Sector trends

How law firms are rethinking business development

While there is no new formula for business development post-pandemic, lockdown has provided partners with new experiences and tools to experiment with.

Law firms have shown significant resilience during the pandemic, increasing their bank balances and profit per equity partner during 2020 when compared with figures from 2019, even while more than 50% of firms took advantage of the government’s coronavirus support schemes. But they have also had to adapt how they interact with existing and potential clients.

The Royal Bank of Scotland Legal Report 2021 asked managing partners which aspect of their business was most affected by the pandemic. While finance and client services suffered least, one area considered more problematic was business development.

The report, which surveyed 40 firms at the SME level across England Scotland and Wales, showed business development was affected because many physical activities – such as in-person meetings – couldn’t be undertaken. As a result, they had to rethink their online activity by redeveloping their websites, creating more online knowledge and education, and encouraging legal teams to meet with clients and potential clients through video channels.

One positive aspect of this for firms was that spending less on business development supported cash flow during 2020, but there are concerns that activity needs to resume or fee income levels may start to fall.

If we are sending fewer emails and talking more, that has to be conducive to better communication and relationships. Arguably, people are more accessible than before the pandemic

Bernard Savage
Director, Tenandahalf

The report’s author, Robert Mowbray, owner of training consultancy Taylor Mowbray, says: “Clearly, there is no need to do all the travel we did in the past, and we can do more online. It’s going to be a more agile, probably more blended approach. Early on, firms will want to get clients back in the office and shake hands if allowed, but probably not all the time.”

While some managing partners surveyed for the report commented on how the lack of face-to-face meetings resulted in less creativity and innovation around business development, others found the opposite to be true. David Weaver, head of professional services at NatWest, observes: “Definitely, firms are being more creative about business development, and it’s becoming less about Zoom catch-ups. It’s got to be different and have a purpose or there’s a risk of Zoom fatigue.”

Three lessons from lockdown

  1. It’s not location, location, location any more Bernard Savage, director of business development agency Tenandahalf, says: “One of the things we’ve always preached to our clients is that they should stay visible between open client matters. There is no excuse now not to have face-to-face contact with your clients, referrers and other professional contacts outside an open file.
  2. Multichannel is everything The pandemic has forced businesses to rediscover the phone and make use of video calling as a matter of routine. “Most people are comfortable with you calling their mobiles, so it’s easier to get through to people,” says Savage. “If we are sending fewer emails and talking more, that has to be conducive to better communication and relationships. Arguably, people are more accessible than before the pandemic.”
  3. Think creatively about how you maintain client connections Meirion Jones, founder of Tongues in Trees, which provides business coaching for professional services, says: “Firms are doing some very interesting things. You hear of remote wine-tasting and online talent shows during lockdown. It’s all client outreach that might not have happened otherwise.”

Looking ahead: business development post-lockdown

Firms that fail to put sufficient time and thought into developing new business pipelines risk falling behind. Coming out of the pandemic, there will be plenty of opportunities for business development across virtual platforms and physical meetings. Some firms may rely on the old methods, which could be a risk, while others will experiment with the new.

Key considerations for your business development in the new era include:

Begin with the end in mind: Consider whether you want to forge closer relationships with existing connections or meet new people and plan accordingly. “Having a sustained relationship over time and finding opportunities to create different touchpoints are critical,” says Meirion Jones.

Experiment further with new channels: Lockdown has proven that the time-honoured bastion of networking events is not the only tool in the business-development box. Savage says: “While networking events have their place, they are flawed to the degree that many people don’t enjoy them. I suspect there are more introverts than extroverts in the legal profession. In the absence of what we would have done by default, going to the same old events, meeting the same people having the same conversations, we’re now thinking about business development in a more strategic way.”

Create multi-touch engagement plans: “One of the challenges I often face when I’m coaching people is helping them recognise that just meeting or interacting with a potential client once in a blue moon is not likely, unless you are very lucky, to turn into a mandate,” says Jones. “Retaining some of these remote activities is just one way to help achieve that.”

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