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Law firm thought leadership: it’s not your budget that counts

Financial Services - 18th February 2010
Law firm thought leadership: it’s not your budget that counts

Thought leadership is a well-known concept in legal marketing. Why, then, is it so often done badly, failing to achieve its fundamental objectives? Budgetary constraints are certainly not the reason, as, with sufficient creativity, the approach is viable even for small firms and specialist practices. By thinking carefully about the target audience, actively monitoring clients’ industries and having a linked business development plan, thought leadership can be properly harnessed as a very effective marketing tool.

Thought leadership is one of the subtler marketing techniques and is well suited to professional services. It involves identifying trends or issues that may affect clients and their industries (and which are also aligned with your firm’s capabilities), sharing this knowledge and your relevant insights, and thereby being seen as a far-sighted authority. As reputation is one of the greatest assets of any law firm, improving your standing this way can be an express route to more and higher-value client business.

Many law firms recognise this fact and seek to promote themselves accordingly. However, potentially good work is often undermined by a failure to properly employ some basic marketing principles, the most fundamental of which is to understand your audience.

Know Your Client, and act accordingly

A truly successful corporate law firm advises a client’s top executives, not merely on legal matters, but on the big decisions that determine future success. The client relationship becomes anchored at board level as well as with the in-house legal team. To elevate a relationship in this way, lawyers must demonstrate they see the world through the eyes of top executives and speak the same language.

If targeting CEOs, one of the quickest routes into their mindset, if in doubt, is to read The Economist on a regular basis. Viewing your practice through such a geopolitical lens may make fresh and topical themes easier to spot. For example, the plight of the ‘PIGS’ economies (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) is presently worrying many top executives, so any new insights into risks and opportunities in these areas will fall on fertile ground.

First things first: write for the reader

The least costly, and certainly the most common, thought leadership practised by law firms is writing expert articles for trade media. However, in many cases, such articles would be radically improved by applying the above principle. All too often, lawyers’ articles are learned yet leaden expositions of case law that will only ever be read by other lawyers. This is fine, inasmuch as in-house lawyers are an audience too, but becoming a rainmaker requires that you reach other readers as well. The secret is to think as a lawyer but write as a journalist.

For the board, articles should focus on topical trends, be illustrated with anecdote rather than precedent, and be accessible and concise: for example, a 600-word article can comfortably fit onto a single A4 page with a picture; a longer item, while sometimes merited, carries a greater risk of reader fatigue. Imagine you are in an airport lounge, expecting your flight to be called at any second: you can either start reading an attractively laid-out story that covers a single side (and has an eye-catching photo), or four pages of densely-worded text peppered with italics. Which would you choose to read? Exactly.

Market research: if you can afford it, spend wisely

Another tool closely associated with thought leadership is market research, and it certainly has major attractions. Through an opinion poll on a well-chosen issue, a law firm can tap a rich seam of information that potential clients may be eager to hear. For example, Eversheds recently underscored its credentials as an international business advisor by surveying 600 senior executives on the relative confidence of established and emerging economies.

However, market research has two major pitfalls. Firstly, good research costs money, and this may be more than your firm can afford. Secondly, it is entirely possible to commission research that fails to deliver the hoped-for benefits. The latter usually reflects a poorly-designed survey, a failure to exploit its findings, or, frequently, both.

A major determinant of success is clearly the research itself. As with expert articles, it is vital to start by considering the interests of the target audience. If you also want the survey to generate media coverage, it should be designed with an eye on what will interest editors. Your choice of polling agency impacts credibility, so if you are targeting major corporations and national media outlets, you are strongly advised to use a ‘name’ research agency, such as GfK NOP or TNS, and factor in their fees from the outset. Lastly, if the resulting report is to serve its purpose, it should present not just raw data, but also your firm’s interpretation – otherwise, what have you added?

On a limited budget, put the thinking into thought leadership

A common mistake is to think that thought leadership is reserved only for the largest firms with the biggest budgets. But there are many creative approaches a firm, or a practice within a firm, can take to generate thought-provoking and original insights that can, in turn, be rolled out in multiple ways.

For example, one of a rainmaker’s greatest assets is the ability to listen actively. In the daily course of business, partners and associates are exposed to many different sources of industry news and information: not only press clippings and trade journals, but also client conversations, dinners, conferences and informal asides. By drawing this knowledge together in a structured way (such as a thought leadership panel) it can be analysed and used in a targeted manner.

What might start as an idea for an expert article could be developed into a weightier report that backs up your assertions with well-chosen examples and corroborating views, rather than costly third-party research. For example, an employment law practice could set out its views on the extension to statutory paternity leave in the UK, supporting its opinions with published parliamentary and media comment and informal research with clients.

Roll out your findings in a planned, sustained manner

All of this is of little benefit, however, if such output is not properly employed in business development. The report or study is a campaigning tool that should be exploited over a period of months (perhaps as long as a year) through various linked activities, including press releases, expert articles, interviews, speeches, briefing breakfasts, email marketing, annual reports and client prospect meetings.

Such a multifaceted programme requires thorough planning and coordination, which may seem daunting to law firms without large business development teams. However, with an intelligent use of resources across a firm, including associates, paralegals and administrative staff, responsibilities can be shared in a way that is both manageable and productive.

Properly executed, thought leadership is a highly-effective way to increase a firm’s stature and fee income. With the right approach and attitude, its benefits are open to almost anyone.

To learn more about effective thought leadership for law firms, contact Marc Cornelius at 80:20 Communications.