Law Firm Product-Market Fit

"Product-market fit" (or service-market fit) means your law firm is in a good market and meeting real customer needs better than the alternatives.

While the legal industry has been a bit lethargic in getting on board with the concept, more than a decade has passed since venture capitalists started talking in earnest about “product-market fit” as the single most important element of a company’s long-term success.

The phrase gets thrown around a lot in tech startup circles, and often in the context of the unending search for how a tech startup will invent a brand new thing, introduce itself to the world, hit its stride, find a zillion customers, and make a kabillion dollars for its founders and investors.

So, what is “product-market fit” and how does it apply to solo and small-firm lawyers?

Defining Product-Market Fit

For starters, we need to reiterate a long-held belief around here: running a successful law firm is a bit about being a lawyer and a lot about being a business owner. And for you to understand the transcendent power of “product-market fit” (or “service-market fit,” if we’re being precise), you simply must believe that your law firm is a business and that your odds of building it successfully are improved dramatically by learning from business concepts forged outside the legal industry.

The “product-market fit” lore begins with a guy named Andy Rachleff, a Silicon Valley darling in the 90s and early aughts. Rachleff coined the then-revolutionary idea that the only way to truly succeed in business is to achieve “product-market fit.” Then a guy named Marc Andreesen poured gas on it in a now-famous series of blog posts called PMarca’s Guide to Startups.

In any event, the thinking was pretty sound: Do you, uniquely, offer a product or service that people desperately want? If they aren’t desperate, they won’t buy it from you. If there is a “good enough” alternative, people will buy that instead. They’ll only buy from you if they’re desperate, and they’re only desperate because no one is actually serving their real needs.

Lawyers and Product-Market Fit

Practicing law is an old profession. Like, really old. So we’re not talking here about a disruption like Uber or microchips or jet engines. We’re talking about millennia of thinkers flooding the marketplace to offer their thinking to the masses.

Andreesen’s insight about desperation is important in our business, too. Your place in this venerable old profession is among something like one million-ish competitors. It is exquisitely difficult to invent something new in such a mature and enormous marketplace.

Still, there is good data that most buyers of legal services really are desperate. Clio’s recent research suggests that “there is a significant disparity between how lawyers believe clients want to work with law firms and how clients actually prefer to work with law firms.” Nearly 40% of respondents said that hiring a lawyer is overwhelming. A third say it is “too much trouble.”

The solution to your potential clients’ desperation is not to change their goals. It is to meet their goals more elegantly.

Uber didn’t disrupt its customers’ goal—to pay someone to get from Point A to Point B. No, Uber changed the way customers experienced that goal’s attainment. The challenge of getting from A to B was solved with an easy, fast, clean, beautiful, and reliable solution. Sure, it was more expensive than taxis. Sure, the CEO was a complete asshead. And people still fell all over themselves to pay more for it. That is product-market fit.

product-market fit image of taxi sign

unsplash-logoSamuel Zeller

Your product-market fit doesn’t have to change your client’s goal (to get their legal problem sorted out). But it absolutely must change the way customers experience that goal’s attainment. Can you solve their challenge with an easier, faster, cleaner, more beautiful, more reliable, less anxiety-provoking, less overwhelming experience that your clients roundly agree is “worth the trouble?” That is service market fit.

Your Journey to Product-Market Fit

Assuming you’re bought in on this idea, you’re now undoubtedly wondering how your law firm will find its product-market fit. When does the epiphany come?

Rachleff, the Silicon Valley legend, described the epiphany like this: “You know you have fit if your product grows exponentially with no marketing. That is only possible if you have huge word of mouth. Word of mouth is only possible if you have delighted your customer.”

In the end, your journey toward product-market fit is really just an exercise in design thinking. Why would a customer be likely to use your law firm to solve a legal problem? What is the competitive landscape? Are you inherently different? Do you know enough about the market to answer the right questions?

Come up with your hypothesis. Then test it. Then prove it. Then iterate (or move on).

Using NPS scoring is a decent proxy for product-market fit. There is also the quick and dirty “product-market fit survey” that serves as a reasonable-ish proxy: “How would you feel if you could no longer use this law firm tomorrow?” If they would be “very disappointed,” you’re well on your way to finding your fit.

So why is product-market fit important? Because it makes life easier. Clients stick around. You can charge them a fair price for work you’re proud to deliver. Word of mouth spreads, and you’re getting really skilled at understanding what your clients really want, seeking (then listening to) their feedback, and gently changing course to make their experience evermore delightful.

Conclusion

Here at Lawyerist, when we look at a broad cross section of small and solo law firms that have joined our community and taken our Small Firm Scorecard, we know there is a broad divergence of success. They range from outstanding to horribly broken.

There is also a divergence in the caliber and quality of the three core elements of small-business success (team, product, and market) in those firms.

Here’s the fact: the market has an impeccable track record of winning. In a terrible market, you can have the best product in the world and a killer team, and it doesn’t matter. You’re going to fail. When your lousy team or your mediocre service meets a great market, you’re still going to lose. It’s only when your outstanding team provides next-level service in a strong market that something special really happens.

They say you can always feel when it isn’t happening, in startups as in law: your clients aren’t quite getting value out of the experience, word of mouth isn’t exactly spreading like wildfire, usage isn’t really growing, reviews (to the extent you gather them at all) are a bit “meh”, your sales cycle is too long, and lots of folks you’ve pitched never hire you.

They also say you can always feel when it is: your clients are buying your services just as fast as you can deliver them (or usage is growing just as fast as you can add more members to your team). Money is piling up in your operating account. You’re improving systems, creating levers with technology, and hiring people as fast as you can. Reporters are calling because they’ve heard about how you’re “changing the practice of law” and they want to talk to you about it. You start getting awards from your local chamber of commerce and at #legaltech conferences, and you finally find some bandwidth to join the family on that long-awaited trip to Disneyland.