We continue our taxonomy of law firms with a term I’ve borrowed shamelessly from the retail industry, “Category Killers.” In retail, these have traditionally been Big Box stores with exhaustive inventory and wickedly competitive prices on one deep “vertical” category of merchandise:

  • Home Depot and Lowe’s
  • Toys ‘R Us, Linens ‘R Us, Attorneys ‘R Us
  • Bed Bath & Beyond and The Container Store
  • Petco and Petland
  • Staples and Office Depot

You get the idea. The most salient characteristic of this model is that it works. If you doubt me, then I have to ask if you disbelieve the famous phrase, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” because the concept of category killer retail stores has spread far and wide from its initial roots.

As I use it in Law Land, it means a firm that has the following characteristics:

  • Highly specialized in delivering one well-defined practice area and doing it exceptionally well;
  • Possessing tremendous depth of resources and expertise in that practice area;
  • And able to undercut rivals who only dabble in The Category by investing deeply in processes and management to optimize their service delivery.

This is entirely orthogonal with what Category Killer means in retail land. Consider the mapping:

  • Highly specialized: When you go to Staples, you’re looking for office products; when you go to (say) an employment law firm, you’re looking for employment law expertise.
  • Depth: If Staples (or staples.com) doesn’t have the office product you’re looking for, uh, what do you do now? Similarly for our employment law example. If they don’t have the arcane expert, who would? You’re probably stumped, at least for the moment. (The point isn’t whether you’ll ultimately be able to find the arcane expertise elsewhere—you doubtless will—the point is that you started with the Category Killer and will do the same next time, and the next time.)
  • Process management: These firms can invest serious resources in optimizing, automating, co-sourcing, templating, and KM’ing best practices, document assembly, and more—and continuously can push work down to lower-cost resources while maintaining or even enhancing quality through exploiting the never-ending learning curve. This is the secret sauce.

The bottom line is pretty simple: You can’t beat them at their own game.

And you see this in the migration of talent.

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