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Law firm business development in the 2020s: where some still get it wrong and how to fix it

With another decade of the new millennium, well underway many law firms seem stuck in unhelpful patterns when it comes to business development (BD) in 2021.

I know several firms that are ‘getting by’ – not outright failing, but certainly failing to grow, advance and prosper.

Whatever the business you’re in, a simple model for success is:

  1. find the right work
  2. do the work to a high standard
  3. get paid for the work.

Most law firms are well set up for steps 2 and 3, but fall down on step 1 – creating enough effective business development opportunities to generate the right kind of work.

Why is it so?

Causes of a lacklustre law firm BD pipeline can include:

  • lack of insight into what your firm’s clients (and prospects) actually want and value
  • no idea where your firm’s traditional and potential markets have moved on to
  • lack of differentiation and a clear position to attract new clients (one of the symptoms is a Jack / Jill of all trades, master of none approach – you’re unable to resist doing everything for anyone, and end up doing lots of work poorly, rather than a few things well)
  • failing to recognise or respond well to direct and indirect competition for business in a disrupted and digital world
  • lack of leadership and/or accountability for business development
  • myopic goals – failing to plan for tomorrow because today everything’s going okay.

Does your practice exhibit any of these classic symptoms of BD failure?

Do you want to address or arrest it?

Pinpoint your practice’s problems

There are several tests, or markers, you can use to pinpoint the problems in your practice. Many firms just refer to the bottom line, but that test tends to trigger knee-jerk behaviour, and a blinkered focus on simply making more money, without actually applying any strategy.

Look more broadly at how your practice is operating, and apply additional diagnostics to pinpoint what the real issues are – does your firm (and your lawyers):

  • struggle to be known as leaders in your chosen practice areas?
  • have a client relationship management or marketing program that seems like a lot of work for not much return?
  • have trouble mobilising people and resources to seize on business opportunities?
  • spend a lot of time networking, but with little to show for it?
  • regularly court prospective business that never leads to engagement?
  • advertise and sponsor out of habit?
  • avoid seeking formal client satisfaction feedback?
  • seem to work hard, only to only break even (or make meagre profits), year after year?
  • have trouble identifying the markets and clients you serve?
  • regularly accept work that is outside your areas of speciality and/or is barely profitable?

Top 3 ways to fill your firm’s BD pipeline

Whatever the causes if, like most law firms, you have issues on myriad fronts and a lack of resources (be it time, money, people), I recommend you focus your efforts on these three areas for sustainable and positive results:

1. Reset your mindset and your positioning

Accept that, in the 21st century, the profession of law is a business, and it’s more competitive than ever.

I have a client who says (and acts accordingly) “I’m a businessman first, a lawyer second”. As much as this sole practitioner loves quietly working through a conveyancing matter, he knows he needs to stay focussed on obtaining ‘new business’ in order to thrive.

The barriers to entry of starting a legal practice are now relatively low – all you really need is your qualification, an ABN, and a website.

Law firm leaders and private practice lawyers today need to realise that they are business people first, lawyers second. If that mindset is unpalatable to you I would suggest the private practice is probably not the best place to make a career in the law.

Supporting this new mindset are the following points:

  • BD isn’t a one-time thing: there needs to be greater recognition that BD isn’t an event, it’s a process.
  • You can’t do everything for everyone: identify the type of work and the type of clients you want that will not only professionally fulfil you, but also generate profits for your practice.
  • Learn how to say no: related to the point above, lawyers are too often focused on making this month’s budget to take the brave (and smart) step of saying ‘No, this isn’t the right matter/client for us’.

The fix: Differentiate your firm

If you’re struggling with an outdated mindset, it’s time to take a close look at what you’re doing, and who you’re doing it for. This may mean making some hard decisions about what you (and your firm) want to be known for, which will then drive future decisions about where to invest time, money and resources.

Benefits of a well-defined market position, where you have absolute certainty around what you do and who you do it for, include:

  • streams of better, more interesting work you enjoy doing
  • new clients who seek you out, and appreciate what you can do for them
  • matters that are easier to manage through improved efficiency (and profitability), as you develop critical mass around systems to streamline workflow
  • attracting other high-calibre partners and up-and-comers to your team
  • greater profitability and prosperity.

Once better positioned you can confidently reject the random advertising ‘opportunity’ from the local paper because you know it doesn’t align with your position. Instead, you might choose to spend that same money on a year’s membership to an association that’s relevant to you, your clients and your referrers, and sends the right messages to your target market.

You and your team will also have more time and the headspace needed to become experts (write, speak and network – online and offline); manage existing client relationships; expand your network at appropriate forums; get to know potential clients and referrers; create better-targeted promotions, and so on.

Depending on how many services and sectors you claim to serve, a re-positioning won’t happen overnight, and it definitely won’t happen until you can shift your mindset to compete effectively in the new legal market.

In fact, I often say the first rule of good BD is knowing when to say ‘no’.

2. Remember your clients

The client ‘voice’ is more often than not missing from law firm business development strategies and plans.

When I raise the idea of surveying clients, a common response I hear is, ‘But, what if they say something …bad?

All feedback is good feedback – even if it’s negative – because it provides you with opportunities to fix issues before they blow up (or worse you lose a client), and continuously improve the services you offer, and how you deliver them.

Feedback from clients is essential to:

  • improve service delivery
  • retain existing clients (and keep them feeling listened to and satisfied)
  • flag potential (or actual) risks
  • uncover new BD opportunities (e.g. new service bundles or emerging areas of law)
  • incentivise lawyers (e.g. by making client feedback a part of performance reviews).

The fix: Ask for and respond to client feedback

I encourage law firms to send simple client satisfaction surveys at the end of all matters (before sending the invoice is a good time), and at the mid-way point of large matters. Supplement this feedback with annual relationship reviews, in-person, with significant clients.

You will find that a proactive approach to client feedback makes a worthwhile BD difference, by:

  • increasing client satisfaction (clients like to be asked for their opinion, and are likely to think better of you for having asked)
  • identifying service shortcomings or performance issues and giving you the opportunity to fix them
  • giving you valuable statistics and proof of your performance that you can use to attract new clients (e.g. ‘95% of our client’s rate our service as exceptional’)
  • generating testimonials to use in your marketing materials
  • positively differentiating your law firm from the majority, who don’t bother to consistently survey.

Client surveys also offer valuable opportunities to remind clients of other, relevant services your firm can provide, and can also help you identify how you compare to competitors for value and service.

There are plenty of low-cost online survey tools and templates – there is no excuse not to do this.

3. Focus on digital

Once you’ve figured out your market position (see point 1), and what clients truly value (point 2), you’re ready to develop strong and targeted marketing messages. There’s no need to invest in an expensive re-branding, or shiny new brochures; if you have a limited dollar to spend on BD, spend it on digital.

Too many law firms are let down by outdated and/or poorly designed and/or badly written websites with wishy-washy or mixed messages.

Does your firm’s website suffer from any of these?

  • Your home page is filled with generic messages about how you are a leading firm providing high-quality, commercially sound advice, with a client-centric approach focussed on positive outcomes.
  • Your ‘latest news’ page was last updated in 2018.
  • Your firm blog languished after three posts, last dated more than a year ago.
  • You have photography or profiles for people who left the firm months ago.
  • You don’t have lawyer profiles for people who have been with you for months.
  • Your list of services doesn’t reflect the focus of the firm anymore.

And if your firm has social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn), at best, they may not be consistent with what you’re showcasing on your website, and at worst, are suffering similar maladies to those outlined above.

The fix: Audit your online presence

Take stock of your existing online presence:

  • Is the information you’re providing relevant and useful to your audience?
  • Does it answer their questions?
  • Is it up-to-date, clearly written, and logically structured?
  • Are your services well described and expressed?
  • Is it easy for visitors to see who you are, what you do, and who you do it for?
  • Is it easy for prospective clients to make contact with you?

Think about what you want to be found for and known for.

Update and refresh your website content with relevant messages that appeal to your clients, and focus on what you will do for them:

  • business or personal problems you will solve
  • results you have achieved
  • business or personal opportunities you will realise
  • risks you will reduce
  • unique expertise you offer
  • return on investment in your services you will deliver
  • positive differences clients will notice when working with you
  • the lasting value you will create.

The benefits from implementing the recommended fixes in the three areas above should lead to some quick wins, and, over time, help stimulate a healthier pipeline of high-quality BD opportunities for your law firm.

About the Author:

Amy Burton-Bradley, Consulting Director, Julian Midwinter & Associates 

Amy Burton-Bradley is an experienced bidder, business developer, marketer, and copy-writer who has worked with more law firms than she cares to remember! She is a Partner and Consulting Director at Julian Midwinter & Associates, a business development consultancy whose team has helped law firms attract, win, grow, and retain new clients and business since 1993.



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