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Lack of thought leadership poses a missed business opportunity for law firms

Lack of thought leadership poses a missed business opportunity for law firms

Australian law firms are lagging behind their international counterparts on thought leadership - a missed business opportunity, warns Craig Badings.

Australian law firms are lagging behind their international counterparts on thought leadership - a missed business opportunity, warns Craig Badings.

Leading from the top: Experts suggest Australian firms are lagging behind their international counterparts when it comes to thought leadership
In the professional services sector, thought leadership is about building eminence - eminence as a partner, eminence as a practice area and eminence for your brand.

For more than ten years professional services firms outside the legal sector, notably the management consultancies, have been using thought leadership to build their eminence. They have become very good at it and are singularly focused on using it to support their business objectives. Specifically, though, these firms have shown that thought leadership is successful when it is about opening doors and enabling client-facing employees to engage with prospects and clients in ways that showcase a deeper understanding than normal of client/sector issues and challenges.

In the process, thought leadership can also provide a clear differentiator for the firm or areas within a firm, positioning the team as the "go to" experts in their field.

So how are Australian law firms doing in this space?

On one level, there are some great pockets of thought leadership. However, there is a lot of content sameness emerging from private practice. In some instances there is very little if any thought leadership and not much content provided for client and curious legal onlookers.

The verdict from Australian law firms

Recently, I held a number of discussions with law firm representatives who revealed that thought leadership across Australian legal firms is still in its infancy, that it is generally ad hoc and that it doesn't have, as yet, the required business planning, time and resources.

The message from Australian law firms was pretty clear - our thought leadership is "...unsophisticated; we're not nearly there yet."

The reasons given were wide and varied and included, among others factors, notions such as:

  • "Partners often have competing interests."
  • "Our partners are more like media champions than thought leaders."
  • "Most lawyers are reticent to stick their necks out."
  • "We worry about upsetting clients."
  • "It's a time issue - the billable hour is king."
  • "I don't think the partners have seen the benefit of thought leadership yet."
  • "There's a feeling we're giving our intellectual property away."

These reasons for failed thought leadership in law firms are unsurprising and nothing new. More than ten years ago other professional services firms were having the very same debate. The difference is these firms now have sophisticated thought leadership and content management strategies in place with clear criteria to measure the benefits.

From a pure web presence in terms of content and thought leadership, a good example is the recently launched McKinsey Solutions (http://solutions.mckinsey.com/catalog/) and McKinsey What Matters sites (http://whatmatters.mckinseydigital.com/authors)

Global firms well ahead

Although Australian law firms have some work to do when it comes to thought leadership, a quick, on-line, desktop analysis of a number of international law firms reveal some refreshing thought leadership trends. Allen & Overy, Baker & McKenzie, Skadden, Linklaters, Clifford Chance and Freshfields all have, to varying degrees, embraced thought leadership content as a differentiator in the legal market and a way of owning a space.

"Content management and thought leadership is the new legal frontier for showcasing the expertise and insights of partners and practice areas."

Craig Badings, Director, Cannings Corporate Communications

For example, Linklaters - with their "Year in Review" and "The Year to Come" feature which both summarise major developments in English law and expectations for the new year - reveals some significant thought leadership. They also have a series called Hot Topics which hosts papers across wide ranging issues.

Freshfields, meanwhile, have what they call "Briefings" which are papers on various issues. They also have a separate microsite called Mobile Matters which discusses all things mobile. It is one of the best examples of legal practice thought leadership I have seen. In addition, they have collaborated with The Economist Intelligence Unit to report on the opportunities and risks in Africa for the extractives industry.

But although these two law firms have demonstrated some great thought leadership from, there's just one problem: It's best illustrated by a quote from an interview I conducted last year with Ken Blanchard, author of over 50 books including The One Minute Manager. He said: "You can have the greatest, most innovative thoughts in the world but if nobody hears about them they're worth squat."

And therein lies the issue with the thought leadership generated by Linklaters and Freshfields. I had to search and sift through layers of data to find their thought leadership material.

Make thought leadership shine

One simple way to get around this problem is to ensure that thought leadership is front and centre on a business website.

Clifford Chance provides an excellent example. The firm has great scrolling content blocks, positioned big and bold across the front page. They also have a very impressive webinar series covering numerous topics and featuring panels and interviews with third parties. In fact they label it their thought leadership impetus. The topics include, among others: remuneration reform in the financial services industry, trends in M&A, cross border tactics in takeovers and inbound investment in China.

Allen & Overy also provide thought leadership slap bang on their front page via a series they call Insights. When you click on it you can then search by topic, by country, by practice area or merely enter a search term and it will kick out all their content on that. They've made it very easy.

Skadden is also successful in this regard. On their home page, they boldly list their "2011 Insights", an annual issue of critical legal issues its clients will face in the year ahead across key areas such as governance, M&A, Capital Markets, Corporate Restructuring, Financial Regulation and Global Litigation to mention a few.

Over on the Baker & Mckenzie website, the firm provides a large, scrolling title block with different headers which, when clicked, take the reader to some excellent content. The first drop down box on their home page is called "Supporting your business" - so untypical of the 'me' language you find on most websites such as "About Us" "Our services" "Who we are".

When all is said and done, the big driver for successful thought leadership material is to get in front of clients and prospects and to hold conversations/debates you otherwise would not have had.

Hosting your thought leadership content on your web site is one thing, what you do with it behind the scenes with your prospects and clients, is an entirely different matter.

A simple methodology to manage your content will make a huge difference to how well you can activate and leverage your content. It should cover a content strategy and curation, a content distribution strategy that optimises your content across all your clients/prospects touch-points and an evaluation against the objectives

Content management and thought leadership is the new legal frontier for showcasing the expertise and insights of partners and practice areas. Those who ignore it will lag the competition and will struggle to differentiate themselves.

Craig Badings is a director at Cannings Corporate Communications. This is an edited extract of an address he recently gave to the 4th Managing Partners Conference in Queensland on "What do you want to be famous for?"

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