As we’ve discussed ad nauseam in these pages, demand for the services of Biglaw firms is flat or declining. And this year promises more of the same on that front.
What does this mean for law firms? If the pie isn’t getting bigger, then growth must be achieved by grabbing a larger share of that pie — which is no easy feat. It’s very difficult to displace a competent incumbent (as in-house columnist Mark Herrmann has noted repeatedly).
So the name of the game in 2018 is business development — getting new clients, or getting more business from existing clients. In light of the importance of “BD,” I wasn’t surprised to see a full house for an excellent panel at the Practising Law Institute (PLI) last Thursday, “Business Development Coaching from Chief Marketing Officers.”
(The panel was part of a great conference, All Star Business Development for Lawyers, organized by Deborah Brightman Farone, who stepped down as CMO of Cravath to start her own advisory firm, and Katherine D’Urso, chief client development officer at WilmerHale. I spoke on a different panel, “Reporting from the Press Box: The Interplay between Law and Journalism,” featuring Ashby Jones of the Wall Street Journal and Gina Passarella of the American Lawyer, with Katrina Dewey of Lawdragon as moderator.)
Despina Kartson, global director of business development and communications at Jones Day, moderated the CMO panel, which featured the following high-powered participants: M. Ashraf Lakhani, director of business development and marketing at Porter Hedges LLP in Houston, as well as current president of the Legal Marketing Association (LMA); David McClune, global chief marketing officer at Shearman & Sterling; and Adam Stock, chief information officer at Allen Matkins in San Francisco. Here are my five takeaways from the discussion.
1. It’s all about relationships.
Yes, technology is great (and we believe our legal technology coverage here at Above the Law is some of the best in the business). But at the end of the day, even though law firms can and should use the tech tools at their disposal to improve the bottom line, business development in Biglaw remains relationship-driven.
The most important relationship, of course, is the one between lawyer and client (see item #2 below). But other relationships matter too.
First, CMOs need to have strong relationships with the lawyers at their firms — who are, at the end of the day, their clients. To be as effective as possible, the CMO needs strong support from firm leadership. Without such support, the CMO could encounter difficulty in getting cooperation from lawyers.
Second, at larger firms with sizable business development and marketing departments, the CMO needs to provide support for her own team members. As firms get serious about business development and continue to grow their BD departments, which now might include experts in everything from customer-relationship management to pricing to social media, the CMO needs to manage as well as market.
2. Know your clients — and know their industry.
Yes, truly listening to your clients is critical — but you knew that already.
What was somewhat more novel from the panelists was the observation that clients are increasingly seeking lawyers who don’t just have legal knowledge — how to draft a merger agreement, how to try a case — but who also have deep industry knowledge. Clients don’t want their lawyers to have to get up to speed on how their sector works (and certainly don’t want to pay for it). When a lawyer enters a pitch meeting, the client will want that lawyer to know her business inside out.
As a result, many firms now conduct business development at an industry level. They’re figuring out the half-dozen or so industries that generate the bulk of their work, and they’re presenting themselves as experts in those sectors. Traditionalists might scoff at such an approach — “I’m a litigator, I can handle any case you put in front of me” — but the generalist is rapidly becoming an endangered species.
Maybe certain famous lawyers with international reputations or certain white-shoe law firms with institutional clients can still get work from across the spectrum. But for most lawyers and law firms, even partners and even Am Law 100 firms, clients increasingly want and expect industry expertise.
So figure out what you excel at (as a lawyer and as a firm), emphasize those strengths (in practice areas and in industries), and de-emphasize the rest.
3. View business development broadly.
Many lawyers view BD in too narrow a fashion. They’re too focused on themselves or maybe their group, not on the broader firm or legal market. While specialization is important, as just discussed, lawyers and law firms must also see the big picture.
CMOs can also make this mistake, seeing their job as little more than helping out on pitchbooks. A great CMO needs to understand the firm’s long-term strategy — and hopefully the CMO has been involved in formulating that strategy.
This requires the CMO to have knowledge about a broad range of subjects beyond just marketing — for example, the firm’s business plan, its approach to pricing, and the industries it’s focused on. It also might explain why the caliber of professionals in law firm marketing and business development is increasing, with many CMOs having degrees like JDs or MBAs.
4. Embrace the opportunities of social media.
Business development typically involves a one-on-one relationship (think of a lawyer pitching to a prospective client), while marketing typically involves a one-to-many relationship (think of using media coverage to establish one’s expertise in a field). Social media is powerful because it offers a lawyer the opportunity to do both marketing and business development — provided that the lawyer seizes the opportunity.
Niche practices lend themselves especially well to social media. By blogging and tweeting about a specific topic, a lawyer can establish herself as an expert in a particular area of law (e.g., marijuana law or assisted reproductive technology (ART) law). The opportunity to build a practice in a niche area is stronger than ever (as our marketing columnist, managing partner Bruce Stachenfeld, has stressed).
As a result, law firms are getting over their aversion to social media. Shearman & Sterling, for example, has two full-time employees who oversee its social-media efforts. The firm and its lawyers are active on LinkedIn, where around 90 percent of its attorneys have profiles, as well as Twitter and even YouTube. For a major international law firm like Shearman & Sterling, it might be hard to generate clients through social media, but the firm sees it as an important investment in overall brand building.
5. The media matters.
In the olden days, it was much easier for a law firm to ignore the media, responding to every inquiry with “no comment.” Those days are over. Given the proliferation of outlets and the relentless, 24/7 news cycle, lawyers ignore the media at their peril.
Yes, some clients don’t want their cases or matters in the media — and if that’s the case, then the firm should aid in the effort. But in certain situations, involving major clients with major matters, media coverage is inevitable. In that scenario, the lawyers on the matter should work closely with business development and marketing professionals, at the firm and even at the client if necessary, to shape the narrative.
Some firms, especially larger firms, find it helpful to have a centralized and coordinated media strategy. Otherwise, the firm runs the risk of a lawyer saying or writing something in the media that’s adverse to a client’s interest — and that might even get used against that client. This is why firms sometimes kill client alerts on new developments in an area of law. Generally such client memos are helpful at showcasing the firm’s expertise (see, e.g., Wachtell Lipton), but in some situations it’s too fraught with peril.
Finally, marketing professionals should encourage their lawyers to develop relationships with journalists. Even just talking “on background” with a reporter — not for attribution, just helping the journalist understand a complex legal issue — can generate goodwill. That goodwill could come in handy down the road, when the lawyer is hoping to be quoted on breaking news, or when the firm finds itself in an unwelcome spotlight.
In this highly competitive market for legal services, marketing and business development are more important — and more complicated and challenging — than ever. There’s a reason why chief marketing officers have the shortest average tenure of any C-suite executive, and why the comings and goings of Biglaw CMOs sometimes feel like Game of Thrones.
All Star Business Development for Lawyers 2018 [Practising Law Institute]
David Lat is editor at large and founding editor of Above the Law, as well as the author of Supreme Ambitions: A Novel. He previously worked as a federal prosecutor in Newark, New Jersey; a litigation associate at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz; and a law clerk to Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. You can connect with David on Twitter (@DavidLat), LinkedIn, and Facebook, and you can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be Sociable, Share!