Major study uncovers the Achilles’ heel of law firms

A comprehensive study of Australasian law firms has revealed an area where most of those surveyed admitted they were lacking… But a small handful came out triumphant

Most Australasian law firms are struggling to develop an effective business development (BD) and marketing programme, despite recognising that it is pivotal to achieving firm growth.

This is according to the results of a study by the Australian Legal Practice Management Association (ALPMA) and Julian Midwinter & Associates (JMA), ALPMA/JMA Taking the Pulse of Business
Development and Marketing in Australasian Law Firms

The inaugural survey, conducted in September, was completed by 151 respondents from 149 firms across New Zealand and Australia.

Andrew Barnes, the president of ALPMA and CFO at the Lantern Legal Group says the results paint a “stark” picture of the current state of marketing and BD within law firms.

Three-quarters of respondents rated their marketing and BD development function as either under-developed (45%) or just “adequate” (32%).

Shockingly, only four respondents considered their firm’s BD and marketing strategy to be sophisticated.

Following on from this, just 38%of respondents thought their firm appropriately resourced the marketing and BD development function, although 55% of firms have a dedicated person or team in this area.

Furthermore, a significant 80% of participants said hiring additional marketing or BD staff was their firm’s least important approach to achieving growth.

This shows there is a real disconnect between anticipated revenue growth and how firms actually intend to achieve that growth, says Barnes, especially given that the majority of firms (65%) are forecasting revenue growth this financial year.

“There are some pretty strong trends coming through,” he told Australasian Lawyer. “There are a lot of firms that don’t commit their BD and marketing activities to a long term strategy that’s in line with their long term firm strategy.”

You can’t expect to hire a BD and marketing manager and see results in just a few months, and equally, forget looking to the firm next door to see what they’re doing: There is no one size fits all, says Barnes.

He think the lack of development in this space within Australasian law firms is due to the simple fact that they were previously successful based on reputation, relationships and referrals alone, and never needed a more comprehensive strategy.

But with so many disrupters out there and a hyper competitive market, those days have come to an end, he says.

“That’s where they’ve been caught out: They’ve been able to survive without the need for a dedicated BD and marketing strategy…now life has changed.”

But there is good news. The ALPMA/JMA survey showed that the barriers to effective BD and marketing strategies are, on the most part, internal.

Barnes says this means the power to change lies directly within the control of law firms, provided they choose to make this a strategic priority for the firm and invest the required resources.

A large part of this should include developing the skills of the firm’s existing people, he says.

“More than half of the firms surveyed do not provide training for BD and marketing, which is interesting… It suggests there could be a lot of lawyers out there with these skills. If you look within, they can become a highly valuable resource.

“If they’ve got the traits you think could really resonate with the clients in a certain sector, then don’t hold them back… Give your lawyers the opportunity to develop if you have a view of them being a part of the firm in the medium to long term.”

The results of the survey also indicate that for those firms that are willing to make some changes, the opportunities that await them are ripe for the picking, because they’ll be among a minority putting a foot forward to promote the brand of the firm in a meaningful way.

“Firms ought to be able to look at these results and see that if they have been concerned about their BD and marketing [strategy], they’re not alone,” says Barnes.

The ALPMA/JMA survey did reveal a handful of firms that already are on the right track, having implemented impressive strategies.

Amy Burton-Bradley, a partner at JMA, penned a blog that outlined some of these success stories.

Examples included:

Emphasis on existing clients: A huge variety of successful client-focused tactics were employed, including training lawyers in client service, client events and thank you gifts, education seminars, client satisfaction surveys, and employing a director of client relations.  

Clear focus and careful targeting: Approaches included targeting referees through seminars, targeted landing pages for websites and targeted face to face meetings. As one respondent said, their greatest success had come from “selectively marketing [the] firm’s many points of difference.  Not run of the mill campaigns”. Again, it seemed to be not so much that any one activity was the 'right' one, but that a focused or targeted approach applied to a well-chosen activity made the difference between success and failure.

Burton-Bradley says the firms who use the research results as an opportunity to step back and assess where they are and where they want to be, will stand out.

“Most firms plan to continue with business as usual, focusing efforts on existing clients and sticking with safer, more traditional approaches to market - the firm website, networking, association memberships, referral relationships, client entertainment, seminars and sponsorships,” she says. 
“Very few firms have been or even plan to spend significant time or money on digital lead generation, thought leadership, or leveraging blogs and social media despite increasing recognition of the value of these activities adopted successfully by many other sectors as part of an effective BD toolkit.”

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