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Small Carolina manufacturer teaches attorneys and law firms how to compete via social media

January 13, 2012

At a time when historically innovative U.S. companies such as Kodak are folding, there’s no reason that a small textile manufacturer like Milliken & Co. should be thriving.

After all, it’s a labor intensive industry that has exited the U.S. for low overseas wages. But it’s innovation, reports John Bussey of the Wall Street Journal’s that has allowed this Spartanburg, South Carolina manufacturer to not only survive, but to compete on a global basis.

Milliken first tried to hold back cheap imports, but that failed and only wasted management time. What succeeded was moving into niche products that built off the company’s knowledge in textiles and chemicals.

Today, Milliken makes the fabric that reinforces duct tape, the additives that make refrigerator food containers clear and children’s art markers washable, the products that make mattresses fire resistant, countertops antimicrobial, windmills lighter, and combat gear protective.

Along the way it has amassed thousands of patents, focusing on specialty fabrics and chemicals, floor coverings and performance products. Milliken boasts that we come in contact with its many products almost 50 times a day.

Rather than unskilled laborers, Milliken is attracting highly skilled technologists and scientists with advanced degrees to a company where researchers can use 15% of their time to investigate whatever they like. Proven innovators get 50%.

What’s this have to do with law firms and social media? Lots.

Attorneys and law firms are in for a fight for business. Corporate clients are demanding that law firms look at alternatives to billing by the hour. Overseas lawyers are going to be able to render certain commoditized legal services at reduced rates. And do it yourself legal services companies such as Rocket Lawyer are atrracting significant venture capital to develop alternatives to consumers needing an attorney.

Attorneys who can’t get enough work are trying to do a little bit of everything so as to earn enough to keep the roof over their heads. Law firms and bar associations are doing things around the edges to keep do it yourself legal services and young lawyers who can offer much lower rates out of the market. Like Milliken’s first response to global competition, this approach will prove to be a failure.

The answer for attorney’s and law firms is niches. Niches built on the knowledge and relationships they already have. Niches that can be carved out and expanded like never before via social media.

Seattle’s Dan Harris in China legal matters. New York’s Peter Mahler in New York dissolution. Dave Donoghue in Chicago IP litigation.

In these days when many lawyers and law firms are struggling, did these guys go to their firms and say we have to get more lawyers doing more kinds of work and spend big marketing dollars to go after more clients that need us for general legal services? Heck no.

These guys carved out niches on their own via blogging and social media to leverage what they already knew so as to get into what they viewed as emerging areas of the law and business. The result is they are doing 7 figures in business and passing off work they can’t do to other lawyers.

Rather than follow what other law firms and attorneys are doing, be a little innovative. A three to five thousand dollar investment per year can get an attorney started in blogging in a strategic, impressive, and effective way. That’s peanuts compared to what other law firms are paying to market themselves to get more work. It’s also peanuts compared to what an individual lawyer would have needed to invest to accelerate their relationships and reputation in days past.

You can learn from Milliken. Per John Fly, a top executive who just wrapped up 45 years at the company, “All of Milliken’s traditional textile competitors are gone. They’re out of business. And Milliken is having the best economic performance it’s ever had. It’s clear we did something different.”