Why Does a Lawyer Need Competitive Advantages?

I recently helped a lawyer land a new job as executive director of a prominent legal nonprofit in Atlanta. As soon as she landed this competitive job, she bemoaned the challenge of business development. She was now selling the new organization instead of her old firm, and she wasn’t sure how to go about it.


Megan had always relied on using her “Sidley Austin spinoff” (not her former firm) to provide entrée to prospective clients. Sidley Austin’s general reputation for excellence opened a lot of doors for her. But it wasn’t her most powerful case when she was at the firm, and it certainly wasn’t her strongest case having left.

The fact is, most of us don’t work for AmLaw 20 firms, didn’t go to a top 10 law school, and don’t have a blue-chip client roster to open doors for us. But we all have specific experiences and skills that are unique to us and valuable to our target buyer. The challenge is identifying them and articulating them in a clear and compelling fashion.

Why hire or select you? This is the crucial but rarely stated question that underlies important rainmaking and career discussions and decisions. Your ability to define the salient facts that differentiate you from the competition is an important key to rainmaking and general career success. Competitive advantages provide the answer to this crucial question.

A competitive advantage is a specific fact or factual theme about your experience and skills that demonstrate value to your buyer (a prospective or current client, your current or prospective employer, etc.) in concrete and meaningful terms. A competitive advantage can characterize your entire career or some aspect of it. It can tie together activities in various roles and firms. It can reference information on your firm bio or not. It should be specific, objective, and in many cases, it can even be quantified.

Competitive advantages are the best way to customize your case to each buyer and opportunity. They build a case that is “all about them” (the buyer), instead of “all about me” (what I want) which is the appropriate focus for making your most persuasive case as well as a more comfortable stance for most of us.

Many clients tell me they are not good at self-promotion. Others talk about how they are reluctant to use their networks to generate business or employment opportunities because they fear they risk damaging their relationships. Competitive advantages simultaneously reinforce relationships and selling yourself. How? The focus is on “How I am uniquely well qualified to help you,” versus the traditional sales approach of “How I am great.”

Depth and breadth are the most frequent sources of competitive advantage. For example, “I have spent 25 years negotiating deals with high-tech leaders” is an example of depth; experience in patents, trademarks, and trade secrets is an example of (intellectual property) breadth. However, there are many other sources of competitive advantage.

In the case of Megan, the competitive advantages she developed to provide entrée to potential new law firm sponsors or corporate donors for this nonprofit include:

  • Current members and sponsors of the organization include 75% of the top 20 firms in the Atlanta metro area and 50% of the top corporations
  • The nonprofit sponsored 50+ programs in the past three years that were available to member firms and their attorneys and were the primary sponsor of programs in their target content area
  • The nonprofit provided the largest number of scholarships for promising law students with financial needs in the area.

You may be thinking that this approach doesn’t apply to you or your career. Let me share another example that may hit closer to home. Oliver had been working in a specialty employment practice since he joined his firm out of law school. The practice was not one he chose—he was assigned to the practice because of the firm’s needs. After five years, he was bored by the lack of diversity in his caseload and worried that continuing to specialize would thwart his long-term career goal of an in-house Head of Litigation position.

He’d repeatedly mentioned his interest in moving to the general litigation practice, but nothing happened. He decided to take a more active approach. He asked around the firm about the priority needs of general litigation and the hot buttons of the practice group leader.

He learned that the general litigation practice was very busy and the practice group leader was frustrated by the poor writing skills and lack of trial experience of his team. He needed someone he didn’t have to train. This information allowed Oliver to identify specific things about his background and skills that would be of greatest interest to the general litigation practice group leader.

Armed with this information, Oliver let his supervisor know that he was eager and ready to make the move and had determined that he was particularly well-qualified to help the general litigation practice. Specifically:

  • He had second-chaired five trials and argued two motions in court
  • He was recognized as an exceptional writer and assigned to train junior associates in his specialty practice on how to write briefs and motions
  • He had singlehandedly written over 25 briefs and motions since his second year of practice
  • He had worked with 25% of the general litigation practice’s top clients and had established relationships with their general counsels and deputy general counsels

He impressed his supervisor with the case he had built and asked for his supervisor’s help in making the switch. It worked.

These examples are designed to show how useful competitive advantages are for making important career moves, from rainmaking to making lateral or vertical moves. By determining “buyer” needs and crafting three to four factual, relevant and hard-hitting statements that demonstrate clear value to the buyer, you make your most persuasive case. By using facts and metrics, you show your value rather than simply making unsubstantiated claims. Competitive advantages are a powerful tool in your career arsenal to boost your success.

About the Author

Rachelle J. Canter is a social psychologist and leadership and career consultant, and is the author of several books, including “Make the Right Career Move.” Contact her at rjc@rjcassociates.net.

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