Cheap Meat or Prime?


There are — you may have noticed this — lots of lawyers taking criminal cases.

What distinguishes you from the bulk of these lawyers? (Why does it matter? It matters because, unless you have a low opinion of yourself, you realize that the clients will be better served by at least considering hiring you. If you can’t define what distinguishes you from the bulk of lawyers, the clients probably won’t see it.)

There are many ways to distinguish yourself to potential clients (market differentiators). Some of these differentiators are impractical, some are unethical, some help the clients, some are detrimental to the clients, and some are neutral.

I had this post 2/3rds written when Chuck Newton published Are You Selling Cheap Meat, about market differentiators for law practices:

Too often solos, and especially new solos, devoid of ideas in this regard, and hoping to build business quickly, resort to marketing based upon fees and price. These attorneys are certainly free to do so, but it is a terrible mistake. It is possibly the most stupid decision you can make in the practice of law.

Chuck points out a number of problems with a lawyer marketing herself as “cheap meat.” He says it better than I would have:

First and foremost it cheapens your image and that initial image is very hard to correct later.

Second, in order to make what other attorneys make the fee differentiator has to handle more cases that pay less. That requires the need for more clients, which begets more expensive advertising, which begets more staff, which begets more office space, which begets more technology and implements, such as desks and chairs and computers, and the process just continues to build. Worse, you get to pay for all of this growth with highly discounted fees. So you have more cases, staff and overhead than your competition, and you get to pay for it all with less money. But, what being or selling cheap meat never does is net you the living you deserve. Sure it might work you to death, but to what end?

Third, selling cheap meat brings in the wrong kind of clients. Dealing with people is difficult enough, but you are bringing in skeptical people who are already expecting too much for too little. It is a bad combination. These are people that would risk their health buying deli meat at the 99 cent store.

I would add only that a) by taking more clients for less you have less time to work on each client’s case; and b) by differentiating yourself based on price you convey false the impression that criminal-defense lawyers are fungible.

After our potential clients are released from jail, they get twenty or more letters in the mail touting other lawyers; many of the lawyers sending out these letters use price as a market differentiator.

So if not price, what do we use as a market differentiator, if not price? First, permit me to quote Chuck at length again:

A market differentiator can be almost anything. The first or only woman in your area to practice a particular area of law. Your location. The fact that you use to be a judicial officer or work for Big Law. That you are a family person. That you are a Christian, Jew, Muslim, or even an atheist. That you are a woman, male, straight or gay. That you are a virtual lawyer. In Houston nationality plays a big part. Even the fact you work from home can play a huge roll. You can try to turn what might be considered a minus into a plus. When I was starting out I ran commercials of the accomplishments of well known historical figures, who where also attorneys, with the tag line, “A young lawyer really can make a difference”.

These differentiators are all fine in a market of fungible legal services. If all lawyers are equal, why not hire the one who looks like you or goes to the same church as you or comes from the same background as you? If all widgets work the same, then you might buy the blue one just because you like the color blue.

But, as we know, legal services aren’t fungible. We should be differentiating our services in the market with the things that make them more valuable, not just different.

The market differentiator that I prefer above all of these is this: that, in ways I can define, I provide service beyond what other lawyers provide. I call it premium criminal defense, and it’s very much the opposite of “cheap meat”.


0 responses to “Cheap Meat or Prime?”

  1. Great post, Mark. You may recall that a few weeks ago I recommended a book to you – Evan Thomas’ “The Man to See” about the legendary Edward Bennett Williams. I think that, in our line of work, differentiation is about making it clear to prospective clients why you are, for that case at that time, the man to see. “I’m the cheapest” or “I’m a rotarian” doesn’t get you there. It’s about what you bring to that case – in terms of talent, commitment or whatever – that enhances the probability of a positive outcome. As much as I enjoy Chuck’s blog, I don’t really see how the differentiating factors he discusses close the deal.

  2. Mark,

    Thanks for the comment, and for the earlier book recommendation. I bought the book. It’s in my stack.

    One way to describe the distinguishing factors is (also inspired by Chuck’s blog): time, toil, and talent. If the client believes that you are going to work more on his case (time), care about it more (resulting in toil), and do it better than anyone else (talent), he’ll hire you.

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