Ten years ago, I was asked by Legal Week to write an article providing independent law firms with top tips to developing international business. Since then I have frequently used that article – The right route to market – to help firms benchmark their business development activities.
A decade on, I have reviewed what I wrote, to see what has changed. As is so often the case, the headline points remain the same but many of the details are different – as is the balance between them. So, here are my updated top 10 tips.
Focus on what your firm does best?
It’s time to look in the mirror. Conduct an impartial evaluation of your own business and focus your marketing effort on areas where you have genuine expertise; that you are confident there is a demand for, and that will be profitable.
Many law firms — particularly those operating in conservative markets — do not feel comfortable doing this. We regularly work with firms that are particularly strong in a number of practice areas and virtually non-existent in others, yet insist on promoting themselves as ‘full-service commercial law firms’. For example I am currently talking to a firm* that has told me “we do a lot of family work, but it isn’t very profitable”. Although there may be a good reason to continue to offer an unprofitable [such a] service, at least ask yourself the question whether you should continue to offer – or at least promote -that service.
International buyers of legal services –particularly international law firms and in-house counsel - demand genuine expertise and if your lawyers are perceived to have specialist knowledge they are far more likely to be selected than those that aren’t.
The market opportunity is immense for independent law firms that can focus on discrete areas of practice, particularly on an international stage. We have recently helped firms build international practices in Tax, IP, Employment and White Collar Crime, among others. But be honest – if you secretly doubt the true depth of expertise in these areas, it won’t be long before prospects and clients start to doubt you too.
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
Although nearly all firms acknowledge that they should have a marketing plan and budget, it is surprising how many do not.
For many smaller firms, failure to plan is mainly a matter of resources. The managing partner is the head of marketing, as well as the main fee earner, and just can’t do everything.
One error many firms make is to come up with a plan that involves little or no direct cost, but an unrealistically large amount of lawyer time to deliver. Such an approach is not sustainable. Similarly, if a marketing plan is just consigned to a document that is never read or implemented, it will never deliver meaningful change.
Take the directory approach
Ten years ago directory rankings were important to help build a firm’s international reputation. Now they are fundamental to it. I can only think of 1 firm that we have worked with that refuses to submit to the directories and has successfully built an international practice.
If you want to position your firm as a player on the international market and you are not ranked by the likes of Chambers, Legal 500 and IFLR 1000, your credibility is seriously undermined. Accordingly, achieving the best possible rankings is an absolute must for any firm planning to grow its international practice.
These guides really are used by in-house counsel and international law firms, both when trying to find firms in unfamiliar jurisdictions, and as a means of checking out firms that have been suggested to them. Clients also use the directories to benchmark current advisers, providing them with reassurance that they are independently judged to be among the leading firms.
Awards can also significantly enhance your reputation.
Review your website
Websites have become much more of a science over the last ten years. We work on website reviews with a digital expert and it is amazing how many firms have beautiful websites but which barely register on search engines because they don’t use the right terms. For example we recently reviewed a site that didn’t use the term ‘law’ or ‘lawyer’ anywhere on their home page. They thought they were differentiating themselves, but the result was that they were languishing on page 10+ in Google results when people searched for lawyers in their jurisdiction – rendering themselves almost invisible in cyberspace.
Your website is your shop window to the world. Clients will visit it. Prospects will visit it. Competitors and potential employees will visit it. Make sure it is showing you off at your best. The majority of websites are now viewed through mobile devices so make sure it is mobile friendly. Search engine strategy is a dark art, and where content is king it is worth speaking to a web specialist to make it operate as effectively as possible.
As well as your website, you need to consider adding digital marketing tools to your marketing campaigns such as blogs and social media. All should work in tandem and give consistent messages about your firm.
International networks, associations and conferences
Membership of international law firm networks and associations is often central to a firm’s international strategy.
Many firms get fantastic value out of these – and they meet a large part of those firm’s international needs, both in terms of referral work and a support network. Others do not. For example the manging partner of a firm recently said to me, “We are a member of several networks and associations where we are represented by one of our senior partners who attends several meetings a year. Although he seems to enjoy it we never seem to get any work as a result.” Key success factors in making the most of network/associations are: a) attend the meetings: b) choose your memberships carefully and review them every 2-3 years; and c) make them work for you. Being a member of a network gives you exposure to other members. However, it does not mean that they will automatically send you any referrals work
Another piece of this jigsaw are other conferences – where many of the same points apply.
Communicate with clients and targets
Ten years ago the importance of printed materials and brochures was diminishing. They cost a lot of money to be print and go out of date quickly. Today they are quite rare and the overwhelming majority of communications are digital.
There are a range of digital communications that you can produce – including articles, newsletters, blogs and many more. However, whatever means of communication you use there are 2 fundamental considerations:
Content: this morning I received a newsletter, as I often do, announcing that a relatively obscure piece of legislation has changed with no explanation as to why I, or any other readers, should be interested in this. I and most other recipients will immediately consign this to the bin and all future newsletters from the sender to junk. Key points to content: a) build a brand – produce content that is consistent and identifies your firm’s unique selling points; b) add value: most readers want to know about something that will give an advantage to their, or their clients, business.
Distribution: There are now numerous channels to distribute your communications – including mailshots, a plethora of social media, and distribution databases such as Lexology. A well-thought-out approach can result in a single article being very widely read by a large and interested audience. One article that reaches 10,000 interested readers is far more effective than a weekly article that only reaches 100.
Legal media products
Closely associated with content are legal media products. The following comment from a frustrated managing partner sums up the main issue for independent law firms: “I receive an e-mail or phone call from a publisher at least three times a week (it feels like more) offering me an unmissable opportunity to raise my firm’s international profile in their publication. I am sure that sometimes it is true, but I rarely have time to even understand what I am being offered.”
Two key points when it comes to buying legal media products: plan in accordance with your business development objectives and work to a budget.
Embrace a sales culture and sell effectively
I recently had a call with a prospective client where I explained one of the ways we could help clients was helping the firm to put in place a more structured approach to sales. After a long pause they explained that they were a law firm and it would be unprofessional of them, and in breach of their bar regulations, to sell their services. Although diminishing, this is a view that is still held by a surprising number of firms – particularly in jurisdictions where the profession remains highly protected by the local bar regulations.
However, the reality is that lawyers and law firms have always sold their services. For example, when I first qualified I worked for a magic circle firm and I remember the partners paying homage to their rainmakers. The term rainmaker may have shrouded them in mystery, but the reality is they were salesmen.
Embrace the fact that you, or someone from your firm, needs to sell your services and that if you are going to do it, do it well. A great deal can be learned from other business sectors about how to do this as they have refined the art.
Also invest some time maintaining data about clients and key contacts. Very small firms may be able to do this in their heads, but by the time they get much larger than 15 lawyers, a database is required. Be realistic about what information you are going to use and maintain and, in an era of GDPR, ensure it is necessary and secure.
If your marketing effort results in a potential client trying to contact you and they can’t, the whole exercise is undermined. Ensure that relevant contact details are displayed on your website and remember to respond to calls and emails.
Never forget that your best source of new work is existing clients!
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