As featured in the March 17 edition of The American Lawyer.
What can we as a profession do to grow or, at the very least hold onto, business during the time of COVID-19?
It sounds like a riddle someone in an old movie tells a group at a cocktail party: Imagine being in a world where personal contact is forbidden, and yet you need to retain your clients and possibly even grow your practice. How would you do it?
The riddle-teller rests their martini glass neatly on a coaster placed at the edge of an end table. In unison, the group chuckles. Fade to black.
The riddle is now reality and lawyers, marketers and their firms are trying to figure out how to adapt—and adapt fast. What can we as a profession do to grow or, at the very least hold onto, business during the time of COVID-19?
Dozens of law firms have already crafted memos to clients with the help of expert marketers. Many are beautifully scripted, detailing how the firms are adjusting to these challenging times. Many firms are allowing employees the ability to work remotely, and lawyers to remain accessible to their clients through an advanced technology stack that allows for a constant flow of work in, out and around the firm.
All of these memos are worthwhile and an important part of communicating internally and externally as to the resources that firms have deployed. However, a memo alone is not a solution. It is just one part of the equation. What a mass memo misses—what can’t be addressed in prose—is the individual contact that lawyers need to have with their clients. Individual calls to clients, even if they are to say, “Hello, how are you doing? I wanted to check in and see how you/your family/team/firm are holding up during these times,” are essential. The calls may develop into providing some IT support, or just providing a shoulder to lean on, but this is the time to engage.
Law firm leaders need to strategize, examining their lists of clients to ensure each regular client or each individual contact of the firm is reached. While the approach must be very individualized and up to the lawyers who have those relationships, the step of making that personal outreach shouldn’t be left to chance. This is not a case where a firm’s leadership should say, “I’ll let all of the partners take care of this when and if they see it as being appropriate.” This is a time when partners need support and guidance.
Firm leaders must take a big role not only in steering their firms to stay safe, but steering the focus deeper from client service to client care. Whether that care comes in the form of helping a client ramp up their at-home capabilities (“Let me connect you with our IT folks who can talk you through how to set up Zoom at your house”) to simply asking them how their family is doing, this is the time to do it.
Leaders must help to communicate this message to their lawyers by giving real examples of how it can be done. Lawyers tend to look for precedents, and for many this type of client care behavior is going to be unprecedented. We’ve all been through fire drills where the safety director says, “If the fire is above you, look for smoke, put the back of your hand on the door to feel for heat, and then go into the stairwell to walk down a few flights.” This is a great example of step-by-step instructions, the type of detailed direction that firm partners and associates will need to hear from their leadership.
You may be in the midst of RFPs or pitches and hopefully have well-honed procedures in place to produce these. Fortunately, for most larger firms, the days when a partner would send an all-partners memo asking, “Who in the firm has ever done X type of work?” are gone. If the firm hasn’t updated their experience databases or their procedures for preparing new business research and pitches, now is the time to catch up with modernity and ensure that this process runs seamlessly.
“We’re not ambulance chasers,” I once heard a corporate lawyer remark when their marketer suggested there might be a way to track indicators for companies considering acquisitions. I always wanted to avoid looking at bad news, whether it was a stock market drop or an industry debacle, as an opportunity to develop business; however, it is important to be agile and to think creatively about how to help existing clients with new issues, or solve problems for new clients. For example, with existing clients, are there services we can provide to them, such as new clauses in agreements?
As for new business, within the next few months, we will see new developments as well as stresses on medical innovation, health care, hospitals, supply chain and consumer products. We may also see additional shifts in securities and financial products. Some firms will develop task forces to look at these changes and identify where there may be industries with new legal needs—the large company that, due to actuarial changes, needs to alter its sick-leave policy; the health care company that enters into a joint venture; the cruise line that sells off assets. They will all need lawyers. Firms need to have a concerted effort to look at the future and how these changes will affect their clients and will impact business.
If firms are not up-to-speed on remote communications technologies, this is the time to get on board. Many clients will expect to meet with their lawyers online. Deploying these technologies does not have to be difficult. With app-based companies, technology can be downloaded remotely, and training sessions can be run online. With guidance from the firm as to how to properly run a videoconference meeting (along with a solid agenda and clear objectives) firms can use remote technology to do new business pitches as well as strategy meetings.
With various tools at their disposal and the intellect to adapt, law firms will steer themselves into the future.
Deborah B. Farone is a strategic adviser and author of “Best Practices in Law Firm Business Development and Marketing.”