We have never subscribed to the belief that law firms operate in a fundamentally undifferentiated industry—that each law firm competes with every other law firm—and that given the magic alignment of expertise, cost, and personal rapport, clients’ choice of law firms is essentially unbounded. Not so. When it comes time for a client to choose a law firm to address an issue, the client knows the short-term and long-term gravity of the issue to the company, has a rough sense of what the monetary and/or reputational risk exposure is, knows the venue/locale (if that’s germane), has a good idea of which firms have handled lots of similar matters and which haven’t, and indeed has in mind a multitude of other considerations from the quantitative to the subconscious. These combine to produce a short list of “plausible” law firms for the matter.
Stated differently, law firms do not exist in their own economic walled garden, exempt from the normal economic dynamics of competition, substitutes, price/quality tradeoffs, reliance on familiarity and personal relationships, and the anchoring effects of search costs. And, to run a law firm effectively you have to be a gimlet-eyed realist about your firm’s position in the market.
Back in 2014 we published A New Taxonomy: The seven law firm business models, which introduced and discussed general categories of law firms such as “global player,” “capital markets,” “category killer,” and of course the most-discussed if least favorite category of all, “hollow middle.”
Taxonomy remains, we believe, a useful construct, but it’s hardly the only one. So, while markets continue to evolve, our dedication to analyzing them is unyielding and, if anything, ever stronger. Our goal is simply to attempt to provide insight into the landscape in ways novel and helpful to participants and observers alike—ideally producing a reaction along the lines of “that explains it!”
What follows, then, is our newest law firm segmentation model, the “maroons” and the “grays.”
The Core Model
This segmentation model is not based on:
- Size ($$ revenue or headcount)
- Type of firm (litigation boutique, private equity juggernaut, high-tech/startup mothership, etc.), or
- Geographic footprint.
In this model, these factors are largely irrelevant.
The fundamental premise of the Maroons and Grays segmentation model is that law firms have divided into two different businesses—not (just) two different business models. With these two businesses come diametrically different business challenges.
Probably the easiest way to introduce to the distinction between the maroons and the grays is in terms of client selection criteria.
Client selection criteria
- Truly distinctive “destination” capability
- Price no (real) object
- Rarer events in corporate lifecycle with boardroom visibility
- Efficient, predictable, reliable, transparent
- Price-sensitive, from mildly so to least-cost wins
- Mostly “run the company”—less “bet the company:” Legal services that are a cost of doing business
Next it makes sense to follow client selection criteria with what are the scarce resources for each type of firm and what the existential threats would be.
Scarce resource/existential threat
- Scarce resource: Highest conceivable level of legal talent plus business savvy—in one and the same individuals
- Existential threat: A run on the talent bank; fielding teams of “B” players; complacency
- Scarce resource: Expertise in continuous improvement, driving costs out, and assembling networks of highly reliable suppliers
- Existential threat: Self-delusion; lawyers solely in charge
With those building blocks in place, we can finish off our compare/contrast exercise with perhaps the most pointed and hard-edged differentiator of all, that of the two types’ competitive sets.
- Other “Maroons:”
- A known set of players
- Limited consideration set—a non-negotiable “brand” threshold
- Membership in the club must be earned over years and years (used to be decades and decades)
- Other “Grays,” but also:
- In-house capability
- Combinations and fluid networks of all the above
Here’s where the strategic rubber hits the road: Different competitive sets demand that your firm make different strategic and tactical choices. It will propagate through everything you do.
|Organizational structure||More closely aligned with the classic partnership model.||More corporate, top-down.|
|Talent recruitment and retention||Pick “first round draft choices” out of the super-elite law schools; be extremely judicious in lateral hiring||Somewhat opportunistic; less if any emphasis on home-grown pedigree|
|Professional development||Lavish resources on lawyers and business professionals||“Just in time” task-specific instruction|
|Resource allocation||Delegated largely to discretion of individual partners and practice groups||Programmatic, highly structured, minimal individual discretion|
|Pricing||Not a terribly challenging issue; “what’s market” for the caliber of the firm’s work||A KPI. Data-driven with human judgment applied. A target of continuous R&D and relatively heavy investment of professional resources.|
|Compensation||Keeping PPP competitive with peer group may be the #1 KPI. Indispensable to have the firepower to attract/retain the most coveted talent. For associates, top of market rates, and the equivalent for business professionals||PPP not top of mind; paying lawyers and staff “enough,” and fairly, is the primary goal. While legal talent is not quite fungible, gaps from departures or otherwise can be filled quite readily at manageable expense.|
|Mix (in number and seniority) of lawyers and business professionals||The “psychological” orientation of the firm almost invariably orbits primarily around lawyers, but senior business professionals operate side by side on engagements with high-profile client-facing roles. Maroons with a taste for it can be incubators for some of the industry’s cutting-edge forays into applying technology to the practice.||Superb business professionals equally if not more critical to success than legal practitioners: Need experts in pricing, process optimization, project management, data analytics, organizational dynamics, competitive intelligence, and more. That said, investments in process and tech more operationally oriented than blue-sky.|
|Strategic client management programs||Key clients are an extremely well known and small group||Highly structured, programmatic, and intentional 365-day/year effort to communicate with, learn from, retain, and build key clients|
|Client and matter intake||A highly strategic exercise (from the viewpoint of the maroon firm, not client): Rigorous focus on matters core to the firm’s marquee “destination” practices. Minimal “one off” client matters.||A strategic but also a tactical exercise; is the matter something (a) the firm can execute to a successful conclusion (b) using its existing systems and processes (c) at a profit. Does it fit our pricing model? Is it something we’ve done many times before or, if not, does it represent a new or adjacent area we need to expand into? Are there competitive reasons to take this beyond the economics of this one transaction (a rival’s displacement, e.g.) ?|
|Marketing and business development initiatives||Expertise and consummate “go to” reputation need to be continually demonstrated, not asserted. Continual and close client communication essential—especially “off” matters.||Ideally the firm should develop a distinctive “why us?” positioning, but short of that consider staking out a thought leadership position. Invest in client-specific initiatives (CLE’s, secondments), structured and regular client interviews, and heavy feedback (one on one, electronic, and otherwise). Consider using the NPS.|
|Geographic footprint||With the exception of firms known for global presence, not highly germane; 90+% of lawyers in a single office can work splendidly.||“Follow the client.” Plant no flags for the sake of planting flags. Ask of every office: What can we do locally that we could not do remotely? and If we opened in X city, which clients would abandon their current firms for us?|
|Practice area mix||“Keep it simple:” Be a true short-list contender for everyone, with a global reputation, or abandon the practice. 3-5, tops.||Ask what your clients need, not what a law firm “does.” Design practices to fit what around your chosen industry/sector needs (hint: high-tech doesn’t need real estate law).|
Thus concludes Part 1 of what will be a 3-part installment.
In the upcoming segments we will discuss, among other things, what happens if you apply Porter’s Five Forces to this model, what the implications are for those of you running or in a leadership position at each type of firm, and whether one firm can actually do both.
 Where did we get these titles?, you might ask.
To begin with, our premise was that the two names could not under any circumstances have secondary inferior/superior or sociopolitical connotations. Out went alpha and omega, chess and checkers, left and right, north and south, red and green, up and down, heads and tails, sun and moon, black and white, etc.
We started first with the “shirts” and the “skins,” referring to the classic streets-of-New York division of teams in stickball or pickup basketball. We thought that was just nifty until someone objected that they had a vision of “bare-chested lawyers.”
.We then switched over the “blues” and the “grays,” but almost immediately someone (in Europe, no less) objected to overtones of the North/South Union/Confederacy divide in the US Civil War. Finally, Bruce recalled that the eight-week summer camp he was dispatched to in Maine at ages 10 and 11 divided all the boys into two teams, the “maroons” and the “grays,” who competed as only young boys and adolescents can for merit badges and achievement level points all summer long. There you have it.