Creative Corner: Table Stakes

by Andy Edelstein on November 23, 2014

In poker, table stakes are the chips a player must ante up to get in the game.

In marketing, the term has come to mean the minimum offering a product must have to go on the market. It refers to the features a consumer expects, insists on, and assumes will be included in the product.

You can’t, for example, put a new smartphone on the market without certain essentials — a camera, a keypad, a standard operating system that accepts apps, etc. To not have these things is unthinkable. The consumer expects them, so they’d better be there. Without them, your product will fail.

Good marketers never waste time, space, or scarce marketing dollars talking about table stakes. Yet in law firm marketing communications, you see table stakes mentioned all the time, usually in the form of abstract generalities that should literally go without saying.

How many times have you seen the phrase “focused on our clients” on a law firm website — perhaps even your own? Does this phrase differentiate the firm in any way? Does it convey, in itself, any proof of the firm’s client focus?

Not that client focus is a bad thing — if I were your client, I would certainly want you to focus on me. But if I were shopping for a law firm, I’d expect nothing less from every firm I talk to. So even if you have great client focus — even if the ways you focus on your clients are truly differentiating — you’ll need to work harder to prove it to me. The phrase itself will never convince me. It’s table stakes. It’s like advertising a car by saying it comes with a steering wheel.

Table stakes are, regrettably, omnipresent in legal marketing. Words like quality, collaboration, and excellence appear everywhere, but their meanings are entirely in the eye of the beholder. They are generalities — if you can’t successfully demonstrate or prove them, why even mention them?

One particular table stakes word stands out, not just for its irrelevance, but also for its ability to backfire on the firm that uses it: integrity. As soon as you use it, you lose it. Lawyer jokes aside, most prospects assume your firm has integrity — unless something calls it into question. Mentioning it does just that. It makes the reader wonder why you’re calling attention to something that should certainly be considered table stakes.

You might also want to avoid the word honesty, for the same reasons. Whenever I hear someone talk about how honest they are, I check that my wallet is still in my pocket.

As we all know, differentiation between law firms is notoriously elusive. But as marketers, we have no choice but to work as hard as we can to find those things that set our firms apart. Table stakes will never make that happen.

Andy Edelstein is a copywriter specializing in law firm advertising and marketing communications. Reach him at


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