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3 ways that law firms can survive the downturn

The next 12 months are likely to be tough for many law firms. While the big legal juggernauts continue to grow, mid-sized firms are likely to be squeezed.
The slowdown in the economy means that many businesses are cutting their budgets. Law firms will see their fees come under pressure. At the same time, the sluggish London IPO market means that there is less work going around.

This article looks at the many ways that law firms and individual lawyers can continue to stand out and even grow in a down market, whether it’s taking advantage of b2b thought leadership methods or investing in BD in a dedicated way.

1. Take advantage of thought leadership in marketing

It might sound obvious, but clients and individuals hire lawyers because of their technical expertise. This has important implications for law firms and their marketing strategy.

While it is certainly true that a big, well-known legal brand will provide clients with comfort, ultimately clients are more likely to pick a law firm based on the technical depth of the company as well as the technical expertise of the individual lawyers within the firm.

This means that the best way to market a law firm is to let the expertise and insight of the firm and its partners shine. Yet, many law firms underinvest in this type of thought leadership. Instead, they prefer, to put all their money and resource behind brand-led advertising. A savvy law firm should reconsider this strategy.
In essence, this means that a law should find platforms for partners to showcase their technical expertise. And those specialists should be actively encouraged to do just that – rather than have it drop to the bottom of their lists as a mere ‘nice to have’.
In practice, this might mean launching a ‘Knowledge Hub’ on your corporate website, where senior leaders in the business can upload their thoughts on laws and regulations, as well as sharing their thoughts on how the industry is shaping up.
At the same time, over recent years, audiences have flocked towards rich forms of thought leadership content, such as videos and podcasts. Firms should provide their experts with easy avenues to produce podcasts and videos. This might mean diarising a regular session with a multimedia producer in the office where senior leaders can each sit down in front of the camera for 15 minutes.

2. Consolidate and consider M&A

Marketing is an effective way to survive the downturn as it enables you to grow your bottom-line revenues. But as you might expect there is another approach as well: cutting costs. But this might not be as easy as it sounds.

Over the last few years, there has been a very hot labour market for lawyers, meaning that exceptional pay packages and perks have not only become the norm – but have established themselves as an absolute necessity for recruiting the best talent.

Consolidation and M&A might present a potential solution, especially for mid-sized firms that are struggling to compete with the biggest players and risk being squeezed out of the market entirely.
In practice, this will mean finding a natural partner for your firm – such as a similar law firm that operates in a different geography or sector – with a view to merging to reduce administrative costs without impacting fee earners.
For example, if two regional law firms in Newcastle and Birmingham merged, this might provide an opportunity to amalgamate administrative costs, resulting in smaller combined marketing, IT, administrative, accounting, HR, and management teams and spending.
A merger, if carried out in a successful way, can also have other positive impacts on the new combined business. It can give the new combined business further brand reach. It can motivate team members with a sense of momentum and growth.
It can also increase the firm’s combined capabilities, putting it in a stronger position to win new work.

3. Bring on dedicated BD resource

A bit of economic turbulence might also be the prompt that some law firms need to finally reform their archaic business development (BD) processes.
In most law firms right now, the responsibility for securing and landing new clients lies in the hands of the partners of the firms – as well as ambitious senior associates looking to position themselves for partnership in the future.
There is a reason that this system is not used in many other industries: because it generally does not work.
On one hand, partners are usually so busy that any form of BD activity is relegated to a secondary (or even tertiary) priority. Even worse, many partners never get around to it because they do not actively like the BD process.
On the other hand, the skills that make for a good lawyer are not, generally, the skills that make for a good business development professional. As a result, firms risk putting partners at the front and centre of a pitch who aren’t the most effective or fluid at selling the advantages and strength of the company.
In the past, when there are fewer law firms and lawyers had their pick of clients, the traditional approach might have worked. But these days, competition is fierce – and firms need to do everything to compete. What does this mean in practice?
Firstly, it means hiring best-in-class business development veterans from outside of the industry who can put in place best practice. This will generally mean hiring from sales teams at the big B2B technology firms who are driving and securing multi-million contracts daily.
Secondly, it will mean giving this new BD team the scope, space, and resource to make decisions on how to scale up the sales operations without oversight from lawyers themselves. In many firms, this will be a complete revolution, but it might be required to truly transform how contracts are identified and signed.
In total, the next few years will be a trying time for many law firms. But those firms that stay at the forefront of trends to drive revenues and efficiencies will be best placed not only to survive but, potentially, grow as well.

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