In COVID-19 World, Firms Get Creative On Client Engagement

By Justin Wise
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Law360 (November 18, 2020, 9:33 PM EST) -- Before the pandemic, law firms generally operated in traditional ways when it came to supporting and growing their business: lunches and dinner with clients, golf tournaments and other events that allowed for networking.

All of those activities ground to a halt in the spring, prompting players in the legal sector to redouble their focus on engagement with existing clients and compelling firms to invest more in areas including digital content creation like newsletters and articles explaining legal issues, a group of business development experts said at a Wednesday panel.

Speaking on a webinar hosted by the LAC Group, an organization offering legal services support, Zena Applebaum, director of Professional Firm & Corporate Segments at Thomson Reuters, described the pandemic as an "unprecedented" event for an industry that likes precedent. Herrick Feinstein LLP Chief Operating Officer Barbaros Karaahmet added that the shift to fully remote work remains a challenge for some.

But they both said the health crisis is pushing firms to think more deeply about how they interact with their existing client base, because they can't develop business in traditional ways. Karaahmet also noted that lawyers placing more focus on existing clients can help lead to new opportunities for different practices.

"The traditional modes of business development have all but stopped," said Applebaum, a legal industry adviser. "What we're looking for in 2021 is people doubling down and understanding more about the relationships from a data perspective, how often you're engaging with the client, how often you're sending them pieces of content, whether that's becoming a draw on their time.

"And you're looking at ways to be creative. Creativity has never been more amped up," she said.

Mariana Loose, chief marketing officer at the employment and labor firm Jackson Lewis PC, noted the firm suddenly had no costs for things like travel when the pandemic hit.

"We took it as an opportunity to say, OK, there's this cost saving, but there's also time savings and where can we direct attorneys' time" in the most effective way, she said.

Applebaum said she has seen firms use some of those cost savings for investments in technology and tools that support collaboration between lawyers and staff.

"If you want to talk about innovation in media and marketing, it's going to be coming out of [how firms] use those collaboration tools that [they've] invested heavily in 2020," she said.

Firms' investment in content creation has included landing pages with COVID-19 resources and articles on specific legal issues stemming from the pandemic, according to the panel. Loose said her firm produced an advisory in the spring providing information for their clients on coronavirus restrictions in every state.

They also said they've placed additional resources toward analyzing what type of digital content is gaining an audience. Data analysis has also been geared around the makeup of the firm, panelists said.

LAC Group Chief and Business Development Officer Mario Thériault, who moderated the discussion, told Law360 that this means dedicating more time to measuring the effectiveness of firm operations and billing rates. It has also meant paying more attention to the forecasts for markets their clients are in.

Some BigLaw firms have cited the changing work environment while implementing layoffs in recent months. Thériault said the moves in some cases are a product of firms' calculations about the future of their business.

"I think the pandemic has forced firms to think about the way they're structured," he said. "I think it's about efficiency and streamlining. But it's about the right talent mix."

Loeb & Loeb LLP Chief Client Development and Marketing Officer Christa Crane said her team has been actively working with lawyers on best practices for keeping existing clients engaged throughout the pandemic. She added that her team, like many across the industry, developed a COVID-19 resource center at the beginning of the crisis.

But she also urged a judicious approach to content production.

"Being the 20th [email] to hit a desk isn't helpful," she said, adding that a legal writer on her team works with attorneys on ideas.

"We've had to manage that [content] flow in a more hypersensitive way than we've had to in the past," she said. "The question becomes how do you keep that idea of 'here and now content' and broaden it in a way that has a longer span."

A consensus emerged among the panelists that when the pandemic first hit, marketing teams carried out a "cost-containment" strategy due to the general uncertainty about how the legal industry would fare. Over time, those plans shifted; Crane and Loose said they are currently planning for 2021 and how their firms can continue to effectively operate remotely.

Marketing efforts will continue to include actively working with attorneys on potential new approaches to their practices, Karaahmet said.

"There's still a challenge for the more traditional guard," Karaahmet said. "Business development became very important."

--Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

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