Our instinct is to view our competition as the enemy — a force to be vanquished.
And of course there is a logic to this view. After all, you could assume there is a finite amount of legal work in your slice of industry and whatever your competition gets doesn’t go to you. But there are a bunch of holes in maintaining that view. Here are some holes and I bet you could think of others:
First, as a law firm, what is your competition? It’s a bunch of lawyers — just like your firm. Your best way of beating the competition might be to hire them into your firm! Or — dare I say — joining the competition’s firm! This certainly blurs the lines, doesn’t it?
Second, it is not always a zero-sum game for legal work. You may find that by working together with a competitor lawyer you might create win/win ideas for your mutual clients and create upside for all parties involved.
Third, by having a heart-to-heart talk with your competitor, you may learn that there are things that she does super well that your firm doesn’t, and vice versa. You might start referring these non-competitive matters to each other.
Fourth, what happens to lawyers as their careers unfold? Well, they can continue being lawyers. Or they could retire or die, I guess. Or they could go in-house. If and when this happens they — immediately — morph from competitor lawyers to potential clients, don’t they? It would be kind of nice if you already had a relationship going wouldn’t it?
Fifth, sometimes you are conflicted out of a matter. Having your client pick your worst “enemy” as counsel is hardly what you want to happen. Wouldn’t it be “nice” to have a friendly competitor to refer your client to? Especially a competitor would take good care of your client when you can’t do it due to the conflict.
Sixth, you can exchange great and useful data about your industry and what you are doing, career advice, best practices, and things like that, just to help each other. Even if you are uncomfortable referring things to each other and need to keep a bit at arms’ length, you can find all sorts of ways to be helpful to each other. I have done this many times and learned a great deal of useful intellectual capital.
Seventh, you are playing in the same sandbox. You have a common interest and are doing largely the same business. The odds are high — indeed a lot higher than you probably think — that to your surprise, you will make a friend. And no one can ever have too many friends.
Eighth, I suspect everyone who reads my column knows I have built my firm around the theme of “helping my clients build their businesses.” This often involves connecting my clients with useful counterparties, and what better place to find these counterparties than from other lawyers. This creates a benefit for both my client and my competitor’s client. Everyone benefits and wins.
Ninth, and finally — of course I don’t hope this happens to you — but the odds are that at least once or twice your career will take a downturn and you may just need a job. It certainly has happened to me a couple of times. These erstwhile competitors could, and probably will, help you when you are down.
Lastly, here is a final note on this issue: if you follow my suggestion herein and reach out to your competitor — even your sworn enemy — you may be surprised, and even shocked, about how eager your competitor is to enjoy some détente and take you up on your lunch offer.