In screenplay and novel writing, the “inciting incident” is the event that gets the story rolling. It’s the action or decision that introduces the problem that the story’s main character must overcome. In Jerry Maguire, it’s the moment that Jerry writes his “mission statement” manifesto about the need to put people first in the sports agency business. It leads to his firing, and he walks away from his power job and starts over.
In movies and books, the inciting incident is unmistakable. It’s the moment that calls the protagonist to action and changes their life irrevocably. That’s the thing about fiction – almost every story follows the same arc. There’s background, struggle, and ultimately triumph, with twists and turns along the way. But the story almost always gets resolved, wrapped up in a pretty bow, and more often than not the protagonist lives happily ever after, having defeated the villain, gotten the girl, or defused the bomb, just in the nick of time.
It’s said that art imitates life, but real life is, of course, far different. And messier (at least the ending). For almost all of us, potentially-inciting incidents happen frequently, but rarely do they lead to real change. Often we miss their meaning altogether. Other times we recognize their significance, but are unable or unwilling to leverage their transformational power. We have a health scare, but do little to improve our lifestyle. We get laid off from a job we hate, but instead of pursuing a vocation we are passionate about, we jump right back into the corporate grind.
The same is true of organizations and entire industries. With the benefit of hindsight it’s hard to believe that the buggy whip industry missed the automotive revolution; typewriter makers didn’t see the power of PCs and word processing software; the taxi industry overlooked what Uber and Lyft saw; and the music industry didn’t adapt to the digitization of their own product. How did the retail industry not see Amazon coming? Why didn’t hotels crush AirBnB when they had the chance? It happens over and over. In industry after industry market participants miss (or more likely ignore) inciting incidents that should have led to transformational change. They remain stagnant, unable or unwilling to fundamentally change behaviors that could lead to a change in fortunes.
What About the Legal Industry?
There’s little chance that today’s law firms will go the way of early 20th century buggy whip makers. Law firms are not going away. But inciting incidents, beckoning law firms to change, seem to be happening more and more frequently as we continue the transformation from the industrial age to the information age.
The market for legal services is flat. Since the Great Recession, there has been fundamental change in the legal landscape. Much like what happened to the housing market before last decade’s economic slowdown, the legal marketplace has shifted from a seller’s to a buyer’s market.
This has led to downward pressure on fees, increased demand for alternative billing practices, and greater competition for fewer opportunities. Law firms continue to consolidate in an attempt to achieve economies of scale. Work has also moved in-house, as corporate law departments have looked for ways to cut costs and figure out a more efficient model of acquiring the legal work they need performed.
Sensing this shift, non-legal entrepreneurs have stepped in. From overseas document review firms to Silicon Valley technology startups, alternative service providers continue to chip away at work that traditionally was within the exclusive domain of lawyers and law firms. Companies such as LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer, which were once seen as novelties, continue to encroach. Big Four accounting firms are continuing to build their own legal services departments around the world. Some are as big as the largest global law firms.
Headlines in legal tech publications trumpet the inevitable march of artificial intelligence in the legal industry, and its power to displace and disrupt many of the basic legal service functions provided by today’s lawyers and law firms. Some speculate that blockchain technology (the foundational technology of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin), which is being used to create “smart contracts,” will obviate the need for “middlemen” such as lawyers – and even judges – when it comes to negotiating, performing and enforcing certain rights and obligations related to transactions.
Just last month another important inciting incident occurred: Sedgwick announced that it would be closing shortly after the new year. Sedgwick is soon to join firms such as Howrey, Burleson, Dewey & LeBoeuf, and many others in a long line of venerable brand names either shuttering or consolidating in order to survive. The struggle of many firms in this no growth market shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Despite the challenges they face, it’s business as usual for far too many law firms.
The Need to Overcome Inertia
Newton’s second law of inertia states: An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. There’s no doubt that a moment will come that alerts all in the legal industry to the negative consequences of doing nothing, or at least to doing too little. Perhaps it will be the inevitability of the next economic downturn. Perhaps it will be Amazon – who knows? The grocery industry never saw Bezos coming.
That last part about Amazon is a bit hyperbolic, but I’m exaggerating the point in order to make it: Doing nothing is still a choice, and it’s one that leads to more of the same.
Of course the answer lies in solutions far more complex than a simple call to change. But the will to overcome inertia and embrace change is the first step. The legal industry, just like the retail, music and automotive industries before it, is experiencing external change both more rapid and more profound than most could have predicted as recently as 15 years ago. In this changing environment, lawyers and law firms must change both how they think and how they work – or get left behind.
The Power of Story
I started this post with a discussion of “inciting incidents” for a reason. They serve as calls to action, and are foundational to good stories. In this sense, they are fundamental to a conversation I’d like to have with you more frequently in the coming year. In the midst of one of the most significant stories of upheaval and opportunity ever told in the legal industry, one of the most important changes that lawyers and law firms can make to enhance their brands, improve their marketing, and better connect with their audiences, is to become better storytellers.
The world is too noisy, and traditional means of brand advertising and promotion too expensive and ineffective, to not explore new ways to communicate important messages with audiences. However, at the same time that law firms are planning to increase investments in marketing and business development, there are few indications that the stories they’re planning to tell through their branding and marketing assets are any different than they’ve ever been: overly complex, rife with inside language, and firm-centric as opposed to client-centric.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that at the same time that law firms are increasing their marketing spending, clients are reporting increasing dissatisfaction with their legal service providers. The manner in which law firms are communicating with clients through their marketing and business development initiatives is not solely to blame for the dissatisfaction, but it’s certainly part of the story. After all, the recent survey that highlighted increasing client dissatisfaction explained that one of the most persistent problems is that while clients seek “solutions”to their problems, law firms tend to offer “advice.” While one may argue that’s a distinction without a difference, the data tells a different story. The bottom-line is that there’s a disconnect between the story that clients want to hear – which is one focused on their needs – and the one law firms are delivering. Therefore, law firms that can better articulate solutions-oriented stories stand to benefit. In practical terms, what this means is that law firm must tell stories of how they help clients transform and transcend their challenges, rather than stories about what practices they specialize in and what accolades they’ve won.
I believe so strongly in the imperative of telling better stories that in 2018 our agency is embarking on a transformative journey of our own: We’re going all in to help lawyers and law firms tell better stories to better engage their clients. We believe that it makes little sense for law firms to spend tens (sometimes hundreds) of thousands of dollars on new websites, advertising, and marketing collateral, if the stories they’re telling through these investments are ones that do not speak directly to the challenges and opportunities faced by their clients – and do so in the language that their clients speak. In the complex, noisy world in which your law firm is operating, it’s imperative to communicate simple, clear messages so that your audience will listen.
No longer should a law firm believe that branding and marketing is simply a box to check on their annual business plan – something that must be done, but with no real expectation of radical improvement. By telling better stories, which make their clients the star of the show, law firms can generate a significantly greater return on their substantial branding and marketing investments.
I’ll have much more to say about these issues in the new year, and the new approach that our agency will soon be bringing to market to address them. In the interim, as you approach the new year and plan for big things in 2018, I urge you to consider a question that is fundamental to the framework that we will be using to help our clients to improve their branding and marketing moving forward, which is: What must our audience know, understand, or believe before they will do business with us?
The answer is key to the story you must tell. We look forward to helping you craft a new narrative in the new year.
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