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Building Practices During Times of Uncertainty

Deborah Farone

Farone Advisors LLC

In the U.S., we seem to be turning a corner on Covid and talking more about returning to a post-pandemic work life (at the very least, many of us are wearing real shoes again). We are reading reports of people around the world getting jabbed with vaccines and hearing increased chatter about heading back to our offices. Yet the one thing that remains uncertain is certainty. Once we get back to our old desk chairs, how will our work look? Will the technology we have been relying on and the adjustments that have occurred during the last year change relationships. Will there be a different feel to the relationships between employees and employers, law firms and their clients, and general counsel and corporate leadership? While we don’t know all of the answers and may not for some time, uncertainty doesn’t prescribe that business planning should stop.

While firmwide strategic planning may be on a hiatus for a little while longer, a tremendous amount of review and planning can be conducted at the practice level.

Consider New Opportunities and Get Creative

At the start of the Great Depression, an event of tremendous economic dislocation for businesses and consumers, businesses were impacted by the severe economic distress facing their customers. In order to survive, many responded by finding new ways to operate their craft. As an example, because movie-going was perceived as a luxury, Hollywood needed to respond, and in the late 1920s, did so by creating the double feature (two movies for the price of one). There were ongoing promotions, such as dish night, when housewives received a piece of flatware in addition to their movie ticket. Consumer product companies also responded. Proctor and Gamble didn’t cut back on their advertising, but instead developed a new way of reaching their audience by sponsoring daily radio shows to appeal to consumers. In 1927, they began underwriting NBC’s Radio Beauty School in order to advertise one of their products, Camay soap. Soap operas soon followed suit.

More recently, astute law firms have responded to client concerns that have arose both as a response to the times as well as the pandemic. While they are not giving away dishes, they are utilizing new technology to cut costs in areas where the firm cannot otherwise add value. A client will pay for a genius former prosecutor to develop the strategy for their bet-the-company case, but they will no longer pay the same hourly fee for document production. Practice areas, such as litigation, have evolved, and lawyers have learned how to commoditize services by offering them at lower costs or providing new ones by adding subsidiary companies to help with groundwork aspects. Additionally, partners and others at smart firms keep a close eye on the U.S. administration’s smoke signals for opportunities to target new practice areas. They take advantage of lateral hiring in areas where they expect there may be future litigation, or opportunities for a firm’s clients to grow by refinancing, mergers, acquisitions and other forms of restructuring. By being creative and putting themselves in the place of their clients, law firms can reduce costs in targeted areas and stretch the limits of their offerings.

Stay Close to Clients Encountering New Issues

A crisis is often an opportunity to reach out to clients and find out how they are handling issues, both personally and in their businesses. During the planning for a recent PLI program, Brad Karp, Chairman of Paul Weiss, shared a glimpse of a stack of papers that included the names of hundreds of the firm’s clients. He pointed out that he planned to touch base with several of them every day to let them know that he and the firm were thinking of them and to ask what was going on in their lives. While law firms can produce great large-scale surveys and read numerous news reports about what clients want, the best information is not always quantitative, but rather often comes directly from one-to-one conversations with clients.

“Client service is not rocket science,” says Brad. “So much of it is common sense and effort. In its simplest form, our job is to connect with our clients, to be present, to listen to their problems, to solve them practically and consistent with their business needs, to be responsive, to be reliable, to be efficient, to respect budgets, to offer counsel. Lawyers who do this day in and day out will develop a significant client following.”

It’s very important to provide guidance early on in uncertain times and to share information whenever possible. Even when situations are in flux, and decisions by law makers are still indefinite, stay in touch with clients. There is no better time to provide support, discuss possible scenarios and share what knowledge you do have. This does not need to be a firmwide or orchestrated effort, but can be looked at on the practice group and individual lawyer level.

Going back again in history, when great war correspondents, such as Edward R. Morrow in World War II, gave live broadcasts during the war, they admitted to not having all the answers. Even so, their reporting built great trust with the people who listened to their reports.

It’s important for lawyers to keep a close watch on what is taking place, not only in Washington, but in other jurisdictions in which their clients might be working. The ability to see reverberations of change and report them to clients in real time is essential if lawyers want to be considered an important partner to their clients. Acting in an expert capacity and providing insight during unpredictable times is what great lawyers do.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate Internally, Especially during Times of Uncertainty

One of the biggest mistakes law firms make, and one of the easiest to fix, is keeping people within the organization out of the loop. The department or practice group leader who creates a business plan but only informs his colleagues on a “need to know” basis misses opportunities to cross-sell and excite others throughout the firm about collaboration. Those who hold their strategy cards too close to the vest risk creating an environment of mistrust.

“Involving the communications and marketing department at the onset, in developing strategy, tactics and key performance indicators, can make a world of difference,” says Allan Schoenberg, Global Director of Public Relations and Corporate Affairs at Vinson & Elkins. “Sharing practice plans with lawyers within the group, as well as fellow partners in various practice areas, makes marketing exponentially more impactful.”

The author Simon Sinek often talks about the importance of “Why,” denoting that it is essential to explain the why behind a project in order to get co-workers and teams to buy in to a decision or process. This is an essential step in encouraging colleagues to adopt new ideas as well as to share in the excitement surrounding new initiatives.

Retool Your Personal Marketing

There is an accepted understanding that lawyers are hired not simply because of their firm’s ability, or even their practice group expertise, but because of their individual capabilities. With the advance of social media, like LinkedIn, and the impressions built on an appearance on a law firm webinar, there has never been a better time to consider personal marketing. While it may seem like the phrase “personal branding” is the plat du jour, personal marketing goes beyond the appearance of how one looks, or even how one conveys their ideas during a Zoom meeting. Rather, personal marketing refers to a strategy for positioning oneself as a thought leader to advance one’s career and build business. I often ask lawyers to take a fresh look at where they are spending their marketing time and to reconsider if they are budgeting those hours wisely. We’ve all known partners who the spend an inordinate amount of time writing lengthy articles and speaking at industry events, yet nothing transpires from their activities. While a return on investment is challenging to track in terms of the marketing tactics of lawyers, there are steps that can be taken to ensure it’s more likely that these marketing approaches, such as article writing or speaking engagements, will be fruitful. For example, with speaking engagements, I often ask partners to consider if they are speaking at the right programs and to the right audiences. Beyond committing to the right types of programs, there are also a number of other considerations: Are the lawyers preparing for these engagements in the right way? Are they arranging one-on-one meetings with other attendees when they attend the program? What are they doing to follow up with new acquaintances and leads from the program? Sometimes taking one step, particularly in marketing, requires another in order to gain some distance. In addition to assessing whether a lawyer is participating in the right personal marketing activities for them, an important key to success is determining whether they’ve taken the necessary steps to maximize each opportunity.

As we head back to our workplaces, things will be different; but by creatively responding to new opportunities presented by disruption, staying close to clients, and adjusting personal marketing to appropriate targets, we can strive for and achieve success.

Deborah Farone is a leading expert in law firm marketing and former CMO of Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP and Debevoise & Plimpton LLP. She is author of the book Best Practices in Law Firm Business Development and Marketing (read now on PLUS), available from PLI Press.

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