburbs to go to Walmart or Target. They weren’t serving urban customers. In law, small businesses are not being served by medium-size and big law firms. Oh, the firms will try to get their business, but the fees are prohibitive, and small business just isn’t very profitable for big law. You better believe Joe’s Garage doesn’t get as prompt and responsive service as GE.

  • Sara McClammer

    Carolyn (and anyone else), this may be a bit off-topic, but I’m wondering what other solo and small firms to do compete online. I keep reading that solos and smalls are priced out of SEO, so what options do we have to make our websites more visible? Thanks for any suggestions.


  • Paul Spitz

    I’ve been told that the best approach is relevant, high quality content, so I’ve been working on a blog, which is a page on my website. I write 2 or 3 posts a week, and then promote those posts on LinkedIn and Twitter. The posts are all designed to build a reputation of expertise among prospective clients. This has really improved the visibility of my website on Google and Bing. My site frequently shows up on the first or second page of results now.

  • Sara McClammer

    Thanks Paul. I have also heard blogging is helpful and I’m glad to hear it has helped your visibility. Once I get both feet back on the ground (my firm launched two weeks ago) I will start blogging and making sure I have fresh content on my website.

  • Paul Spitz

    Mine launched in December, and I still have more time than clients, but I am also focusing on a particular kind of client and work. I’m not a “door” lawyer. If you had asked me 6 months ago if I would be doing a blog, I would have responded that I don’t have anything to say, and nobody would be interested anyway. And if you had suggested two months ago that I would be on Twitter, I would have snorted my morning coffee all over the keyboard and monitor!

  • Sara McClammer

    Adaptability is a solo’s strong suit – so congratulations for being innovative, even if it is uncomfortable or unfamiliar.

  • Yael Citro (CoFounder, LawPal)

    Hey Carolyn, glad you found the draft engagement letter helpful. Having been a “big firm” lawyer and having been a “big firm” client, I can tell you that big firms are not flexible places. The big advantage that solos have is agility – they can adapt to their clients’ needs much faster than a big firm. This puts solos in a unique position to redefine the “client experience” – and set a higher standard.

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