Change is Coming: What Clients Want and Need Today From Law Firms - Key Takeaways from the 2019 LMA Annual Conference

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I recently returned from Atlanta where I attended and spoke at the 2019 Legal Marketing Association Annual Conference, which is the annual industry gathering for legal marketing and business development professionals. 

If your experience was like mine, you gained many new insights that you’re excited to implement at your firm, you made new valuable connections, reignited existing relationships, participated in online conversations at #LMA19 and spent time in the exhibit hall talking to service providers about their products and technologies.

I always try to attend the sessions that will enable me to obtain insights into what clients need and want, as well as anything that will help me gain an advantage over competitors, and with that in mind, I want to share key takeaways and insights from my LMA19 experience. 

Competition is everywhere, especially beyond legal 

A law firm’s competitors are no longer limited to another law firm.

Alternative legal service providers (ALSPs) are changing the way business is conducted in the legal industry and Big Four accounting firms are moving into legal – that makes two formidable competitors to the traditional law firm model for certain types of work. 

This enlarged playing field will drive law firms – both large and small – to be more open to change, and find new and innovative ways to provide greater value to clients. And while ALSPs and accounting firms may turn out to be major competitors to law firms, some of their fiercest competition is coming right from their own clients. This is because they are dedicating some of their in-house resources to figure out how to address all of the major changes in our industry. 

Big change is coming… (PS – it’s kind of here already)

Let’s face it – sometimes the legal industry lags behind other industries. How many times have you heard someone say, “Well, that’s the way we’ve always done things,” and then they keep on doing them the exact same inefficient, antiquated way. Also, law firms don’t always think or operate in client-centric ways. This is exactly why big change is coming to the legal industry as a whole, and why law firms of all sizes need to embrace it in order to evolve.

No one wants to continue with the status quo forever. Instead, show your clients that you are seeking to disrupt the antiquated business model of the traditional law firm. Some firms are doing this by including project management professionals in pitches, incorporating project management into matter management and procedures, and using technology to enhance processes. Hopefully more firms will catch on.

Throughout the conference, and especially during the terrific general counsel session, which I’ll delve deeper into in a bit, as well as the plenary session on whether ABA rule 5.4 is keeping “non-lawyer” competitors out, or lawyers in” with professors William Henderson and Scott Westfahl, we learned that the legal industry is currently undergoing a significant amount of innovation and change that will result in the need for law firms to make fundamental changes to their business models to remain competitive and not lose market share. 

So, what kind of change can law firms expect? The playing field for legal services is going to be dramatically different. The big four accounting firms and ALSPs are trying to compete with law firms for certain types of work, although it will be much harder for accounting firms to break into the U.S. legal market. As we learned during Henderson and Westfahl’s session, this is because of a section of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct prohibiting lawyers from sharing equity interest with “non-lawyers,” in any business engaged in the practice of law. 

This means that accounting firms – or any other type of professional service firm – cannot run the business of a law firm. However, some accounting firms have found ways around this by packaging lawyers alongside accountants and consultants in certain specialty areas, which is attractive to clients, as are their already strong established brands, which helps them compete against ALSPs and law firms, if that time comes. 

Look beyond legal for inspiration

In general, the legal industry as a whole tends to lag behind other industries in terms of innovation and therefore, law firms should continue to look beyond legal to find ways to anticipate and exceed client needs.

I’ll talk about this later but as your clients are evolving, you need to find ways to change with them too. For example, as we learned during the in-house counsel panel, Volvo Financial Services is embracing legal tech disrupters to help with legal compliance, even developing an innovation lab and inviting several companies to help them grow their business. The underlying message here is that law firms can help their clients by providing quick executive guidance to better manage risk and make sharp decisions. 

Think client-focused efficient and innovative pricing models 

Antiquated models of pricing in the legal industry is just one of the areas in which law firms need to innovate and they need to do it fast.

In house counsel can’t spend a lot on legal fees today, and so they’re trying to find other ways to solve their legal issues and “work smarter” as they said. The law firms that will rise to the top are those that develop more efficient processes for delivering legal services to their clients. 

During the ABA rule 5.4 session, the speakers noted that the billable hour is very law-firm profit focused as it incentivizes law firm attorneys to work more hours rather than to efficiently complete client matters in a business-minded fashion, or to devise creative client-focused pricing solutions. This is in direct contrast to the agile, business-minded approach followed by most in-house legal departments today, and the approach that is trickling down to the outside counsel it uses.

In addition, during the general counsel panel, one of the speakers said that he would much rather have more senior lawyers on his matters and did not want to pay what he thought were high billing rates for a first- or second-year associate in Big Law. These insights were among the most important things I heard during the entire conference – that most firms are not taking a client-focused approach to the way in which they staff and bill their matters. The takeaway: Firms need to be more proactive in offering alternative fee arrangements, fixed-fee retainer agreements, staffing and make innovative pricing models the norm.

Also, there’s opportunity for mid-size and small firms to seize market share from their larger competitors due to their pricing flexibility and ability to be more adaptable to change. We heard several times throughout the conference that clients are not so keen to spend $800+ per hour for legal services – and quite frankly, some just can’t do it. One of the speakers on the LMA19 in-house counsel panel opened everyone’s eyes when he said the average cost of a senior member of his in-house legal team is $174 an hour. He said he simply can’t afford the lawyer who bills $800 per hour. There are many firms out there charging less than that and will work with clients to offer billing arrangements that put the client first. Be open minded so that you don’t lose the client to another firm that is willing to be more flexible than you.

Learn to do more with less

As in-house counsel are being tasked to do more with less, and as a result, that responsibility is trickling down to their outside counsel.

Clients want their outside counsel to be more efficient (while providing superior client service and value-added benefits) as budgets across the board are tighter. Learn how to delight the client while saving them money and they will be loyal to you for a very long time.

Clients hire lawyers not the firm

Guess what? For the most part, clients are hiring a specific lawyer, not the firm. So that big fancy name on the door, sure, it matters, but only a little bit.

What matters much more is the actual human being who is doing the work rather than the firm at which he or she works. This underscores the importance of cultivating and maintaining relationships. It also underscores the fact that the elite firms charging top rates can’t just rely on their brand names.

Branding is still important as a differentiator

There’s no doubt that the legal industry is a very saturated market. One North’s Kalev Peekna and Ryan Schulz reminded us that any company’s brand positioning – especially a law firm’s – must always align with the client experience – you must deliver a consistent brand experience on all fronts. Why should firms care about branding?

According to Kalev and Ryan, effective branding can drive revenue, shortens the sales process by framing your perspectives, creates client awareness, and helps to attract and retain talent (on the lateral and law student front). They also talked about how the Big Four accounting firms have already figured this out and are now moving into the legal sphere. Always keep in mind that in order to build a strong professional brand, you must have four things – positioning, purpose, persona and promise. 

Align your social media efforts to your business development strategy

Today, real social media success is so much more than receiving a like, comment or a share. It’s about aligning your content with your business development efforts.

So many marketing and communications professionals are not attuned to the business development strategy of their firms. They don’t know who are their top clients, key industries or most significant practices, and this information is crucial in order to create a successful social media strategy that can bring in leads and engage with existing clients.

In our immersive workshop, Jennifer Simpson Carr and I delved into how firms of all sizes can directly tie their social media efforts to their business development strategy and goals. Most firms aren’t doing this so, you’ll be at an advantage if you do. I’ll go into this more in an upcoming article.

We can all be movement starters

This year’s keynote speaker was Jennifer Dulski, Head of Groups and Community at Facebook, who inspired the 1500+ LMA19 attendees in the audience to create change through her talk on becoming a movement starter. In order to create a movement, Jennifer said you must:

  • Have the courage to get started. 
  • Keep telling yourself, “if I can do this, I can do anything.”
  • Create a clear and compelling vision
  • Mobilize people around your vision
  • Embrace the early adopters who believe in your movement
  • Make it easy for people to get involved
  • Persuade decision makers
  • Effectively navigate criticism
  • When you’re faced with critics/naysayers (and unfortunately the more successful you become, the more likely you are to be criticized), find and surround yourself with your allies. 
  • Your critics can be effectively managed and can give you valuable information to make you more successful. 
  • Try using the “bear hug,” meaning give the naysayers an overdose of love to try and neutralize them.
  • Overcome obstacles
  • Stepping outside of your comfort zone is one of the most important things you can do to advance your career, influence others and often get what you want.
  • You will have good days and bad days – it’s important to keep a positive perspective, stay the course and just keep going. 

Most firms are failing at client service

In the “The Next Big Thing—Service Metamorphosis Driving Performance Improvement” with Deborah McMurray of Content Pilot; Melanie Green at Faegre Baker Daniels, Terra Liddell at Finnegan and Douglas Tumminello at Lewis Roca, we learned how many law firms are failing when it comes to client service due to those new threats and competition from outside legal (ALSPs like data-driven accounting firms and niche, specialty players that can efficiently handle routine legal tasks) and how some firms are investing in ways to address this issue. 

For example, some strategies include hiring a dedicated client service partner, conducting regular client interviews, conducting client journey mapping, creating client service teams, holding monthly service groups meetings to discuss growing clients and planning for emerging trends and conflicts. 

Retaining existing clients and landing new clients should be the priority of every firm in today’s climate, period. And providing excellent client service is a no brainer. Remember that your clients have a lot of choices today on whether they want to continue to work with you – make the choice easy for them.

When it comes to diversity, be genuine 

I really enjoyed the powerful panel on diversity and inclusion from the client perspective. Some key takeaways included: Track the number of RFPs your firm receives that asks questions about D&I and use any increase to bolster the case that clients really care about this information and why your firm needs a D&I program. 

Also, this goes without saying, or at least I hope it does, but please always ensure that the optics of your firm’s reality match your firm’s collateral. What I mean by this is that any positive brand equity that you have when it comes to how diverse your firm is will be lost if the images in your materials or on your website depict all white men. Likewise, do not use stock images of diverse people who do not really work at your firm and do not make it seem that you have more diverse people at your firm than you really do – that’s disingenuous and certain state advertising rules mandate that you must only use images of individuals who work at your firm versus stock images of individuals who have no affiliation. Always walk the walk and talk the talk.  

What in-house counsel want

I thought the general counsel panel at LMA19 was among the best I have seen (and trust me, I’ve been to a lot of in-house can panels throughout the years!), and kudos to the 2019 LMA conference committee for putting it together. I’m going to write a more in-depth article on insights from this panel, but in the meantime, here are some of the high-level takeaways. 

Go the extra mile 

One of the in-house counsel panelists, Mark Smolik, general counsel and chief compliance officer at DHL Supply Chain Americas, provided an example of a firm that went above and beyond for him and how easy it is to do so, and how associates can assist in efforts such as this. The panelist is an in-house counsel at DHL. He noted how a firm was pitching him as a major suit was filed against his company in federal court. This particular firm provided a two-page analysis of the case, which included an analysis of the judge, opposing counsel, a proposed strategy and a budget – the document was drafted by a junior associate, underscoring that much of this is research work that an associate has the skill set on which to assist.

This demonstration of going the extra mile and thinking about what would set this firm apart from the others in the mix for the work is a superb example of how to win the business and show you care. Now, once you get the client, you must be careful to always show this level of care and attention and not make it seem as if this was just to land them as a client – so always be consistent. 

Think less like a lawyer and more like a business person/entrepreneur

The same in-house counsel who I mentioned in the bullet above from DHL, Mark Smolik, (I want to publish a book of all his brilliant quotes from this session) made a terrific point that I think many practicing lawyers fail to recognize. He said that many companies for which you are doing legal work are run by entrepreneurs, and so as a result, they are expecting their in-house legal team to act and think that way, and in turn, their in-house legal team is expecting their outside counsel to act and think that way too.

I wrote down in my notes an actual quote of Smolik’s which I love, “The law firm that speaks as a businessperson first and lawyer second is going to get more and more of our business.” Please always remember this point. The great lawyers in the world are also business people and can counsel and guide their clients on much more than nuanced legal issues. 

When it comes to good content…

As a follow on to the point above, when writing content for your clients and prospects, it should always be written in non-legalese terms and be valuable for lay people. Remember, in many cases your clients are not lawyers. Don’t write for lawyers at other firms. Too often firms create content that satisfies their internal audience, not what the readers want.

Visit your client in person when you can

There is no substitution for in-person on-site visits to your client said the panelists on the in-house counsel panel at LMA19. So, while phone calls and email communication throughout the year is enough, particularly as we are all busy, make sure that you have enough in-person quality time with your key clients and referral sources during the year. Also, visiting their offices is an incredibly valuable way to see the inner workings of their company and to meet individuals with whom you regularly interact daily, such as secretaries and other key administrative and business professionals.

Shift to an industry – versus a practice – focus 

So many law firms organize themselves both internally and externally by their practice areas instead of thinking about themselves in the way that would make the most sense for their clients – which is by industries.

Only a handful of law firms do this, and it would make a world of difference in helping your current and prospective clients learn more about what you do, engage more with your content and if your firm could organize itself by industry, you would be more aligned to your clients’ businesses. I understand that internally it is very difficult to shift from the 143 practice and sub-practice organizational structure, but what if you tried organizing your firm in a clearer and client-centric way at least externally on your web site and pitch materials at least as a start? It’s time we start speaking the language of our clients if we want them to work with us and better understand what we do.

Think about how to add value to your clients (also, they don’t really want to socialize with outside counsel anymore) 

I felt really validated when this same brilliant in-house counsel speaker Mark Smolik said that his outside law firms did not need to invite him to a golf tournament or a social event that he is in fact helping to pay for (he gets it!). Rather, he wants his law firms to find other ways to provide value to him, such as updates and technologies that would help make his life easier.

So, for example, a firm could offer a seminar on a topic like this (with a networking component). Here’s another idea: offer to provide a CLE program or to co-author an article with them or invite a client to speak on a panel with you. Invest in your clients in a way that will showcase your talents and will further cement the relationship.

When it comes to social interactions with outside counsel, the trend is leaning toward educational, substantive events versus social events. Your clients are busy individuals who are getting pulled in many different directions both professionally and personally, as a result some prefer to build relationships with their outside counsel through educational touchpoints that have the added benefit of enabling law firms and lawyers to demonstrate their value. This type of reputational marketing has a much stronger impact than any concert or fancy dinner.

Your clients want their outside counsel to embrace “disruption”

A buzzword that kept coming up during the GC panel was “disruption” but what it really boiled down to was that clients don’t want the same old as we discussed earlier. They want their bastion of trusted outside counsel to invest in technology that benefits them and makes their lives more efficient and easier. Remember, your goal is always to make your clients look good both inside and outside their organization. The outside counsel that can most successfully do that will be the ones that will be on the top of their go-to list. 

Some other things on the minds of in-house counsel – how can trained nonlawyers be used to create efficiencies, perhaps with contract work and legal compliance. The key here is if you really take the initiative to immerse yourself in your clients, you’ll learn their pain points and their businesses inside and out, and it will be crystal clear on what they need the most help, and then you’ll be able to partner together to devise alternative solutions to tackle them. This is what disruption means right now in the legal context.

Your clients want you to think more like a business person and less like a lawyer

Your clients are in business and legal roles and as a result, they need quick executive guidance. Also, they’re often winging it and managing a lot of risk. They need counsel to help them devise ways to do things – they want business advice where they are trying to balance risk against the law, so their outside counsel needs to act like a business adviser and an entrepreneur. They want you to help them do things and to speak their language.

Get to know the CFO because they now hold the power and understand your clients’ businesses on an operational level

Where do you think the pressure to keep costs down and budgets flat or lower is coming from on the in-house counsel side? Their finance department, which is headed up by the CFO. The CFO has never been more involved in key decisions than he/she is now. The in-house counsel panelists said that law firms need to quickly become more comfortable talking directly to chief financial officers and other key decision makers on the business side at their clients. They must also have a fundamental understanding of the operational side of their clients’ businesses in order to really comprehend their needs. Also keep in mind that often the CFO’s closest advisors are other finance and accounting professionals, such as individuals from the Big Four – just some food for thought in this highly interconnected ecosystem.

Also, going the extra mile to do this is what will separate law firms from the ALSPs, which for the most part, are not going to take the time to do this or provide the personalized client service of a law firm – that’s just not their business model. So, this is where law firms still have a real opportunity to retain and gain market share. Clients are facing new challenges and the law firms that can partner with them to anticipate and then help solve the myriad thorny issues that pop up are those firms that will be at the top of clients’ go-to list today.

How to win and retain clients – the CliffsNotes 

Law firms need to quickly realize that we are in a new era with fierce competition and sophisticated buyers of legal services. They want outside counsel who will share in navigating this new frontier and be a true partner in risk and innovation. Law firms need to ensure they are easy to do business with, adaptable to change, provide flexible and reasonable rates, invest in technology, and learn as much as they can about ALSPs and disruptors in order to be a more efficient and value-driven organization – because your clients require it today.

The only way forward is to adopt a more client-centric professional service mindset

The only constant in life is change. The traditional law firm model needs to be more flexible, open to change, get CFOs engaged in the client relationship, offer advice and counsel that solve business problems (just like the Big Four does) and adopt more innovative approaches to legal services or run the risk of being left behind.

And finally, understand your client’s business inside and out. Think like a business person at all times. Always provide strategic counsel and go the extra mile. Be an entrepreneur. Show how you will save your client money. Make your client look like a hero, period. Make them look good inside and outside their organization. These are the true keys to winning and retaining clients today. Don’t be left behind as the industry continues to innovate.

(Also, if you’re a legal marketer, don’t want to miss this conference in the future, and if you did, the LMA has a lot of terrific upcoming regional conferences in 2019, including the LMA Northeast Regional Conference, which will be held in NYC on November 14 and 15, which I am co-chairing – I hope you will join us!)

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[Stefanie Marrone helps law firms effectively tell their stories and find their unique voices. Over the last 17 years, she has worked with some of the most prominent and innovative law firms in the world, developing and executing global revenue generating business development and communications strategies, including media relations, branding, and multichannel content marketing and social media campaigns. She is very passionate about using social media for lead generation and brand building. She has a diverse range of experience in both Big Law and mid-size/small-law firms. Connect with her on LinkedIn and follow her latest writing on JD Supra as well as her blog The Social Media Butterfly.

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