It is time for the third annual Up/Down Drill, based on my favorite morning-after column in the Philadelphia Inquirer after an Eagles game, where we touch upon the hot, cold and trending in the world of law marketing and business development. In this Leadership issue of Law Practice, there is perhaps no place where the topics—leadership and marketing—are more inextricably intertwined. Show me forward-thinking law firm leaders, and I will likely see a well-staffed and funded marketing department. On the flip side, show me an underfunded and underutilized marketing effort, and chances are the firm will need some of the other features in this magazine to provide some direction and much-needed help. They do go hand in hand.
The most difficult part of relationship building in the last two years has been that you could work on “retention” and long-term building, but there was little to no opportunity to grow and expand your network in a virtual universe. For all the advertising, podcasts, search engine optimization and publishing you may or may not have done, there simply is no replacement for the two biggest factors in successfully building your practice—do good work and continue building your network, which both equate to the firm’s pipeline. You may have “met” someone new in a Zoom wine tasting or CLE webinar, but without the ability to grab lunch, a meeting or golf, you were going to be hamstrung.
While relationships may not hold the same weight for various consumer-facing practices where traditional advertising methods are at the core of lead generation, for most lawyers who rely on referrals, word of mouth, and friendships developed in every aspect of your daily personal and professional lives (in which I hope you have a nice balance and recognize how much they overlap), the ability to connect is essential. I have always preached playing the long game, letting what will eventually be fruitful relationships grow organically. If you have built a solid network over years or decades, it withstood COVID—maybe even made it stronger. It was a challenge to add to the network this last year, but for many people absence did make the heart grow fonder—and this is the ideal time to really focus on what your network is going to look like moving forward.
Nothing has slowed the decades-long freight train that is lawyer ratings and rankings than the endless controversies that go with them. Are they legit? What is the methodology? Is it pay to play? There are some trends, however, that I have noticed in the last few years. I am not going to name names as to the accolades that I try to ignore—except to say that Chambers USA and Best Law Firms, from U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers, are the two I probably pay attention to the most.
I am still unpleasantly surprised how many credible law firms fail to properly follow guidelines by the ratings entities and Rules of Professional Conduct in promoting various lists. Until recently, I had noticed a downtick in state bar interests and enforcement. I chalk a lot of this up to a change in the way audiences look at them. On the consumer side, I think we now assume that the typical prospective client knows better than to put a lot of credence into what must look like a dime-a-dozen award badges they see for every product or service under the sun. On the corporate side, I cannot remember the last in-house counsel who told me they put an ounce of trust into these lists. Time itself has negated the need to enforce who is on a list and how it is promoted.
Of course, this did not stop my home state of New Jersey from once again clamping down on how ratings and rankings are used and promoted by lawyers licensed here. The reality is that no educated buyer of legal services is going to care about these awards. They care about responsiveness, cost, efficiencies—and winning.
The use of webinars and related technology was already increasing rapidly, even before the pandemic. The realization that you could stay at your desk for a CLE rather than spend a day going to or from a provider’s venue was quite attractive. Although it takes away most of the networking function that comes with such programs, you could not beat the trade-off of convenience. Fast-forward to 2020 and it became the only game in town for live visual presentations.
Many law firms have invested in equipment to produce quality webinar programming. In addition to your “live” audience, the on-de- mand numbers often end up larger and create valuable firm content for your online library. You watch the content on phones, iPads and desk- tops. For the greatest chance of success, schedule your webinars midweek and during the middle of the day. Make sure to encourage engagement through polls and quizzes. Create a registration page that provides good contact lead data. Studies show that nearly half of webinar attendees sign up a week prior to the event. In other words, if the program is compelling enough, it will earn a block on the Outlook calendar.
Taking A Stand
The days of many law firms staying in the background when it comes to addressing social issues seem to be over. There was always the concern of aggravating a client or clients by getting involved in many of these conversations. For me, personally, it still boggles the mind that difficult issues tend to have an underlying partisan political tone. But what firms (and most corporate entities) are finding is that silence is not acceptable—so speak up and take a stand.
Marketing communications teams and public relations professionals have worked closely with law firm leadership to make sure that Firm X not only makes a statement, but that the words include some backup or follow-through toward righting a wrong. There have been so many that I have lost count, from the murder of George Floyd to commemoration of Juneteenth to pushing back against hate toward Asian Americans, members of the LGBTQ community, Muslims and Jews. Yes, you might lose a client along the way. But as I often like to say, “addition by subtraction,” and you will be stronger in the long run.
Getting Back Out There
The date I gave my law firms for returning to live, in-person conferences kept getting pushed back and back again. Here we are at the tail end of Q4 in 2021—and we are only now returning to business travel. Most of the conferences we are attending now are still in a hybrid format but, barring something drastic, the expectation is that 2022 will be closer to 2019. (Note: This column is written a few months before you read it.) One of the things I found interesting as associations and organizations tried planning for a return to in-person was that law firms were ready before much of corporate America. Several organizations started planning for in-person for late 2021 before realizing that an important segment of the audience (namely, in-house counsel) was still prohibited from nonessential traveling. This is forcing some who thought they were good to go in the summer or fall of this year to wait until the first quarter of next. But it is coming—and while you can Zoom and podcast to your heart’s content, nothing, and I mean nothing, beats in-person interaction to create business opportunities. So put travel, conferences and sponsorships back into the 2022 marketing budget—you are going to need it.