Commercial and Client Resilience
In this article we have posed and responded to 10 core questions that many law firms are asking themselves as they grapple with a uniquely challenging crisis; we want this article to serve as a quick self-assessment checklist. Our 10 questions fall under three themes: client relationships, business development in a digital and virtual world, and commercial strategies.
Resilience and Client Relationships
1. How are you supporting your clients?
This will be one of multiple places where you read someone preach the message that, in times like these, you have to put clients first. But what does that mean in a practical sense? In our view, the critical challenge is that clients need to see how you are supporting them through what will be as tough a period – probably tougher – for many of them as it will be for you. The future loyalty of your clients as the economy recovers will be dependent on how you behaved during the crisis. That involves investigating and understanding the biggest issues and concerns your client has, and tailoring your communications, offers of assistance, updates and terms and conditions to those issues and concerns. They should be specific for your largest, most important clients and as tailored as you can make them to groups of clients in sectors, regions, etc. Your support might include some leeway on pricing, billing or collections, although that should obviously be carefully considered in the light of your own financial position.
2. Are you getting through to your clients?
The latest COVID-19 crisis has yielded a barrage of the kind of broadcasting updates and generic statements from a range of companies that we have become used to around any economic or legislative event (including, early on, a stream of bland reassurances that it was “business as usual at Firm X”) – except on an even bigger scale. This blizzard of “noise” on social media and coming into Inboxes is impossible to navigate or consume. Your clients want, based on your insight gained from (1) above, personalised, tailored and value-adding communications. Calls are great and many clients are much easier to get hold of right now. E-mails or messages should stand out, and personalisation (i.e., coming from a name they know, not a corporate or marketing mailbox) is key to getting that done.
3. Which services and practices are you promoting?
For almost all firms, there needs to be a rapid re-prioritising of which practice areas and services should be marketed and highlighted to clients. Within the space of a month, the markets have flipped; in many cases, that has meant a sudden drop in corporate and real estate transactions, a boom in interest in labour and restructuring law, a refocus onto different clauses in commercial contracts, and a spike in wills and estates work. The exact pattern differs between jurisdictions and firms. At the same time, corporate legal departments will be trying to keep their own teams busy, and restricting further the flow of certain types of work out to external counsel. The overall rule holds true, though: firms need to pivot to ensure clients are presented with the firm’s credentials in areas they may not have used in the past. Client-relationship partners will often need to communicate the services of practice areas they don’t work in and know less about. Cross-firm collaboration at this point is critical.
Resilient Business Development in a Digital and Virtual World
4. Have you rewritten your marketing and business development plan?
If not, you need to to so, and quickly. Much of the activity you had planned – events, networking, secondments, training programmes – has been blown out of the water by lockdown. It will probably take a long time for this kind of “business as usual”, in-person marketing to regain its full effectiveness, assuming it ever does. For many firms, you will be looking to cut costs for a period and marketing will be in your sights. However, cut too far and you risk competitors getting close to your clients and your firm becoming invisible at a critical time. We recommend that you review and rewrite the plan you had, probably reducing overall spending but re-prioritising ruthlessly. Ensure those practices that are most buoyant in this economy get profile and are highly visible online and in your communications. Rank higher the investments of time and money that can provide a faster payback period and short-term return on investment. In particular, ensure that your digital impact is really effective – at a time when the only way for prospects and clients to stay informed is digital, you have to be at the top of your game.
5. What are your partners and lawyers doing with their time?
In a crisis situation many senior lawyers will be very busy; their particular practice area may be booming, they may be covering for furloughed colleagues, they may be asked to step up as part of your emergency team. In the COVID-19 lockdown, most lawyers, however, are working from home and have reduced levels of new work, no travel time eating into their day and no in-person networking duties. We talked about personalised, regular contact with clients above, and that is where a chunk of this available time should be redeployed: video calls, “virtual coffees” (or drinks, later in the day – we have seen some nice Zoom “home bar” backgrounds!), quick check-in messages on social media. In addition, this is the time to fully engage your senior lawyers, some of whom haven’t really embraced or become comfortable online before now, in posting and sharing their insights on social platforms and in articles. Quality and tone are important; do ensure you have enough marketing resources to edit, coordinate and help promote these efforts.
6. Is your digital delivery of client services good enough?
For most firms in the current crisis digital delivery of legal services to clients will, by now, be in place and working. A few months back many law firms would not have responded “Yes” if asked whether their interaction with clients was almost entirely digital but, right now (including via Zoom, Teams, WhatsApp et al), almost all would. However, clients will not be tolerant for lots of glitchy, taped-together digital processes; in their dealings with other professionals and service providers they will be exposed to some very slick models indeed. Soon, they will expect you to be just as good. And this is one thing extremely unlikely to revert when we return from lockdown – streamlined, painless, reliable and ideally paperless legal services will be a badge of a quality law firm. So, we suggest you continue to evolve and develop your digital services over the coming months. Do not assume you should scrape through to the time when you can get back to everyone in an office with piles of paper and clients happy to travel distances to come and visit.
7. How does a new client find you?
This is critical for private client work, but still a big factor for B2B services; in a world which is now even more reliant on internet searches, social media and online directories and recommendations, you need to be very certain how visible your firm is in these media. Does your online presence and Google ranking do justice to the quality and expertise of each of your practices – most especially those which you need to drive the firm’s performance over the next year? If not, this needs fixing; many firms will acknowledge that they haven’t paid as much attention to their search engine optimization (SEO), pay per click (PPC) and social media performance as they could have until now.
Commercial Strategies for Resilience
8. Do you have the commercial data you need to make quick decisions in a crisis?
This is a major area of research and development for us at Edge International, and we believe there is a case for most firms reviewing and overhauling their production of management information (MI) without the catalyst of a crisis. But a crisis certainly exacerbates this issue, especially one where we have such high levels of uncertainty, a very sudden stalling in key markets and the breakdown of in-person collaboration and supervision. Providing real-time information feeds to partners, team and department leaders and leadership are incredibly important, but also structured and packaged MI on a weekly, rather than the conventional monthly, frequency could be critical. We emphasised the need to track cash metrics obsessively in our first paper, but equally important is the tracking of pipeline and new activity: weekly trend reports that show how proposals/quotations, new matters and time recorded are progressing are critical to providing the firm with the lead indicators it needs to plan its next steps.
9. Do you need to provide free or discounted advice?
This is too big a question to answer in one paragraph of a short article, but it is one that would definitely make the “Top 10 Most Frequently Asked Questions” from law firm partners right now. Many existing clients and potential new clients have short, urgent questions in the current crisis; typically, these are about providing latest updates on government crisis support or on one legal issue, and sometimes they involve a bit of interpretation. Clients are often cash-strapped, laying off staff and cutting costs. So there is understandable pressure on lawyers to provide a quick piece of free-of-charge advice. This is easiest to justify in the case of loyal, ongoing clients who are continuing to provide instructions – it is a statement of support from the firm in return. For new clients, it could help lure in more substantive new work, but we encourage firms to find ways to link the provision of this initial advice beyond simple information updates to some commitment by the client. This could be in the form of a new advisory retainer service that will run through for a fixed period, with some initial free or discounted hours.
10. Should you ask for money upfront for new work?
Some readers will respond by saying “we already do” and where you have managed to embed this practice universally, well done! For most firms, such requests are harder to achieve but we do believe it is a sensible practice to apply wherever you can in a crisis and recessionary period, where many clients face an uncertain immediate future and firms themselves need to manage their cash positions with great care. For existing clients, do ask them to pay outstanding invoices before you begin a new piece of work. And where you feel it is necessary to offer debtors deferrals or instalments of their outstanding invoices, do ensure you link this action specifically to your support for clients during this difficult period.