By Brad S. Karp, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, and Deborah Farone, Farone Advisors LLC. As featured in PLI’s “The Chronicle” on September 29, 2020.
Do you remember how natural it felt to invite a client to lunch, anticipating a great, far-reaching conversation, not only about legal issues, but also about careers, family life and the client’s latest vacation adventure? To some extent, each one of us craves that pre-pandemic connection and engagement. It was, and still is, a vital element in how we maintain and develop clients. Today the question is: How can lawyers remain close to their clients and develop business at a time when we are working remotely?
Go Back to Basics
The basics of client development and client care have not changed. Providing clients with the best legal advice, anticipating their needs and working in their best interests are at the core of what good lawyers do. But being a great lawyer requires something more: to make your client repeatedly and consistently look good by being incredibly responsive. Most clients who reach out to their lawyers with a time-sensitive question have likely just received a call from their own leader asking them to solve a problem. A lawyer’s job is to respond instantly, give concrete, pragmatic advice, and dothat over and over again. Even better, lawyers who regularly stay on top of their clients’ businesses, and the opportunities and threats they face, can be proactive in offering ideas and solutions before getting the call. If you do that, the client will call you on related issues, every single time.
Embrace the Technology
In some instances, lawyers are saying they are forging even better conversations with their clients than they had in the past. Because of the isolation created by the pandemic, we have an even stronger need to feel connected. Whether by phone, video or emails, there are many ways to keep in touch with clients. In fact, our face-to-face limitations may have even advantaged some of our networking, particularly the type that takes place over a long distance. Due to a mosaic of travel bans, international business trips are harder to rationalize; therefore, rather than waiting to meet with a group of foreign law firms during an annual visit, lawyers are using video to connect. While large, in-person seminars might not be taking place, law firms are leveraging new technology that allows them to hold large programs with breakout tables, where guests can create an emoticon and choose the table or discussion group they want to join. Others are hosting virtual roundtables for more intimate discussions of issues relevant to specific groups of clients. Becoming familiar with the technology and how to use it not only alleviates some of the worry about the future, but it also helps us imagine new possibilities and find additional ways to connect.
It’s a productive use of time to have check-in calls or video chats—obviously at no charge—to let clients know you care about them, and not just their business. Make a schedule or devise a personal system to help you stay in touch with clients; consider it a success when you have a conversation with a client in which business is not discussed. When there is work to be discussed, stay close to your clients by asking about their well-being before turning to legal matters. Unless your call is about a pressing business issue, spend the first few minutes asking how the client is doing. This is vital not only for interactions with your clients, but also with your fellow lawyers and staff during the workday. We are living with unprecedented anxiety and stress. Each person who you speak with is going through struggles, whether it’s due to a health crisis, family issue or work-from-home situation; make your connections personal ones.
Continue to Make Connections
While caring about existing clients comes first, this is also a time to develop new contacts. Contributing to a firm’s pro bono initiative or becoming more involved in bar or other professional organizations are great ways to give back and, at the same time, forge connections. The theory of post-traumatic growth—that good things can follow trauma—applies to lawyers.
Use Your Downtime
If there is downtime because of a decline in business, use that time wisely. Revisit your annual marketing plan or work with your marketing department, if you have one, to create a new plan. Review your calendar for the past year and follow up with new contacts you may have made. Ask a partner if you can assist on a matter. Update your firm biography and take a look at your LinkedIn profile. LinkedIn has achieved record growth in usage since the start of the pandemic; it’s worth spending time to examine your profile to see what others are seeing.
Involve Associates Early
Are your associates engaged in the firm’s business? Take an associate under your wing. Associates are continually making connections with people who will one day become referral sources or clients. The time to teach good client development habits is early in a lawyer’s career. Developing an associate training program does at least two things: it helps to teach a skill that can be used to increase revenue, and it shows associates that the firm cares enough to invest in them. The contacts associates make while they are just starting out may become the firm’s largest clients in the future.
In a time of crisis, where nothing seems as it was just seven months ago, one thing remains unchanged: it’s the right time to reach out to people in need, and to be there for others.
Brad Karp has been Chairman of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP since 2008. He is one of the country’s leading litigators and corporate advisers.
Deborah Farone is a leading expert in law firm marketing and former CMO of Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP and Debevoise & Plimpton LLP. She is author of the book Best Practices in Law Firm Business Development and Marketing.