I was reading this interesting Fast Company article about what the 2016 Presidential candidates talk about when speaking of income inequality.  This statement was interesting:

Does all of this talk about inequality render the term meaningless? Especially at a time when wealthy donors have unprecedented sway on elections, the idea that government must work to reduce inequality risks becoming just another general economic platitude that no one is against. Kind of like being in favor of “jobs” and “growth.” When this happens, candidates of both parties link generic terms to whatever economic and social policies that they would have proposed anyway, based on where their parties traditionally stand, says Rigby.

Is there any candidate not in favor of “growth”? Of course not.  Any candidate not in favor of jobs?  Again, no.  The discussion of such general concepts is an elixir, designed to dull the senses that otherwise might focus on policy details to see whether the policies espoused by a candidate are consistent with her or his platitudes.

How different is the business of law?  Not one damn bit different.

Ask any law firm about client service, and they are all for it.  After all, it says so right on their web page and, hey, if it is on the web, it must be true.  What about Alternative Fee Arrangements?  Firms that had not heard of them in 2008 have now been doing them for decades.  Again, it says so right there on the firm’s website.

There is a concept at play both in politics and law firm marketing called the signal to noise ratio. Wikipedia describes it as:

Signal-to-noise ratio (abbreviated SNR) is a measure used in science and engineering that compares the level of a desired signal to the level of background noise. It is defined as the ratio of signal power to the noise power, often expressed in decibels. A ratio higher than 1:1 (greater than 0 dB) indicates more signal than noise. While SNR is commonly quoted for electrical signals, it can be applied to any form of signal (such as isotope levels in an ice core or biochemical signaling between cells).

Signal-to-noise ratio is sometimes used informally to refer to the ratio of useful information to false or irrelevant data in a conversation or exchange. For example, in online discussion forums and other online communities, off-topic posts and spam are regarded as “noise” that interferes with the “signal” of appropriate discussion.

In other words, if someone is sending out an attractive message (a signal), the best response is to make a lot of noise to drown out the signal.  We see this a lot in politics. One candidate says “immigration” and soon everyone is talking about how long they have opposed illegal immigration. One candidate says “jobs” and soon all are talking jobs.  It doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you are on, your party’s candidates are doing whatever they can to look like everybody else or show they are going farther on the issue than the other candidates (in the primary).  Thoughtful discussion in politics has become a quaint historical relic because the goal is to create enough noise to drown out the other candidate’s signal.

This same strategy is prevalent in the business of law.  Almost every law firm website says somewhere that the firm is “committed to client service” or “provides exceptional client service” or something akin. In listing the things that makes it special, one firm says (and this is really going out on a limb) that “you and your employees will be treated courteously and with respect.”  Wow.  Bold.

Another firm touts that it “keeps its clients informed” about the client’s matters.  Still another says that for 137 years it has “put clients first.”  Law firm websites are full of adjectives describing client service:  unmatched, superior, dedicated, improved and exemplary are just a few examples.

What does all this mean?  Sadly, not a damn thing. Its gibberish.  It is noise, intended only to drown out the signal.

This marketing approach is nothing if not successful.  Can you identify with specifics the differences between two candidates’ positions on any issue when the candidates are from the same party?  Can you identify any feature about law firms that distinguishes one from another?

Next, in Part 2 of Law Firm Signal and Noise I will share some specifics on how to separate noise from signal.