Applying an Industry Focus to Business Development

Consider this: your clients have business problems. And while the legal and financial components to those problems may drive the need for your services, they are not your clients’ primary focus. They are the occasional obstacles that can potentially deter your clients from reaching their goals. That’s why it’s important to position yourself, not only in terms of technical expertise, practice area or issue type but also in the context of the broader industry in which your clients do business. That way you demonstrate that you are more than just a technician — you understand legal and financial issues in the context of the industries where your clients seek to thrive.

Back in 2010, Greenfield Belser published research demonstrating that 46% of executives always include industry keywords when searching for a service professional firm. As a part of the same study, 77% of decision-makers stated that information on industry experience is a “must have” when reviewing service area descriptions.

2010 was nine years ago, and our industry is notoriously slow to adapt. According to a recent “Transition” study from Altman Weil, only 35% of the Am Law 250 have organized, or are in the process of reorganizing by industry group rather than practice group. In 2016, that number was 15%.

So, it appears that firms are finally taking steps toward being more overtly industry-centric in the marketplace. I have certainly seen this among my own client base. Over the past year, I have received a significant increase in speaking engagements from firms who want an industry-focused topic at their partner retreat. One of the points I try to make from the podium is that an industry focus extends beyond an understanding of the relevant terminology, technology, landscape, and regulations. It also encompasses the value-added services you offer to your clients and prospects. Your firm will have a much easier time initiating a dialogue about client needs when it can provide:

  • A digital brand that clearly aligns with the clients’ industry needs (more than a mention in the second paragraph of select partner bios)
  • Visibility at industry conferences and trade shows (on a regular basis to build momentum over a period of years)
  • Industry thought leadership (e.g., trend analysis, market surveys, and white papers)
  • Industry social events (where contacts can build their networks within a given sector)
  • Executive roundtables (providing a forum for discussion and idea-sharing among like-minded decision-makers)
  • Proactive insights into new or proposed regulations, problems, and solutions

If this sounds like a major non-billable effort, that’s because it is.

Inconveniently for those of us who advise for a living, the world has evolved into a complicated place, where general prowess struggles to compete with niche expertise. However, clients have come to expect quicker, more tailored advice and proactive solutions to the issues unique to their objectives. The firms who are adapting to this new world are restructuring and remarketing by industry rather than practice area. They are hiring new professionals (or training existing ones), so they have the necessary support to drive industry market share, and their partners are deepening their knowledge about the industry trends and factors that keep their clients up at night.

The good news is that, if you are willing to commit to an industry (or at least lean your general practice in a thematic direction), you will capture the attention and business of the growing body of clients who prefer the white glove over the common mitten. You will also be able to justify premium rates and compete more easily with the many firms who are slow to adapt to an industry-focused clientele.