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How a Pandemic is Transforming Business Development for Law Firms

The economy may be reopening but nothing may ever be the same again. COVID-19 has turned our world upside down. From the way we travel to how we work; American life is entering an unsettled new era. This applies to the legal profession, as well, including the way we go about obtaining new clients and maintaining relationships with existing clients.

The fallout from the pandemic has created a new ballgame in law firm business development, with new rules and a new playbook. Changes to the socio-economic and technological environment within which we operate have long been on the horizon – the virus simply accelerated the process.

Three years ago, I wrote an article sharing author John le Carre’s warning that, “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world,” and urging attorneys to get out from behind their desks as business development is a “contact sport!”  Today, in light of the global pandemic, it appears that behind a desk may be a safe place to be.

The manner in which legal services are marketed must shift to meet the evolving way professional services will be researched, evaluated and purchased in a remote working environment. This also applies to keeping the clients you already have, as client retention is the purest form of business development.

Out: in-person networking, power lunches, face-to-face introductions, referrals accepted on faith, and serendipitous meetings of new clients. In: extensive online research, social proof, and remote validation of expertise and competence before any direct contact occurs. The attorney who can adapt to this new reality will gain a head start in gaining new clients and keeping existing clients engaged and loyal.

Writing in Forbes magazine, Bernard Marr says, “Someone who is going to succeed in a post-coronavirus-world will need to be able to adapt to ever-evolving workplaces and have the ability to continuously update and refresh their skills.”Marr cites adaptability and flexibility, tech savviness, data literacy, critical thinking, digital skills, leadership, emotional intelligence, and a commitment to a lifetime of learning as necessary skills for achieving success going forward.

For example, for countless years a referral from a trusted source has pretty much guaranteed, at the very least, an introduction and very likely a meeting with a prospect. Today a referral is merely a trigger that starts an in-depth online investigation that involves website analysis, LinkedIn scrutiny, and “social proof” through crowd-sourced vetting. Nobody wants to waste time or subject themselves to your pitch until they are convinced you have the expertise they need and are the best match for their needs. It is only at that point in the process that you may get a phone call or, more likely, an email or text.

How can you adapt to and prosper in this new reality in business development and client retention? Here are just a few areas where you should focus your efforts.

  1. Content – Marketing research expert Lee Frederikson, who produces an annual report on behaviors embraced by successful professional firms, says that “creating content” is the top marketing priority for “high growth” firms (54.7%). This aligns with the changes in the way in which legal services are researched and purchased. All attorneys need to demonstrate their competence, expertise and experience. The best way is to adhere to the dictum of “publish or perish.” Show what you know through blogs, white papers, by-line articles, slide decks, and videos that share relevant and helpful information. Don’t  write a blog or two then sit back – content has a short shelf life and fresh ideas are recognized and appreciated.
  • Website –Clients now have more time to do their research and due diligence. Some have said they have recaptured 30% of the time which pre-COVID was spent traveling or in meetings and conferences. Notwithstanding an increasing reliance on LinkedIn, a website may be your first – and last – chance to make a good first impression. So, you had better make it count. Your website must be attractive, navigate well, be easy to use on both a laptop and mobile device, and contain relevant content (see above). Consider investing in a rebuild of a website that is more than 3-5 years old to bring it up to current standards.

You can no longer treat your firm’s website as you would a printed brochure – static and unchanging. A website is a living platform for communicating ideas and information. It should be purposefully and dynamically utilized as a central part of new business development, and for helping to keep clients engaged and interested in your firm.

  • Social Proof – Clients and prospects are spending a significant portion of their day on social media, which means you need to be there, too.  Frederikson’s study found that social media marketing was a priority for 48.8% of high growth professional service firms. That will only grow over time, as younger generations assume leadership and management roles. A Bank of America study showed millennials “interact with their smartphone more than anything or anyone else,” and that more than seven in 10 millennials say they have used their smartphone to avoid a social interaction.

What does this mean for you? You will need to become a regular denizen of platforms such as LinkedIn, which is evolving to become a “virtual networking” nexus. Repurpose content to share, comment on posts made by your contacts, join relevant groups, and use the platform to reach out to clients and prospects. Although not necessarily business-oriented, other social media channels can also be effective, including Facebook and Twitter.

  • Communications Channels – How facile are you with texting? Do you have your own digital appointment calendar app? Are you set up to make a good impression on a video chat? Mastering the means of communication is as important as having something interesting to say. The work-from-home environment brought about by the pandemic has demonstrated the importance and effectiveness of mastering multiple ways to get a message across. Prepare your content with a thought to how it will be delivered. Your marketing professionals can help you learn the ins-and-outs of writing for the web and other new media.

Become comfortable with virtual meetings and presentations via video platforms like Zoom and Go to Meeting. You won’t get the same level of visual clues when speaking to a prospect or client through a computer screen that you would receive across a conference room table, so be extra alert for facial expressions and voice inflections that may reveal the speaker’s emotional state. (Personally, I learned the hard way not to look at my watch during a Zoom meeting.  But I’ll save that story for another day.)

  • Authenticity – People value sincerity and authenticity, and most can smell a phony a mile away. You need to be able to convey your expertise in a genuine, honest manner. It is a matter of emotional intelligence, empathy and listening skills. Be prepared to listen and hear what a person needs, and to tell your own story (and that of your firm) in a way that is engaging and compelling without being aggressive or sales oriented. This may require training and practice for some attorneys.

How will you be able to make these adjustments and change your approach to clients and prospects? Lean on your firm’s business development professionals who can help craft your message and organize delivery channels. Work with a coach to help you shape your personal style and develop a more consultative approach. COVID-19 may have levelled the playing field and actually created business development opportunities for those willing to do the “pandemic pivot.”  Good luck to all.

Peter Johnson is founder and principal of Law Practice Consultants, LLC of Newton, MA.  Law Practice Consultants, LLC offers consulting, coaching and training services that help law firms respond to the challenges of today’s highly competitive legal marketplace. For more information visit ([email protected])