Law Firm Biz Development Tips For The Pandemic Era

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Jessica Starr
Monica Ulzheimer
Today's law firm business development professionals have extra challenges when helping their attorneys stay connected with clients and each other in their practice development and marketing efforts.

With states still in various return-to-work phases and employees either hesitant to return or facing other issues requiring them to continue working at home, it's critical that your firm's administrative functions collaborate to provide the necessary support to drive success. Let's look at four areas where the business development team and other administrative functions can take a leadership role in driving practice growth in today's circumstances.

1. Business Development — Staying Relevant

Though rainmakers are being forced to adapt their usual client development strategies in an age when travel is restricted or completely nonexistent, the basic principles remain the same. Clients are facing the same issues as law firms — dealing with uncertainty in their businesses and their home lives, and a constant stream of changing advice on how to respond to the pandemic.

Successful rainmakers are responding to this dynamic by continuing to stay in close contact with their clients, having conversations about their businesses and asking questions about how their firm can be helpful, even if it's not within the practice area of the primary relationship partner. These conversations happen by phone or by any variety of virtual platforms — Zoom, Webex, Teams, Google Meet — and don't require a lot of time. They do, as always, still require effort and proactive outreach.

While big conferences and industry events have gone virtual, business development teams can work with their lawyers to host customized client webinars and offer continuing legal education credit to replace the professional development opportunities that those conferences usually provide. There is still the opportunity to promote the firm's expertise via social media and other communication tactics that highlight the subject-matter knowledge of their lawyers.

While rainmakers can't host their usual client dinners and golf outings, there is a plethora of virtual social events and activities that can be hosted — everything from learning to paint or arrange flowers to virtual wine tours, trivia and scavenger hunts.

Business development teams can assist by developing a virtual events catalog that outlines the vendors available for various programs and pricing options, giving rainmakers a selection of options for entertaining clients. Understanding what your client's interests are and how much of a time commitment they are willing to spare will help determine what you can offer — and, of course, what your budget can afford.

2. Attorney Engagement and Development — Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

One of the most challenging aspects of the dispersed work environment is the inability to have those hallway and break room or lunchroom conversations where brainstorming happens, relationships are developed and on-the-job learning takes place.

Business development teams can collaborate with the firm's attorney development teams to offer training programs virtually and to assist with communication strategies to ensure that all levels of attorneys are engaged. This may be an area where the business development team doesn't usually operate, but ensuring that lawyers have opportunities to stay engaged with each other is a similar skill set to what we coach our lawyers to do with their clients — communicate, be proactive, show that you care.

Onboarding new hires when you can't be face to face is another new challenge where again the business development team can support attorney hiring and training. Setting up one-on-one introductions with peers in the same or other offices helps take the place of the traveling roadshows and in-person orientations of the pre-COVID-19 era.

Maintaining regular check-ins with new hires, also a standard business development tactic with clients, will help maintain that engagement and assist in building the relationships that are critical for creating an efficient and effective legal service team. All of these activities can be monitored through the use of onboarding checklists and regular reporting up to firm management on how these new hires are being integrated into the firm.

The value of personal outreach cannot be overstated. A new hire that receives a phone call from a practice group leader or client relationship partner goes a long way toward bringing that person into the fold.

Relationship partners should also consider including associates in virtual client meetings that might have previously happened only in person, allowing the associates to learn more about the clients personally and feel more committed to the engagements on which they are staffed — without the cost of travel.

Keep in mind that different people are responding to the pandemic differently. Some may be feeling more isolated, while others have concerns about balancing family issues such as child or elder care. Again, the classic business development strategies of personal check-ins, phone calls and a simple, "how are you, is there anything I can help with?" can be a welcome break and respite from the chaos.

3. Pricing and Financials — Being Creative and Staying Flexible

The economic consequences of the pandemic are being seen across industries. Aside from measures such as layoffs and early retirements, firms are also faced with pressure from clients that are also seeing reduced revenues.

By staying on top of the creative fee structures being used across the firm, and maintaining an inventory of fee arrangements in use, business development teams can help their relationship partners present clients with options that allow for more flexibility and certainty in billing, which ultimately creates more trust and satisfaction over time.

Collaborating with the firm's pricing team, members of the business development team can help educate practice groups on strategies to address requests for additional discounts or other ways to more closely scope engagements and manage the budget to achieve the client's objectives in as cost-effective a manner as possible while still protecting the firm's revenue stream.

Tapping into budgeting tools like Umbria from Prosperoware and highlighting the use of these tools in pitch materials is another way to demonstrate that the firm is concerned about maintaining efficiency and providing the best value to its clients.

It is critical for relationship attorneys to see their clients as partners — both want that trusted adviser relationship and a mutual understanding that the client will receive the best legal service possible and the law firm will be paid fairly for its efforts. Attorneys who have a deep understanding of their clients' businesses, and who are committed to helping to see them through a crisis, will be the ones who have loyal clients that are the foundation of a stable, growing practice.

This is another area where associates can be involved in helping to maintain a firm's profitability. It is critical that as partners are negotiating pricing arrangements with clients that this information be communicated to associates so they are better prepared to bill their time so that it is consistent with those arrangements.

Again, a tried-and-true business development strategy of communication is critical at this level at both the top and bottom of the timekeeper pyramid. Partners need to set expectations on what needs to be accomplished at various phases of an engagement, and associates need to be proactive in reporting upward if they identify that those expectations can't be met, or the scope of the work may need to be adjusted.

Clients don't like surprises on their bills — the best way to avoid that is to have clear expectations and communications at every level of the engagement to ensure that the work is being done correctly.

4. Emerging Technologies — Working Smarter, Not Harder

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. The pandemic has proven that notion with the emergence of multiple technology tools to facilitate communication and collaboration in the remote, virtual world we have been working in for the last several months.

User accounts for Cisco Webex, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Verizon BlueJeans and other virtual tools have exploded, and lawyers at all levels are beginning to embrace the simplicity and flexibility of internal communications tools like Cisco Jabber, Google Chat, Slack and others for quick conversations and even document-sharing in lieu of the hallway chat and "could you take a quick look at this with me?" of pre-COVID-19 times.

Beyond collaboration tools, law firms are beginning to embrace other sophisticated technologies to increase efficiencies in the delivery of legal services. Automation is improving how we deliver legal services with tools that give clients a head start, and combined with artificial intelligence, data analytics and data visualization, lawyers are able to make decisions and share information more quickly, saving everyone time and money.

One example of such an analytics tool is LexisNexis' Lex Machina, which mines data from multiple sources, pulls it into a database, cleans it, tags it, organizes it and allows the user to search, filter, compare and analyze information such as a judge's tendency to rule on specific motions, more favorable venues for your case and how long a case might take to resolve.

Ultimately, using analytics this way moves decision making away from anecdotal information to more objective evidence. Other technologies such as Kira Systems to process contract language and Thomson Reuters' Deal Proof to review contract drafts can keep your transactional attorneys working more effectively.

These examples only scratch the surface of the tools now available and being developed that will continue to enhance the efficient delivery of legal services in a remote world.

Business development teams can be a source of both platform brainstorming and facilitation of these technology tools. They can develop training opportunities in collaboration with the firm's technology team to educate attorneys on tools for virtual trials and depositions, contract development and review, matter management or the next great document sharing and editing platform.

Showing that we can use these tools for our own practice group meetings and work product encourages our lawyers to try them out for their client meetings as well — and bring business development teams into the conversation.

It's Back to the Basics, With a Twist

Coping with and surviving in the pandemic is a difficult task to master, but those of us in the business development function at our law firms have the basic skills needed to be successful and support our attorneys in managing the challenges and thriving in the new environment.

The critical skills of understanding your clients' business, a commitment to helping and bringing solutions to the table, and making connections are all basic to achieving success in normal conditions. With a fusion of patience, persistence, openness to new technologies, and maybe even a little grace, these same skills will prove to be the winning factors in the dispersed work environment of today.

Jessica A. Starr and Monica F. Ulzheimer are senior marketing specialists at Alston & Bird LLP, where they lead business development for the intellectual property and litigation practices, respectively.

Disclosure: Verizon, Thomson Reuters, LexisNexis and Microsoft are Alston & Bird clients.

Law360 is owned by LexisNexis Legal & Professional, a RELX Group company, which owns Lex Machina and is a competitor of Thomson Reuters Corp.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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