Toward client industry alignment

In ‘Toward client industry alignment’ Heather Suttie suggests that BigLaw practice is shifting cautiously toward focusing on and organising around client sectors and industries. Read why…

For many law firms, the days of being everything to everyone have been gone for some time. Global legal practices are coming to grips with aligning their services by industry, while Canadian law firms have yet to definitively stake their claim on sectors where they have proven strength.

Service structure is not a new idea. There was a time when major Canadian corporate and commercial firms were known for certain areas of practice — banking, finance, M&A, etc. — and laid claim to their strengths and marketed themselves accordingly. These firms then acted as beacons for particular types of legal work. But organizing by practice is an internal structure that is firm-centric while organizing by industry is client-centric. Some firms are just starting to twig to this, while others are well advanced in moving to industry alignment.

Vive la difference

In 2003 Norton Rose Fulbright differentiated itself by becoming the first global law firm to be organized by industry. In that year it moved toward industry alignment by developing a couple of sector-focused groups: Energy, and Transportation. Now, it aligns its services to six distinct industry groupings: Financial Institutions; Energy; Infrastructure, Mining and Commodities; Transportation; Technology and Innovation; and Life Sciences and Healthcare.

Norton Rose Fulbright is correct — and not alone — in taking an industry tack. In the U.S., firms such as Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP are focusing on technology, energy/infrastructure, and financial sectors, along with Dechert LLP for financial services, and Baker Botts LLP, recognized for its expertise in the energy sector, to name but a some.

Numbers tell the story

A trio of brand measurement surveys indicate firms are recognizing that clients align by sector and are therefore inching their way toward industry alignment.

On the websites of the top 10 firms on the Acritas 2018 U.S. Law Firm Brand Index, half list industry before practice, two list practice first, and three list by practice only. Globally there is a slightly better showing: 11 of the 21 firms on the 2017 Acritas Global Elite Law Firm Brand Index list industry before practice, six list practice first, three list by practice only, and one lists a mix of industries and practices. Canada follows suit with six of the top 10 firms on Acritas’s 2018 Canadian Law Firm Brand Index listing industries before practices.

However, whether or not they appear on the Acritas indexes, every full-service global law firm that operates in Canada lists industries first.

One of those firms, DLA Piper, partnered with Axiom Consulting last year to develop a client retention model to predict clients at risk. They found that the four key variables directly affecting client retention boiled down to adding an industry expert to a matter team of five or less while increasing time per team member proportionally where possible and running a focused, relevant marketing initiative for each client.

Within six months, adoption of the plan started to kick in, and DLA was able to prevent 85% of fee loss on a year-over-year basis along with an estimated revenue increase of $37.6 million.

Making the shift

Moving toward industry alignment need not be an all-or-nothing proposition, and any firm can do it because it’s scalable. It’s best to start with a small selection of industries and transition from there.

Understanding your firm’s industry strengths is step one. It’s an easy step to take since every client has a Standard Industrial Classification (SIC), North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) or International Standard Industrial Classification (ISIC) code that is determined by a company’s primary line of business.

Step two is deciding which sectors to focus on. This requires examination of industries served and revenues, along with your firm’s ability to deliver qualified service expertise. Expertise is the biggest challenge of creating an industry team because its members must have hands-on experience working within a sector.

For example, in 2004 I helped a boutique firm with a deep automotive client roster build an industry team. A key criterion for selection to the team was direct experience working for a vehicle maker or automotive parts manufacturer. This ensured that each team member understood and spoke the language of the sector. From there, the process involved mechanics and patience. Mechanics included marketing to the automotive sector and shortly thereafter, business development began.

Patience is the key to ensuring that a firm’s industry alignment comes to fruition and profitability. But for sector-specific practice groups such as that automotive team — which flourishes to this day — it’s worth taking a far-sighted approach and seeing the process through.


Heather Suttie is a legal marketing and business development consultant. She works with a range of firms from Global to Solo and BigLaw to NewLaw.

Reach her at +1.416.964.9607 or

Leave a Reply

2 Comment threads
3 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
4 Comment authors
Heather SuttieStuart WoodGeorge BeatonPaul Hugh-Jones Recent comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Paul Hugh-Jones
Paul Hugh-Jones

Great post Heather. Our beatonbenchmarks data shows that ‘Understanding your business and industry’ is a top driver of firm client choice across law and other professions. Client perception is driven by which firms have the leading reputation in their industry, and particularly by practitioners’ ability to demonstrate superior experience of working in the client’s specific area of need – the intersect of industry and practice expertise.
One of the challenges for firm leadership is to prioritise the few, eg five, industries that will drive their growth strategy, client program and investment. This is because it means deprioritising the other industries, which is rarely popular.
However, a list of 10 focus industries is not an industry strategy … just a list.

Heather Suttie

Thanks for your insight, Paul. I agree completely. From a legal service perspective, I have seen instances where prioritizing a handful of revenue-driving sectors in which the law firm has proven expertise combined with a deep industry-specific client roster being managed as a “firm focus” or pilot project. This enables revenue-leading sectors to be in the spotlight – sometimes for a while; sometimes forever.
This tactic usually warrants the support of a client team approach to gradually introduce five to seven individuals in other practices who have proven client-industry experience to service a client’s various business needs, which also aids in client retention.
Other industries not in the spotlight remain in business-as-usual and support-as-usual mode.
Granted, sector prioritizing is steeped in politics. However, firms wanting to thrive rather than merely survive are already doing so, perhaps because they recognize that if you’re everything to everybody, you’re nothing to no one.

Stuart Wood

Curious – would you argue that Norton Rose Fulbright is no longer trying to be everything to everyone? They do list 6 key industries, but they break that list out into a more detailed list of 27, and clicking on “Our Services” defaults to an A-Z list of services that is extensive to say the least. “Infrastructure, mining and commodities” doesn’t seem to suggest focus if it includes Cannabis, Mining, Real Estate, PPP, etc. I think you’re correct in the benefits of this approach, but don’t see much evidence that firms are actually making choices.

Heather Suttie

Fifteen years ago, Norton Rose Fulbright differentiated by being the first global law firm to move toward industry alignment with a couple of sector-focused groups: Energy, and Transportation. But global expansion has its challenges.
Having been on a growth tear before then and since, one can imagine that NRF has added areas of expertise within its six key industry offerings in an effort to be inclusive of its global stakeholders. This may be why various areas aren’t a natural or easy industry-focus fit – perhaps having been slipped in using a crowbar.
Global firms have either a scale advantage or disadvantage depending on one’s needs and perspectives. For firms that are able to scale up and down more easily, moving toward sector alignment can make sense, but they still need to have the grit to do it.

George Beaton

Chris Vaagt, Munich, comments via LinkedIn “It is common knowledge that specific client group focus is of advantage… law firm websites seldom tell the truth.. often there is no organizational alignment… if the client group focus is taken seriously, then it must go hand in hand with resource allocation, accountability, and knowledge building.. in one word, it must be the primary level of organizing lawyers inside the firm… this is a serious challenge as it means to take out the old structures, and thus power base of senior lawyers…”