In this new chapter, the start-up firm struggles with differentiation
“So what exactly is different about us, if anyone asks?”
Clara was, as usual, multitasking to perfection, attempting to repair the legendary steampunk boots, which were seemingly much less robust than their construction implied, at the same time as pursuing her latest intellectual musing.
Miranda sipped her tea. She and Giles looked at one another, he with a slightly puzzled look on his face. When she looked at him now, she found it difficult to think about anything else but their impending date.
“Well, we’re new, aren’t we?” said Giles. “We have a flatter structure than traditional firms, less hierarchical. Different office. Working from home. Flexibility, and such.”
“Why would clients care about that?” said Clara.
“I think we approach fees differently too,” said Miranda. “We are more commercial. Have a lower cost base, are able to be more creative.”
“Everyone says they’re more commercial than everyone else,” said Clara. “And creative, what does that mean, cheaper?”
“Well, yes,” said Miranda.
“Again, there are a lot of firms that say that and provide the same service at a cheaper price,” said Clara.
“What’s your point, exactly?” asked Giles.
“Well, far be it from me – a non-lawyer after all – to quibble, but if I’m asked by a mate who may want a lawyer why they should use us, what am I saying? That we’re a kind of legal TK Maxx – all the familiarity of luxury brands at cheaper prices?”
“I think that’s a bit…” started Miranda, unsure how she was going to finish the sentence.
“It doesn’t sound very different, to be honest,” said Clara. “Kind of disappointing.”
“Maybe there’s nothing new under the sun,” said Giles, smiling weakly. Miranda looked at him and arched an eyebrow. This was not his most attractive countenance, she decided.
“Clara is correct, of course,” came the rich tones from just behind the bookshelf which subdivided the firm’s ‘breakout’ area in the centre of the office, creating – in theory – library and café spaces at a stroke.
“Fritz,” said Giles. “I’m sure Clara didn’t mean…”
“Oh Giles,” hissed Miranda.
SOAP’s senior partner rose from behind the row of books and made to join them, a small white espresso cup clamped in his left hand. “I’m sure she did mean, Giles. You are a good lawyer, you both are, but you have been drilled in big firms and consequently think in a particular way. Clara, for our purposes, represents what we might call the ‘lay’ client, a potential client who is not a lawyer and finds our profession mystifying. She rightly asks what makes us different and quite correctly observes that different work patterns and a ‘trendy’ office are of no consequence to the client.”
“Cost is,” said Miranda.
“Quite true, but if we were simply to compete on cost, we would be out of business quite quickly. Clients do not necessarily want cheaper, but they do want better.”
“Define better!” snorted Giles.
“Precisely!” said Fritz triumphantly, rounding on Giles. “What is better? Better is in the eye of the beholder. It depends entirely on what one has been used to until this moment. It is experiential.”
“I’m just as good as I was before,” said Giles, “but cheaper, therefore better.”
“In a sense, yes, but in essence if there is nothing different about the way you do business here, then the client is losing the reassurance of a larger firm, the greater expertise available, in return for lower fees.”
“Well yes,” said Giles.
“I might not make that trade-off, if cost weren’t necessarily the most important thing for me,” said Clara.
“Indeed,” said Fritz.
“So what are we?” said Miranda.
“We invited you to become partners here because we believed that you – everyone here – have the potential to become better than you were in your previous firms. That the freedom we give you here will allow you to think about how to become better and the ability to put those thoughts into action, not hidebound by the history and customs and rivalries of a big firm.”
“Ah yes,” started Giles, but Fritz cut him off.
“But it requires you to think about how to be different. Clara has laid down a challenge to you. She wishes to be able to say to her friends that she works for a different kind of law firm, but that requires you to give her the ammunition. You need to think about how you are going to be different. Otherwise, we will end up looking and acting just like the firms we left.”
“That does happen,” said Miranda.
“All the time!” said Fritz. “I have watched numerous firms start during my time, breakaways, start-ups, all intending difference, all becoming mainstream in time, losing their distinctiveness, their energy, what makes them special. I do not want that to happen to us.”
With that, he turned on his heel and left, without another word, but with the implication of his speech still hanging in the air between them.
“You can run any bright ideas past me,” said Clara, winking at them both, and she too left.
Miranda and Giles looked at one another.
“Any bright ideas?” said Miranda.
“Bottle of Merlot might inspire…” said Giles.
“Good idea,” said Miranda, reaching for her coat.