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Law Firm Differentiation— 5 Essential Attributes

The concentration of law firm financial strength narrows as fewer AmLaw 200 law firms can be counted among the fortunate. As Mark A. Cohen argues in The AmLaw 200 Is Down to 50—Maybe 20. What does It Mean? a fiscal separation among bigger firms has occurred and continues. Cohen concludes that the separation presents challenges for all but the elite firms of the world and that smart firms not among the elite must confront this industry upset through differentiation. If history is any guide, for many firms it won’t be easy.

Greater competition, higher client expectations (and lower client loyalty), and the stratification of legal matters highlight some of the reasons law firm success today, especially for the non-elites, is far more uncertain than ever before.

If business as usual is not sustainable and differentiation essential, firms must consider not being all things to all clients, must bring greater focus to their clients’ needs, become more efficient, cost-effective and value conscious. Firms also must consider advanced technology solutions, master project management, and “think outside the box.” As Mr. Cohen suggests, these measures “will require serious soul searching, reorganization, and a fresh perspective on what it means to be a law firm in today’s marketplace.”

Firms seeking to differentiate face their old nemesis: change. To conquer the change necessary in this quest, firms must have and/or use the following five things:


Differentiation means moving away from comfort zones. It means changing the way business is done with the possibility that there is no turning back. And it likely means narrowing service offerings and investing in specialization not invested in before. Differentiation can mean saying good-bye to practice areas and personnel that for years have been a part of the firm. Pivotal change like that takes courage. Without it, recasting a firm through differentiation is difficult.


The idea behind differentiation is not change for change’s sake. It is focusing on a new direction that offers more promise. No new direction can be pursued without knowledge about the firm’s existing strengths, the opportunities in its markets, and the cost/ benefits from pursuing a new direction. Mere hunches are not enough. Without a factually based and analytically tested plan, knowing whether the current state should be replaced by a future state amounts to guesswork.


When moving from the status quo to something else, forks in the road will be confronted. At those forks, critical decisions will need to be made. The exercise of sound judgment is essential if the path towards differentiation is to succeed. A firm embarking on a new and more focused way forward must be blessed with decision makers that have exhibited wisdom in the past. If leadership’s judgment is suspect or untested, outside advice should be sought to supplement in-house mind power.


It goes without saying that a firm seeking to differentiate must believe in its strategy. When possessed with that belief, it is essential that the firm have the resolve to follow through on its plan. Because it will be moving away from the comfort of the status quo, and bumps in the road could be felt, the firm must remain confident in its new direction. As challenges are confronted, the firm’s commitment to the plan must be demonstrated by forging ahead. If resolve is lacking, for a whole host of reasons failure is more likely.


A strong leader or leadership group must be in place before differentiation is possible. People being asked to invest in the new way, many less courageous or simply uncertain, will gain strength from leadership that believes in the path forward and acts in ways consistent with that belief. Strong persuasive attributes will be needed constantly as doubters, opponents, and uninformed overreact to challenges along the way.

Even though disruption observed in the AmLaw 200 suggests that the “good old days are gone,” a nimble firm prepared to operate within light of new market realities can still thrive. That means taking steps to differentiate to avoid languishing in the past. All it takes is courage, knowledge, judgment, resolve and leadership. Does your firm have those attributes?

Andrew Jilson

Andrew Jillson is a founding principal of Hayse LLC, a business advisory firm that provides counsel and strategic alternatives to law firms that face transition. Hayse LLC’s analytical process and experience develops workable solutions for law firms and enables them to emerge from critical change. Learn more at:

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Filed Under: Featured StoriesPractice Management

About the Author: Andrew Jillson is a founding principal of Hayse LLC, a business advisory firm that provides counsel and strategic alternatives to law firms that face transition. Hayse LLC’s analytical process and experience develops workable solutions for law firms and enables them to emerge from critical change. Learn more at:

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