Lawyering without a strategy is risky business
A new report shows that law firms are feeling confident about future revenue growth but are not investing in firm-wide marketing and business development plans.
Australasian Legal Practice Management Association (ALPMA) president Andrew Barnes (pictured) told Lawyers Weekly law firms should not overlook the importance of a strong business strategy.
“I think the days where people walk to your door, if they’re not gone it won’t be long before they are gone. There is just too much competition there.
“You do need to be strategic in this space, otherwise [the clients] are going to walk past your door and go to the next one or walk past your website and go to the next one.”
In partnership with Julian Midwinter & Associates, ALPMA has produced the Taking the Pulse Report for Benchmarking Business Development and Marketing in Australasian Law Firms. The report was released on 30 October.
Nearly half of all firms (48.3%) do not have an overarching firm-wide marketing and business development (BD) plan in place, according to the report, which was based on a survey of 151 people representing 149 individual firms.
The firms surveyed were grouped by size: small firms (40.4%) had fee revenue up to $3 million, mid-size firms (32.4%) had revenue between $3 million and $10 million and large firms (22.5%) had revenue of more than $10 million.
Around two thirds of survey participants were senior executives and around one third were partners or lawyers.
A brighter outlook
A majority of respondents (64.9%) expect a rise in revenue, with large law firms anticipating the highest growth rates. Mid-size firms were the most optimistic, with 71 per cent predicting revenue would increase in the current financial period.
Barnes said the optimism of the mid-size firms was not surprising: “They are generally nimble enough to be able to adapt and take advantage of the opportunities that are presented in the market,” he said.
He added that the high expected revenue increases at large law firms could be due to previous investments in marketing strategies that are now starting to bear fruit.
Guesswork or game plan?
Fostering marketing and BD skills is a high priority for almost all survey respondents, but most indicated their firms did not set individual targets or train lawyers in these areas.
Survey respondents quoted in the report indicated that lawyers did not fully appreciate the value of marketing strategy. “Nobody in my firm (other than me, the marketing manager) considers this to be important”, said one respondent. “Getting legal staff to understand they are now salespeople [is a challenge]”, said another.
Barnes said this apparent disinterest was due to a hesitation on the part of lawyers to pour money into an area that had limited short-term returns and uncertain long-term benefits.
“There is an acceptance that [marketing and BD are] important,” he said, “[but] there is an element of the unknown. [Many firms] have survived on reputation and referrals and their careers have been based on moving through firms from bottom to top with very similar client bases and networks.”
There was almost 100 per cent agreement in the survey that organically growing a network of clients through word-of-mouth referrals was more effective than more costly investments in advertising and sponsorships.
Barnes agreed that simply throwing money at the problem will not necessarily produce results. “Advertising doesn’t equal quick success,” he said.
He recommended firms look to grow their client base by devising smarter long-term strategies that are tailor-made for their business.
Finding the patience to see the plan through to fruition is often difficult in a dynamic marketplace where the temptation is to “make something up on the run to suit or to satisfy a particular instance or client”, Barnes said.
“Sometimes in that 18-month, two-year timeline, firms get impatient and change tack… [Often] the strategy is to move as they read the tea leaves in the market rather than stick to the plan.”
Finding the time
Barnes acknowledged that the narrow focus on billable work as a performance measure discourages significant BD and marketing efforts by lawyers.
“Recognition for a job well done [shouldn’t] start and end with what you bill,” he said.
However, a majority of survey respondents (64.2%) said their firm’s lawyers spend on average up to five hours per week on marketing and BD. Barnes said that if lawyers harnessed this time and used it to create more sophisticated strategies, they would be on their way to building a solid foundation for the future.