By Jessica Haarsgaard and Ioana Good
The writing is on the wall. Change is among us in the legal industry. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for change is at the forefront of our agendas as law firms, lawyers, legal marketers and consultants in the legal space focus on near-term pressures while laying the groundwork for long-term success. From deepening trust with clients, to prioritizing practice groups such as labor and employment, bankruptcy, tax and litigation, to strengthening business models, communication plans and nurturing employees, law firms must change to sustain value. In this article, we highlight some of the recent efforts made by law firms and LMA to drive change.
LMA’s newly formed Professional Advocacy Working Group comes at a good time. The group’s mission is to focus on advancing the legal marketing profession and raising the profile of lawyers, legal marketers and consultants working in the legal space as they drive new efforts to generate revenue.
“As part of LMA’s efforts, the group has identified six areas of focus: drive, develop, innovate, lead, serve and analyze,” says Jill Huse, LMA president and co-founder of Society54. “Today’s modern legal marketer has the ability to understand the intersection of business and law — they are the change agents that are positioning their firms for the future. These areas of focus will help us to spotlight the professionals needed to help law firms forge ahead and succeed.”
Legal marketers are now driving firm responses to the pandemic by creating coronavirus resource centers, developing rich content that answers key questions clients are asking, implementing communication and businesses continuity plans, and other material that help to differentiate and brand firms.
At Baker Donelson, the firm’s global legal team focused on new business initiatives early on as the firm started tracking the COVID-19 pandemic prior to it even entering in the U.S. Adam C. Severson, the firm’s chief marketing and business development officer, says, “We were one of the first firms to establish a coronavirus resource center on our website with a state-by-state guidance. By bringing together the various state specific guidance into one resource map, clients were able to quickly access a one-stop-shop resource.”
Like many firms, Severson notes that “we quickly analyzed new legislation, such as the CARES Act, and worked to synthesize that information into actionable steps clients could take. We partnered with our clients and attorneys to craft a series of discussion guides and address immediate concerns, medium-term concerns and long-term implications. This helped our clients navigate the current crisis while not losing sight of future implications of their actions. While some may say we have already shifted to the ‘next normal,’ many clients, especially those in health care, are still navigating this virus in a very real way. This is coupled with clients in other industries and our own employees who are dealing with various nuances as the new school year is upon us.”
At Burr & Forman, for instance, their office of client value quickly organized conversations between firm executives and a significant number clients early on, especially those in industries greatly impacted by the crisis, to express empathy and gain an understanding of their immediate needs. By combining these insights with internal “what if” brainstorming sessions by practice and industry leaders, they were able to prioritize rapid response teams focused on developing multi-disciplined services and insights aligned with their clients’ critical needs. This approach enabled all attorneys at the firm to quickly provide relevant “One Firm” value to their clients, have purposeful conversations and build lasting goodwill. Additionally, it accelerated marketing’s ability to distribute relevant content and achieve broad engagement.
“This crisis serves as a reminder that companies are merely an aggregation of people. Companies don’t buy legal services. People do. And those people have needs, aspirations and anxieties like all of us. They want their attorney to understand their business while also caring for them as a person and helping them to solve problems, achieve goals and, ultimately, make their lives easier,” says Clinton Gary, chief strategy and business development officer at Burr & Forman. “That’s why we at Burr make a point to understand our clients’ changing needs and take the time to engage in meaningful conversations. Considering human perspectives and business needs help form the foundation for enhancing relevance, value and service.”
At Jackson Walker, the firm has focused on helping clients look down the road to determine what lies ahead as each new phase of the COVID-19 response unfurls. “We have seen through this crisis that it isn’t enough simply to react to client needs,” says Barbara Malin, the firm’s chief business development and marketing officer. “Lawyers who stand out are able to identify business risks and opportunities before they arise, and connect the dots between those indicators and the legal needs a client can expect to experience.”
Jackson Walker organized a cross-practice COVID-19 task force as well to share information about overarching client needs that might otherwise be lost in individual practice group silos. That task force regularly scans the horizon and makes informed judgments about future developments — all with an eye toward providing clients with actionable analysis and the legal resources they need. The firm’s business development and marketing team has also made good use of the ubiquitous COVID-19 resource section of the firm’s website. “Our digital content provides hundreds of thousands of data points per month that we evaluate to help our lawyers understand current client concerns and predict what is coming next. We had our COVID-19 resource center up and running in the first days of March, before our state’s stay-at home order,” explains Malin. “We had a webinar about the massive Families First Coronavirus Response Act within two days of the date the bill became law. We have used the insights we’ve gained from our client’s response to our digital content to help lawyers identify topics for client outreach and identify clients facing particular issues.”
Data has also been a driver that has helped Jackson Walker assist clients in prioritizing critical legal spending. Using business insights gained through the firm’s matter intake and accounting systems, Jackson Walker has been able to identify clear trends that help lawyers understand which clients might benefit from discussions about alternative approaches to budget, for instance. “At the end of the day, we are successful when our clients are successful,” says Malin.
At Lowndes, the pandemic has put communication front and center. “Like many firms, Lowndes first launched an online COVID-19 Resources Center and accelerated its communication with clients in the form of webinars, written content, industry and client-specific roundtables, and frequent messages from firm leadership,” says Susanne Mandel, the firm’s chief business development and marketing officer.
“Interestingly,” Mandel continued, “since the firm has a long history of enthusiastically supporting and leading charitable, civic, educational, industry, professional and trade organizations, clients looked to us as role models. From switching gears to working remotely, to how we instituted the safety protocols for mitigating the risk of infection based on CDC guidance and local health authorities, to how we planned and executed our return to in-office operations, we shared our processes and plans with our clients; of course, we proffer legal advice as appropriate. But most importantly, our key focus is, and has always been, to help our clients and community navigate forward. This has always been the mainstay of our business development strategy. The change may be in how we deliver services to clients, the new technologies we embrace and how nimble we are in affecting change.”
“And remember,” Mandel reminds us, “business development is all about relationships. Relationships that are built on trust, empathy and a deep commitment to help clients succeed.”
While none of us may have predicted a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, it is manageable if leaders are prepared and able to respond, adapt and drive change while focusing on three key issues: act quickly, put people first and be transparent in all you do. Challenges like these can often turn into opportunities that improve a firm’s situation for years to come. Consider what has worked in the past, what no longer makes sense and what other offerings you can bring to the table. Continue to focus your firm’s efforts on the clients and their needs and allow challenges to provide innovative adaptations to your strategic initiatives.
Jessica Haarsgaard serves as a business development manager at Burr & Forman and the immediate past president of the LMA Southeast Region. She serves on the LMA Professional Advocacy Group, as well.
Ioana Good is the co-chair of LMA’s Professional Advocacy Working Group and served on LMA’s Communications Mapping Group.