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How to Future-Proof the Legal Industry: Top Takeaways from the Thomson Reuters Marketing Partner Forum 2021

Like many industries, the legal field went through many changes in the past year due to the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, not all of these changes were negative. The pressures brought on by the pandemic pushed the legal industry to innovate, adapt and pivot to adopt new strategies for growth. At the Thomson Reuters Marketing Partner Forum that took place August 18-20 at the Ritz-Carlton, in Laguna Niguel in Dana Point, Calif., legal marketers from across the country came together to discuss law firm profitability and client development as the legal industry emerges from the pandemic.

The National Law Review reached out to a few attendees of the Marketing Partner Forum to discuss the top takeaways from the event, as well as the topics that are top of mind for legal marketing professionals, including legal marketing spend, hiring and retaining talent and the increased focus on technology. 

What's New in Legal Marketing in the Post-Pandemic Era?

One of the ways law firms pivoted marketing spend during the pandemic was by adopting new technologies. The shift from in person events to virtual ones gave law firms the opportunity to try new strategies without much financial investment.

“Law firms are more critical about the gala events and CLE lunches because they can stay in front of their contacts with webinars. Even the break-out room structure in Zoom opened up a new avenue for small group networking,” said Sheenika Gandhi, director of marketing for Greenberg Glusker LLP, a full service firm with roughly 100 attorneys based in Los Angeles. “Being able to strategically place attorneys with relevant contacts instead of hoping they would run into someone at a large reception was a huge benefit.”

In addition to the shift to remote events, law firms also had the chance to show their value, and plan for more sustainable growth moving forward. The pandemic gave law firms the chance to try new things that weren’t a priority before and paved the way for things legal marketers always wanted to try to become reality. 

“I think that the pandemic taught us that we can pivot and adapt much more quickly than we thought we could as big institutions that have been doing the same things the same way for hundreds of years. And what's the saying, ‘Never let a crisis go to waste?’ I think what people [wanted] was what has happened during this pandemic -- pivoting to Zoom,  working from home and going paperless,” said Beth Cuzzone, Chief Strategic Growth Officer for Goulston & Storrs, an Am Law 200 law firm based in Boston. “[Those changes] have probably been on law firms' goals and agendas for a long time and just haven't been able to do it. And [COVID-19] forced us to do it. I feel like there is not only an acceptance, but an expectation from clients and from law firm leaders that we're going to take this time of adaptation and do things that are going to impact the business model.”

One of the ways the legal industry adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic was through the increased use of technology, spurred on from the shift to remote work. This focus on technology allowed legal marketers to both show their value, and pivot to new strategies.

“This year, our Marketing Committee made a strategic decision to drastically reduce our investment in sponsorships with organizations whose events were traditionally in person that have moved to all virtual. We plan to double down on in-person networking next year, at least as it relates to building new relationships,” said Alexandra DeFelice, Director of Marketing and Business Development for Payne & Fears. “We are developing ways to change our Webinars to be more interactive and are experimenting with different formats. COVID has allowed us more freedom to test drive new ideas with minimal financial commitment.”

How Remote Working is Affecting Legal Marketing Spend 

With more attorneys and legal professionals working remotely during the pandemic, legal marketers had the opportunity to show return on investment (ROI) on marketing campaigns through increased data collection and analytics. This focus on data has the potential to impact legal marketing spend during the pandemic.

“Attorneys aren’t necessarily looking for that information, but marketers have access to more analytics, which many of us are actively pushing to attorneys. Measuring ROI on marketing efforts has always been difficult,” said Ms. DeFelice. “Increased data collection gives us more options for showing our efforts are paying off (or aren’t), what clients are interested in reading more about, times and days that generate more open rates, and a bunch of other really interesting insights.”

The increased focus on technology and the transition to remote work also impacted legal marketing spend on events and sponsorships. During the pandemic, law firms shifted to webinars and other virtual events to stay connected to their clients and contacts. Even when law firms have a wealth of information at their fingertips, knowing how to interpret and implement it effectively is a challenge. In the panel she moderated, Ride the High Country: Recalibrating Strategic Direction in the COVID-19 Era, Ms. Cuzzone asked panelists how they would innovate their firm if they were the managing partner.

“One of the panel members said, ‘I would hire a data scientist.’ And that was when he said, ‘Law firms are data rich and information poor.’ Whether it's the knowledge that you have either in your heads or in your documents or in your finance software or in your actual contact databases, you've got all of this information either about the market or about clients or about trends that you could be using to continue to basically sustain innovation,” she said. “Innovation isn't always hours based. It might be that we're saving the client money on something, or it might be that we're doing something more efficiently.”

While data played a role during the pandemic for law firm marketing spend, it wasn’t the only way law firms used technology to their advantage, according to Ms. Gandhi.

“I also think many law firms started investing internally in terms of technology integrations so data could talk to each other and also business development training and coaching,” she said.  

Law firms adopting technology to innovate and create flexible work environments may find themselves better positioned to attract and retain the best talent amid increased competition for staff.

How to Retain Law Firm Staff & Handle the Generational Divide Between Attorneys

Mid-sized firms like Payne & Fears, who want the best legal talent, always had to find creative ways to stand out, but had to take it up a notch when recruiting both attorneys and skilled staff during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. To cope with the increased competition for talent, law firms are trying new things to differentiate themselves to attract the best potential employees. 

“We have made some excellent hires, but it is taking longer to find talented people. We are seeing more candidates inquire about hybrid work situations, which was rarely a question prior to COVID,” said Ms. DeFelice. “Payne & Fears mainly hires lateral attorneys from much larger firms who are ready for a change in their mid-level years.” 

As newer, younger attorneys are brought in, law firms may find that there’s a generational divide between Millennials, Gen Z and Gen X and Baby Boomer attorneys.. Newer generations tend to ask more questions about why law firms have certain processes and handle things in certain ways, older generations just accepted it or didn’t want to appear lazy or not ambitious when seeking work-life balance.

“That doesn’t mean knocking down the traditional firm and building a brand new one, but it could mean introducing new tools or processes to help increase efficiencies, negotiating better rates on various subscriptions or sponsorships, or uncovering new ways of interacting with clients and prospects beyond the rubber chicken lunch or holiday chocolate gifts,” Ms. DeFelice said. “Generational differences are another factor to consider in your firm’s diversity and inclusion efforts. Just as clients want to see different races and genders, attorneys from diverse age groups often have different perspectives, which may resonate with decision makers and helps with succession planning.”

Amid the increased competition for talent, law firms are also working to retain staff. Ms. Cuzzone said firms can innovate processes through using staff they already have.

“I think that we're seeing from a people standpoint [are] project managers embedded into client relationships where they're managing a lot of deal flow or a lot of litigation and trying to properly project manage it. And by project management, I mean, it's driving the time out of the process. These people are finding ways to have less turns in a deal document or less time in between the back and forth or that sort of thing,” she said. 

Whether law firms innovate through existing staff, or offer flexible working arrangements, it's important for firms to give attorneys the opportunity to advance their careers. 

“[Payne & Fears] offers many attractive values that range from fewer billable hours (translating to more family time) to lean staffing on cases (which offers associates more experiences to grow professionally). Attorneys at all levels have speaking and writing opportunities, associates receive attribution on articles, and internal acknowledgment and accolades for their marketing efforts, and they often have lead roles in internal committees or projects,” Ms. DeFelice said. “We ask our attorneys and other employees what is important to them, as that is often a very individual response. Doing so allows us to customize career paths in ways we may not have otherwise considered.”

How Law Firms Can be Prepared for Future Challenges

After a year of adapting to the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea of “future-proofing” law firms is gaining traction. Ms. Cuzzone said one of the major takeaways of the Marketing Partner Forum is that law firms are building upon the changes they made to processes during the pandemic to be better prepared for future challenges. 

“Law firms have already begun thinking about how they're going to continue along the line of [training] attorneys differently than [they] had before, and [they’re] going to communicate with clients in ways that [they] hadn’t before,” she said. “I don't see many law firms backtracking. In fact, one of the things that I think became very apparent in all of the sessions [is] thinking creatively about how to innovate on every level. I think that that is what we're going to see.”

For Ms. Gandhi, one of the highlights of the event was the keynote speaker, Duncan Wardle, the former Head of Innovation and Creativity at Disney. Specifically, Mr. Wardle spoke about how law firms can overcome the challenges they face adopting new technologies and innovations

“For example, instead of saying ‘no’ to an idea, consider saying ‘yes, and…’ to help build on the idea to make it better. When the idea turns from ‘my idea” to “our idea,’ it will have a better chance of getting done,” Ms. Gandhi said. “Other practical ideas included: going for a walk with someone instead of a meeting in a conference room; host a brown bag breakfast and ask your team to talk about what they’ve seen recently that was an innovation; and avoid emails and meetings for a set time each day or week, so there is time to think.”

Lastly, Ms. Cuzzone said one of the things that stuck with her was that legal marketers often play a role in the problems facing the legal industry. 

“The way that we're having discussions, framing our questions and the way that we're looking at our business model are not innovative and creative. It's a little bit more of the same. And [the forum] gave us some tools to be able to look at things differently and, again, the way we frame conversations,” Ms. Cuzzone said. “And so, really, I walked away saying, when I'm sitting in planning meetings thinking about the future, the way we frame questions to each other hinges on whether we're going to really come up with some new thoughts and ideas versus more of the same. That was a huge takeaway for me.”

For more discussions on the changes and challenges facing the legal industry, look in to the upcoming Thomson Reuters Marketing Partner Forum The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island in Fernandina Beach, FL January 2022. 

Rachel Popa contributed to this article.

Copyright ©2023 National Law Forum, LLCNational Law Review, Volume XI, Number 256

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