The Great Recession’s Effects on Law Firm's Business Development
The severe financial loss confronting Corporate America, due to the Great Recession, has also taken a tremendous toll on law firms. The law firm marketing department has felt the impact -- perhaps even more acutely than some other departments, in terms of resource strain. Not only have our ranks been thinned, but “lawyers with downtime” often translates into increased demands on the marketing department. I have witnessed a trend of renewed interest in strategic planning at several firms. Considering the tendency of many law firms for “shotgun marketing,” the more limited the funds, the more crucial it is to have the focus that strategic planning brings. I was curious about what my fellow legal marketers were seeing trend-wise and what they were doing differently, as a result of the recession. So - I asked them.
The marketing director of a small firm, just shy of 30 lawyers, told me, “we got back to the basics,” describing client-focused efforts such as increased client interviews, face-to-face contact between clients and attorneys, and expressions of gratitude to clients for choosing to do business with the firm. This director prodded the lawyers at her firm to become increasingly involved with marketing initiatives, and encouraged them to be “more top-of-mind about marketing” by interacting with their clients, in person, on a frequent basis, and by becoming “marketing savvy” about what services their firm could cross-sell to these clients.
To accomplish this increased lawyer involvement in business development, the marketing director put together an informal program, creating two “100 Day Teams.” Each team was comprised of six attorneys, all of whom varied in both age and practice area. The teams were pitted against one another – the winning team being the one that could bring in the most new business with clients, either by recruiting new clients or by expanding work within existing client relationships. The teams traveled coast-to-coast. The results? An education for associates and a refresher course for mid-level to senior lawyers on how to bring in business, which they did – both teams successfully expanded business within existing client relationships and managed to bring in six new clients. Their marketing director explained that the lawyers involved in this client pursuit “really lived the ‘talk,’” and remembered that “communication was key” when it came to business expansion. She also noted that the lesson has since stuck, and the attorneys have “continued to walk the walk, which is making a difference” to the bottom line.
Another marketer at a large AmLaw Global 100 firm described more structure being put around initiatives that would get their lawyers face-to-face with clients. One initiative, in particular, required each practice group to visit a target number of clients within a specified timeframe, with the primary goal of learning about the issues and concerns clients were facing during the downturn. The marketing department created briefing materials on each client in advance of the visit for the attorney team. Due to the compressed timeframe of the project, paralegals assisted the marketing team with the briefing materials. When the program wrapped up, they had completed more than 170 visits to 143 companies. Each visit team submitted a report detailing the visit and any needs the client may have raised, which was then compiled into reports highlighting all follow-up items and opportunities.
The marketing director at another small firm described how “at the moment the recession strangled the mortgage industry and bludgeoned investment banking,” his firm had already embarked on a solid social media initiative. Acknowledging that social media is not well understood by most law firms, his goal was to “fit business development into time that falls between files, rather than try to wring out of a time starved practice the commitment to attend industry groups, speak expertly on legal topics and circulate in conferences and receptions.” It wasn’t that their firm no longer encouraged those traditional marketing efforts; they just wanted “lawyers to make the most of at-desk downtime, too.” He also mentioned moving to more online advertising than traditional advertising “so that could point to their participation in social media.”
As I asked around, some tactics were indeed universal. Firms have slimmed down advertising budgets and are more carefully considering sponsorships and how those sponsorships can be leveraged. Overall, my less than scientific poll revealed firms doing more with fewer dollars, but not skimping when it comes to face-to-face client efforts.
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Fiona Carmody, an intern in the firm’s marketing department and student at University of Richmond in the preparation of this article.