This issue is filled with words of wisdom about marketing, branding, communicating value to prospective clients and maintaining the goodwill of existing clients. Micah Buchdahl’s message in his Marketing column is that if you establish your brand and provide good service and communication, the client relationship will prosper. That has been true for generations of lawyers—and is true today.
But it’s getting more and more complicated to develop and implement even the best marketing and branding program, as we hear from Tim Corcoran in his feature article. Corcoran observes that the ecosystem of attorney-client relationships has been disrupted as clients demand higher-quality work for lower prices. He describes some lawyers and law firms as “reeling, casting about for an anchor in the storm.”
Most of that reeling and casting is being driven by the changing power relationship between law firms and their corporate clients. Even the biggest law firms face unprecedented demands from their clients and competition from other firms.
Corcoran quotes one corporate general counsel talking about “consolidating the panel of counsel that we use.” Only a few years ago, corporations had long-standing relationships with law firms—not panels of counsel. Lawyers a generation ago would have laughed at the notion that they had to apply for a panel position to be eligible to get business from a corporate client. In those days, legal work was sent to lawyers and law firms who had relationships with the corporation—relationships that likely had existed for decades. The thought that a client would exclude a reputable law firm from its panel would have been downright insulting to lawyers who grew up in that environment.
Now, according to Corcoran, quality of work and pricing are only two factors being considered by corporate clients. Other factors include the length of the relationship with the firm, billing rates for partners and associates, diversity, the approach to resourcing and budgeting, and innovation.
So Buchdahl and Corcoran are both right. Establishing a brand is as essential as ever, but is only part of the process of getting business in this new ecosystem.
All this discussion got me wondering whether the reeling and casting is only taking place among lawyers who represent big businesses, or whether it is happening among lawyers who represent small businesses and consumers as well. After reading Richard Susskind’s article in the July/August issue of this magazine, I am persuaded that small firm and solo lawyers face different, but equally daunting, challenges in getting and keeping clients.
What has changed for lawyers and law firms representing small businesses and consumers is that the recession and the emergence of online legal service providers have resulted in consumer clients deciding to put off seeing a lawyer, or purchasing legal forms online. Small firm and solo lawyers need to heed Buchdahl’s advice about branding, but focus that branding on a consumer market that is increasingly turning to such online providers as LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer. In addition to developing a sophisticated marketing program, small firm and solo lawyers also need to leverage technology so that they can compete with the online providers.
In short, it seems that everyone is reeling and casting because of the changes in the ecosystem, but that things are changing at a more rapid pace for the big firms. Marketing, in the end, is an essential component, but only part of the puzzle.