Mark E. Lutes | Crain's Washington D.C.

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Mark E. Lutes

Background:  

Epstein Becker & Green, P.C., is a Washington, D.C.-based national law firm with a primary focus on healthcare and life sciences; employment, labor and workforce management; and litigation and business disputes. The firm's clients include startups and Fortune 100 companies in the U.S. and abroad, which it represents from offices throughout the U.S.

The Mistake:

When firms approach us about a possible merger or their interest in joining with us in some fashion ... that burns a lot of the time. You spend a lot of meetings thinking about it, and, unless you apply some pretty rigid criteria at the outset, you can waste a lot of time on things that will eventually not work out because they are not consistent with your core business thesis.

In our world, we specialize in only two things: healthcare and labor and employment. Which makes us what we call a super-boutique in the jargon of the legal industry. It's a boutique practice.

And we therefore are attractive to quite a number of general practice firms that want to strengthen their healthcare departments or their labor and employment departments. And they come to the table wanting to tell us how well that's going to work by creating some sort of one-stop shopping opportunity for clients.

It happened more than once, and it happens all the time. We spent a lot of time listening to them and exploring the feasibility of it. We never said yes, because that would mean that we did a deal. But instead, we spent a lot of time considering those thoughts—and realized how counterproductive they were to our core strategy.

We realized, as we spent more time talking about what an alignment or affiliation might look like, that entering into an affiliation with a general practice firm would destroy our uniqueness in the market and would destroy the brands that we're able to build around our specialties.

We don't think in the long term that most firms are going to prosper with a department store strategy. 

The Lesson

The lesson is the need to say no more than yes. If you try to align with another firm that is pursuing a "we have 40 practices in 40 cities in 39 countries" type approach, it ends up being fundamentally inconsistent with our value proposition, which is, "we do nothing but healthcare and labor and employment, and we throw everything at those specialties, and so you should come to us because we are unique in our understanding of those specialties."

I can... describe [our suitors] by type, and they are in general what I would deem to be general practice firms. If you were to analogize to another space, you would say they are department stores. And we are a stand-alone boutique.  

Our belief is that a customer more often than not wants to go to a specialized store for her jewelry rather than just a jewelry department of a department store just because it's next to the shoes and the coats. The client will actually want to seek out the best jewelry expertise and selection and depth and is willing to go to and will actually seek out the boutique store featuring that and have a preference for that over merely buying maybe second-best jewelry because it was adjacent to the shoe department.

In law, that's a pretty revolutionary idea, because most of the legal industry pursues a thesis that revenue growth and number of lawyers is a good to be chased in and of itself. ... But for us, pursuing a union that would even double our revenue would not be a good long-term strategy if it took us away from our brand focus—because we don't think in the long term that most firms are going to prosper with a department store strategy. We think in the long term, the industry's going to segment, and there will be a couple of department stores that prosper, but the others that prosper will be specialty shops, will be boutiques. Not because they're small, but because they're focused. 

Follow Epstein Becker & Green on Twitter at @ebglaw.