Law firm leaders have to realise that the marketplace is increasingly commercial and must respond. Otherwise, failure beckons, writes the chief executive of QualitySolicitors.

There are five things the leader of a law firm needs to think about in 2014 if they expect still to be in business in 2024.

The UK legal marketplace has entered a dramatic period of change that will leave it almost unrecognisable in 10 years from now. There will be major winners (some), and there will be losers (many). Perhaps this sounds rather gloomy? Not at all, it is a massive and exciting opportunity.

That opportunity is there for firms that recognise and embrace the need to keep doing what they do, but to do it very much better in just about every respect. The winners will find ways to provide legal services more profitably, more efficiently and with a sea-change in attitudes to customer service and loyalty.

The winners will be the leaders in changing the way legal services are sold, the losers will carry on hoping that doing things just stay the same will be good enough. It won’t.

These are the five things I would urge you to think about if you are leading a law firm today.

1. Remember you are running a business

The legal marketplace is increasingly hostile, commercial and cut-throat. Which means, after literally hundreds of years of ‘professional immunity’, it is finally behaving like a true marketplace where buyers are powerful, expect quality and value, and sellers must compete fiercely.

If you manage your law firm as a business, like any other commercial enterprise, in my experience you are already pushing ahead of most of your competitors. Margin, resource management, process optimisation, segmentation, analysis of competition, product development, promotions, customer satisfaction, databases, digital marketing… do you use and hear those kind of words in your daily work? If not, please ask yourself why not.

You worked hard to know the law, and to practise as a solicitor, but your law firm is a business like any other and must set out to compete, and to win.

2. Don’t be afraid to do real marketing

On that theme, many high street law firms seem to be embarrassed to carry out genuine, effective marketing of what they offer (for clue to why, see 1). The famous four Ps of marketing (Price, Place, Promotion and Product) are absolutely relevant to your law firm now, but over time they will be a matter of life and death.

You need to be better known, more appealing, and give a better service than the firm next door. You need to be different, but what are you doing to create that differentiation? Most advertisements for law firms simply list the areas of law they offer, which does nothing to help customers make a choice, or to mark you out from the crowd.

One way to start is to get some expert help, most lawyers are not good at marketing, any more than marketing people know about the law.

3. Focus on what you are good at

That marketing expert may well start by asking you what you think makes you stand out. If your law firm is presented as a law supermarket, with every law type on the shelves, then you need to be competitive and competent in all of them. If you are not, your clients will soon notice. Don’t be ashamed to admit that your firm is stronger in one area or other, there are other firms with whom you can partner, or refer clients.

Recently I met a firm who bravely sold off a profitable third of their business – to the horror and disgust of several senior partners. They did this to focus on what they believed was their core strength – and have grown steadily since. Know what you do well, and build your reputation on that.

4. Embrace technology

Whether we like it or not, technology is changing the world every day, and fast. Today’s 18-year-old thinks about information and services, and how to get them, quite differently from even a few years ago.

Technology doesn’t have to obliterate established ways of working – it can, if used well, greatly enhance and facilitate the work of lawyers to provide better service and so allow more efficiency, and happier customers. Resisting the inevitable will simply leave you trailing behind.

Think of other industries (banking, travel, insurance…) that have been changed forever by new technology. The winners in those industries embraced technology as an opportunity, realising its potential rather than seeing it as a threat.

Quick question. How many of you offer your customers free Wi-Fi access while they are in your waiting room?

5. Understand your customer

I ask that because, yes, the legal market is changing – and the part that is changing the quickest is the customer. Empowered by the internet your customers have a wealth of information and choice as never before. It’s not good enough to offer them services and solutions on your terms – they are paying you, and they expect a first-class level of treatment according to their own standards, which they measure against other services they buy.

Their options are increasing every day, and they know it.

They will look elsewhere if their experience is poor, and they will write nasty things about you on the internet. You need to make sure that your customers, and the way you handle all the interactions you have with them, are an obsession at your firm.

What’s it like for a new potential client who calls up, or visits your firm? Have you ever really thought about that? Have you ever asked your existing customers for feedback or suggestions? How much time do you spend in your law firm talking about your customer service, and how to improve it?

The winners of 2024 are already building their law firms around their customers, responding to their needs and expectations, and surprising them with a first-class service, on top of first-class legal advice.

To be a winner in 2024 means starting to look ahead right now, and tackling the challenges and great opportunities that are there to be taken. If today you are standing still, then I’m sorry but most likely you already going backwards.

Eddie Ross is chief executive of QualitySolicitors