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Fiddling While Rome Burns, Part II: The Importance of Vision (and Execution) for Law Firms in 2015

In my previous blog post, I talked about how law firms have much in common with – of all things – philharmonic orchestras. Both are traditionally revered institutions with roots that are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. However, because of changing times, both the traditional law firm and the classic municipal orchestra are finding themselves in trouble.

In the old days (i.e., 25 years ago), it was sufficient for law firms to operate pretty much as they always had. The better ones offered quality legal services at a fair price with a commitment to client service Similarly, there was a standard model for a city’s orchestra, and it had worked fairly well throughout the 20th century. While a few orchestras across the country made up the brightest stars that the others could only hope to emulate, most orchestras were able to find a solid, if not stellar, position in their communities in which they had a relatively consistent stream of patrons and revenues.

But newly arrived competitors can wreak havoc on one’s carefully laid plans, and today both orchestras and law firms are finding that just keeping that solid position is not as easy as it once was.

Walt Disney Concert Hall, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (Los Angeles Tourism photo)

Walt Disney Concert Hall, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (Los Angeles Tourism photo)

The Los Angeles Philharmonic, however, provides an outstanding example of how an orchestra can move into the modern age and not only survive, but flourish. As the L.A. Times recently reported, in an era when more than a few U.S. orchestras have had to declare bankruptcy, the endowment of the L.A. Phil has increased by more than fivefold. At a time when fewer people nationwide are attending the symphony, the Philharmonic is continuing to draw audiences. How is this happening? What are they doing to succeed so well even as others are failing so miserably?

And, most importantly for our purposes, what lessons can a law firm draw from the success of an orchestra in Los Angeles?

The L.A. Philharmonic’s Lessons for Law Firms

Undoubtedly, the most important thing that the L.A. Phil has done to overcome the cultural and demographic forces aligned against all orchestras has been to hire two powerful leaders, each at the top of his or her field, and each with an uncompromising vision and a strong voice. Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the orchestra for fifteen years, has been a fundraising and marketing dynamo, bringing the Philharmonic to its position as the best-funded orchestra in the country.

And in Borda’s boldest move, several years ago she hired the fiery Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel. He is the star of the show and is as much talked about at intermission as the music itself. He, in turn, has hired bright and passionate musicians who are loyal and enthusiastic about working for him. And he recently signed a headline-making contract extension through the 2021-22 season that puts to rest rumors that he might defect to a more prestigious orchestra in New York or Berlin.

Deborah Borda and Gustavo Dudamel

Deborah Borda and Gustavo Dudamel. (L.A.Times photo)

Borda and Dudamel work well together. Both understand the importance of embracing the classics while exploring newer music, and both understand the importance of reaching out to the community: Borda by making personal connections to donors and community leaders, and Dudamel through the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA), which provides musical education to immigrant and low-income children. But perhaps most importantly, both understand that the old model is broken, and that it will demand unprecedented creativity and flexibility to create a new model that interests and engages present and future generations.

So, what are the lessons to be drawn from the L.A. Philharmonic’s success? Leadership is key; leadership with the vision and the confidence to have an open mind about what constitutes a philharmonic orchestra in the 21st century. And creativity comes next.

Yes, the L.A. Phil presents its music in a beautiful setting, Walt Disney Concert Hall, but that is not why people come to hear them play. Yes, it plays wonderful music and performs it exceptionally well, but there are many great orchestras around the country that are struggling. Case in point: The Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the classic “Big Five” orchestras in decades long past, filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in 2011. And, in fact, even in L.A., before the start of a recent concert, one audience member called out to Borda, “We can’t keep doing Mahler if we want to get the 20-year-olds!” The traditional music alone is not enough. The traditional way of doing things is not enough.

Quality Alone is No Longer Enough

Similarly, just being a quality law firm is not enough to guarantee success anymore. Providing beautifully composed legal services – your Beethoven symphonies – and hiring the excellent attorneys to deliver them – your talented musicians – is not enough. Not when the competition keeps getting tougher and your clients have more options and alternatives to provide them with legal services than ever before.

In a nutshell, you need to do more. And that starts with a willful desire to make your law firm not just useful to your clients, but critical to their well-being. Client service is more important than ever, and the firms that succeed at this part of the business will be well positioned for continued success. Why? Because this is one of the most frequent complaints of law firm clients – whether it’s “he never understood my business,” or “she never returned my calls,” or “they never told me what was going on in my case.”

Looking ahead, for your law firm to be sustainable in the years to come, it needs to do better than just survive in today’s choppy waters; it must be able to thrive in the even choppier waves that are on the way. And if you’re “gonna need a bigger boat,” the time to build it is now. Ultimately, your law firm must do more to ensure that you’re staying relevant for today’s clients – and for those you’re hoping to have tomorrow. Ask them what they want. Ask them how you can help. Because they won’t tell you – not until it’s too late. And there’s nothing worse than irrelevance.

Like Borda and Dudamel, you need to know where you want to go. If you don’t know today exactly where that is, you can start asking questions. Lots of them. And that will put you on the path to setting goals and achieving them. But first, you have to connect to your community: to your existing clients, to potential clients, to referral partners and your other contacts in all sorts of fields. You need to have a clear idea about what sets you apart from the dozens and dozens of other law firms that provide the same legal services you do. And then you need to be able to share that vision with the world in a clear and coherent voice.

Luckily, you don’t have to do this alone.

At NCG, we’ll work closely with you to help you clarify your vision (and your mission), solidify your strategic brand, and precisely define your services offered and your target market. This is how we come up with your Unique Lawyering Proposition. And then, we’ll build upon that marketing foundation to help you put together a marketing plan that will make sure your targeted message is delivered in the right way to the right people, those who are eager to hear it and who are interested in what you have to offer.

You have the vision to know that the legal marketplace is only going to continue to become more competitive in the years ahead. At NCG, we can help you refine and execute the vision you have for your firm. Do the hard work today so that your law firm becomes one of the success stories that everyone else will be talking about tomorrow.