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Using the Business Model Canvas for Law Firms

By: Aron Solomon

While underused in the legal industry, the business model canvas is a uniquely potent tool for solo and small law firms to chart where they are today and where they would like to land tomorrow.

Using a business model canvas allows a firm to analyze and reflect upon their current business model by breaking it down into each segment. It can be surprisingly valuable for your law firm because it allows for a massive unloading of so much you have learned over the years about your business into one very usable tool. For your firm, the canvas can be not only an actionable part of your business planning but an important archive of how the firm sees itself today.

While there are seemingly limitless online resources that show you how to complete a business model canvas, few highlight the critical mistakes that can invalidate the canvas and make the process a collective waste of your firm’s time.

In my experience, the most powerful mistakes solo and small law firms make while using the business model canvas are:

Having one person at the firm complete the canvas who is primarily in a business role.

I know this sounds counterintuitive since it is a business model canvas, but if completing the business model canvas is going to be a one-person job (more on this in a minute) it’s too often done by someone at the firm who is in a support, operations, or general business role than someone who is practicing law and often leading the charge on new business generation.

Making the canvas an isolated exercise.

The reason it is all too frequently one person completing the business model canvas, later to be shared with a larger group within the firm, is that lawyers tend to see the canvas (in the language of the canvas itself) as a cost rather than a revenue center. In other words, sure, let’s do the exercise of completing a canvas because maybe we should, but let’s put as few hours behind this as we can.

Massive mistake. Invest the time and person hours on the front end and you’ll have immediate buy-in within the firm because the authors of your canvas will feel more of a sense of ownership in the product. Have a canvas completed in isolation and it’s something done by others and met with a lack of interest, enthusiasm, and desire to collaborate on making the canvas better and more usable for the business.

Being entirely qualitative rather than at least a bit quantitative.

A good business canvas begins to get into the weeds while a great canvas begins to get quantitative. Even with an area of the canvas such as revenue streams - which is by its nature quantitative - when professionals complete this section they tend to be only descriptive and prescriptive. They need to actually roll up their sleeves and specify amounts. Please remember that there’s no rule against using numbers on your business model canvas.

Failing to harness the power of the value proposition.

I am biased in that through my training on the canvas, I’ve always been the most intellectually and practically excited about the value proposition section. The power of the value proposition section is when it’s used to detail the benefits of your legal services, not simply to set out their features. So if you’re a personal injury firm, is your value proposition that you work on a contingent fee and win more cases than your local competitors or is your true value proposition that you help reassemble the lives of people injured by the negligence or recklessness of others?

This also goes back to an earlier point of why actual practitioners need to be part of the process of any firm electing to go through a business model canvas process. You need to understand your business from the inside out.

Not creating personas for your customers.

Most law firms (okay - almost all) endeavor to complete the customer segments of the canvas without really understanding who their clients are. By creating personas of your customers (fictional characters you create to represent an amalgam of your clients) you are now in a position to more quickly apply the results of your business model canvas to your practice.

Aside from helping complete your canvas, creating customer personas is remarkably effective in going from the findings of your canvas to power your social media campaigns. The more deeply you understand the people who have, do, and will use your firm’s legal services, the more efficiently and effectively you’ll be able to reach them on social.

Failing to imagine the canvas as a springboard to scale your business.

Used well, the canvas is one tool that helps you analyze the health of your legal business. Too many law firms spent far too much time and money thinking about scaling up before they not only understand where they are today as a business but how they arrived there. So dissecting your business as suggested by the canvas allows lawyers and law firms operations people to do what they almost never do before making a growth plan - be introspective and populate a framework with data.

About Aron Solomon

Aron Solomon is the Senior Digital Strategist for NextLevel.com and an Adjunct Professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University.

Aron was the founder of LegalX at MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, one of the world's first legal technology accelerators, and was elected to Fastcase 50 in 2015, which recognizes the world's leading legal innovators. Aron regularly consults for large global corporations, law, and accounting firms.