Drawing on inspiration from Warren Zevon's 1978 classic song about the cure for problems, the NCAA, a "student-athlete" at Texas A & M, and a sports-talk website inadvertently provided us all a reminder of what primarily drives buying decisions in the legal community.
First, some background. In one of many regulations regarding intercollegiate athletic eligibility, the NCAA prohibits student-athletes from profiting from their likeness while enrolled in a member institution. This includes everything from commercial endorsements to appearance fees to revenue derived from autographs, and much, much more. The student-athlete in question, the winner of the Heisman Memorial Trophy this season, is alleged to have received payment in exchange for autographing memorabilia for collectables dealers this past January.
Earlier this month, when reports began to surface that the student-athlete's eligibility was being investigated by the NCAA, the university immediately concluded that it was in it's best interests to utilize outside counsel.
This was the headline on the August 5 posting on www.collegefootballtalk.com:
Lightfoot Franklin has roughly 60 attorneys and is located in Birmingham. It is a very good firm, but is probably not as well known, even to legal industry insiders, as it should be.
The firm lists significant amounts of experience on their website, including for NCAA Compliance and Investigations. As the firm states on their website, Lightfoot partner William King "built the practice from the ground up", and the practice was bolstered tremendously by the 2008 addition of Gene Marsh, who formerly chaired the NCAA Committee on Infractions. Since 2008, the firm has been counsel to numerous Universities, including Michigan, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Penn State, South Carolina, and Southern California. Beginning in 2010, Lightfoot represented Auburn University in regards to the NCAA eligibility of quarterback Cam Newton, who later led Auburn to the BCS National Championship and also won the Heisman Memorial Trophy.
A few days after the news broke that Texas A & M retained Lightfoot Franklin, another posting was made on collegefootballtalk.com:
While the Jim Darnell, P.C. website does not contain the experience that Lightfoot's does, Darnell has experience, specifically with Baylor University's Basketball Program, involving the NCAA.
Both of the headlines from CFT solidified what marketing and business development professionals already know: Experience sells. But herein lies the disconnect with many of the law firms themselves: According to the 2012 ILTA Tech Survey, 63% of respondents indicated that their firm utilized no experience management or tracking platform.
I believe there are three types of experience within the legal profession. First, there is perceived experience. This type of experience is typically part and parcel to firms with strong, well-known brands. Second, there is visible and demonstrated experience. This experience is frequently found on websites, in proposals, and is used as part of the pitch. It is frequently used to differentiate attorneys and firms from competitors, and can be equally valuable as part of a broader client retention strategy, as well. Some firms will use captured experience as part of an annual "recap" with their client, highlighting the significant accomplishments of the previous 12 months. Finally, there is MIA experience. This experience is at best anecdotal and is often not captured by the firm in any form other than time & billing. Moreover, it can make cross-selling difficult in firms where colleagues are often not aware of key experience of their partners, and can potentially provide the urge to discount rates in any effort to compete with rival firms.
As the challenges continue for "big law" - whether real or perceived - it will be critical for firms of all sizes and resources to differentiate themselves from their competitors. While there are numerous ways this can be done, it's best to start by building on the experience and accomplishments that already exist within the firm.