Many law firm marketers now find themselves in a whole new ball game - how to gain ground during a global slow-down. Richard Szabo reports
"Lawyers are not there to provide the livelihood of marketers," Professor Richard Susskind once stated. To achieve longevity good marketers and business development managers (BDMs) need to add discernable value to their firm - even in tough times.
Over the past decade business development has grown significantly, particularly among smaller firms. Accordingly BDMs need to work with partners to ensure potential or existing clients receive an appropriate level of service. More often than not it has become indispensable for firms to invest time and resources in client relationship-building activities, given the tightening of budgets across the board. Linda Julian of consulting firm Julian Midwinter & Associates says that marketers can play a leading role in supporting overall fee levels. "Clients will not spend as much going forward, so firms need their marketing team to get into sales mode and track fee-production, output, business development and see what they can commoditise, so clients only pay for services they need," she says.
Blake Dawson director of clients and marketing Cat Wirth says that when business is tougher, firms should not take their foot off the 'business-development' accelerator. "We just ramp it up. We might be conservative on big one-off projects that cost a lot of money, but our day-to-day marketing will continue. The economic downturn should be spent on talking to clients and understanding their business," she said.
As a case in point, more Western Australian firms are now acknowledging the importance of effective marketing, due to the downturn in cross-border resources work. Jackson McDonald is one of them and marketing and business development director Joyce Lanigan says there's been "a bit of a land-grab" for good quality clients. "Firms need effective marketing to defend their position out in the market," she says. "Look at what happened in the boom period in WA...you'll see a lot of East Coast firms moved here. But now that M&A work has dropped off the large pool of lawyers has become more competitive."
Some firms have utilised technology and document creation systems to "drive" production further. Julian, for example, points to mortgage loan documents that traditionally required considerable work by lawyers. "Firms used to charge A$600-1000 per matter but now ready-made templates mean that just 10% of the work is required (A$150-A$200)," she says.
Technology can indeed be a "saver" in delivering more efficient service, but it takes significant cultural and "behavioural" change for more lawyers to use it more. "It needs to be done at a behavioural level. It's tough to do and even the big Wall Street or 'Magic Circle' firms are not doing it brilliantly," says Wirth, who is also president of the Asia-Pacific Professional Services Marketing Association (APSMA).
Direct revenue focus
Nowadays firms not only need to understand their core areas of profitability, but also identify unprofitable areas. This is where marketing professionals should be constantly adding value. Marketers with experience in true business development, tenders, proposals, pitching for business and new service packages for clients are likely to be most in demand, since they are likely to have an immediate impact on how much new business is done, or perhaps -more importantly - how much existing business is retained, says marketing recruitment specialist McLoughlin Ball principal Gina McLoughlin
However, marketers focusing more on softer areas who are only indirectly involved in winning clients may experience less work. For instance, branding exercises, which many firms have recently invested heavily into, are unlikely to get the go-ahead until stronger signs of revenue appear. "There are even cases where too much branding and merchandising can lead clients to view firms as being too commercial. They are here to buy legal services and not our merchandise," adds Lanigan.
Pro bono, environment and community are winners
While some non-revenue-generating areas are likely to receive less attention, pro bono, environment and community work is still likely to go ahead with its added benefits. "It can support and promote their employers' commitments to doing business in clean, green, and fair ways," says Julian.
When firms bid for tenders they are often asked what they do in the community, who its pro bono clients are and what environmental policies it has in place. The emphasis on its values and how it positions itself in the market place are "just as important as its fees", according to Clarke.
Fees: how low can they go?
Firms should of course approach the subject of fee competition with caution. While smaller firms often do engage in competitive pricing, national firms should review their fee structures carefully before adjusting them. Firms may instead opt for fixed-fee arrangements and loyalty or volume discounts, to give more flexibility. "Firms need to promote cost-consciousness and value for money, so there are fewer complaints. It's about using the right people for the most effective outcome, taking into consideration time, seniority and experience," says Wirth.
Buddle Findlay has found that organising training sessions on how in-house legal teams can reduce legal fees is handy to build client loyalty. Jackson McDonald has a similar view. "It's about spending wisely, rather than just spending for the sake of it. It's our responsibility to ensure that clients receive a quality service that represents value for money," says Lanigan. This is even more important in a tough market. ALB
Marketing trends in brief
Marketers with experience in true business development, tenders, proposals, pitching for business and new service packages for clients will be in highest demand
- Marketers focusing more on softer areas may experience less work
- Firms are likely to cut branding exercises since they do not have an immediate impact on revenues
- Pro bono, environment and community work will be largely unaffected
Tips to improve profitability and client satisfaction
- Understand your client's core profitability
- Invest time and resources in client relationship-building
- Utilise technology and document-creation systems to drive efficiency
- Carry out more effective debriefing and client satisfaction surveys to ensure clients' feedback is heard and acted on within a reasonable timeframe
- Work alongside clients to minimise legal costs and help them spend wisely
- Track fee-production against business development, and commoditise services
- Introduce more loyalty or volume discounts in addition to fixed fee arrangements, to allow more flexibility in pricing