Big BD

Big BD
A lawyer with a small Victoria firm, Erik Magraken doesn’t have the luxury of a business development department to help him drum up clients. His firm still does lots of marketing, but Magraken has also taken it upon himself to do some of the work on his own, much of it from home. “What I’ve done is I try to commit one to two hours a day, usually in the evening, for business development and law firm marketing,” says Magraken, a 32-year-old partner practising personal injury law at MacIsaac & Co.

His firm still does lots of marketing, but Magraken has also taken it upon himself to do some of the work on his own, much of it from home. “What I’ve done is I try to commit one to two hours a day, usually in the evening, for business development and law firm marketing,” says Magraken, a 32-year-old partner practising personal injury law at MacIsaac & Co.

But while people like Magraken work to get their names out there, lawyers at major firms find they, too, are having to work harder to market themselves. With the recession taking a toll on business mergers, corporate lawyers are finding themselves with extra time to seek out new work. While insolvency files and litigation stemming from the financial distress are filling part of the gap, the economic turmoil nevertheless presents a new imperative for practitioners, says Deborah Glendinning, a partner and co-chairwoman of the national class actions specialty group at Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP in Toronto. “Obviously, in these economic times, business development is something that people need to be focused on.”

Adding to the pressure to mingle at conferences and shine off the clubs for golfing season are changes with the profession itself. Rick Powers, a lawyer and associate dean at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, says the big firms can no longer count on rainmakers, the three or four senior partners with connections, to bring in work that fills the in-baskets of junior lawyers. “Those people are retiring,” he notes, adding the impetus to network is something many lawyers find difficult. “It doesn’t come naturally to them. In most cases, they’ve never had to do it. Times are changing. They’re expected to do it now.”

But as Glendinning points out, generating new files shouldn’t be about forcing people into situations they’re not comfortable with. “It really is a very personal and individual thing,” says Glendinning, who spoke recently about business development at the Rotman’s Business Leadership for Women Lawyers program. Younger lawyers with smaller Rolodexes (if they even bother to have one), for example, might better spend their time publishing articles on developments in their field in order to build their reputations.

Glendinning prefers a personal touch whereby she makes extra efforts to get to know her corporate clients through daily interactions so she can later ask them to lunch, a golf game, or even less obvious activities like skiing or a hockey game. “It could be an additional five or 10 minutes on every phone call that could add up to an hour every day,” she says.

But as with so many aspects of life these days, a new key strategy for success appears to lie with technology. Magraken’s one to two hours a day, for example, involves for the most part sitting in front of a computer screen updating his Twitter feed, his Facebook profile, and his own Insurance Corp. of British Columbia Law Blog (icbclaw.com/blog). Magraken also posts content on JDSupra.com, a web site for sharing legal documents, as well as a new Canadian web site aiming to be a hub for legal information, advicescene.com.

“It’s basically old-fashioned wine-and-cheese schmoozing but it’s done online,” says Magraken, who notes success in Internet-based marketing now involves going beyond having a static web site. Instead, generating files requires regularly keeping current on developments in his field, which in his case means tracking cases dealing with the ICBC, the sole provider of auto coverage in that province. “I don’t provide legal advice on my blog but I do provide a heckuva lot of information,” he says. Finding that information isn’t always easy, but often what he does is tease out an interesting tidbit within a court judgment involving ICBC and then writes about it.

Blogs aren’t new, but Twitter is a relatively recent phenomenon for many people. It limits people to 140-character postings that are basically micro-blogging. That doesn’t leave much room for posting useful legal information but, as Magraken points out, Twitter is part of his overall web strategy for driving traffic to his blog. The idea is that many of the 949 people who follow him on Twitter will click over to the ICBC law site.

At the same time, Twitter has been a great source for networking with other lawyers as well as people who know about using the web to generate business. “What I get from Twitter is I learn how to better market myself online through the people I follow,” he says.

The key is search-engine optimization. “My goal is always to be on the first page of these search phrases that people use,” he says. Recently, a Google search for “ICBC injury claims lawyer,” for example, ranked Magraken as No.1. Regularly updating the blog is a big help, as well as posting information on highly ranked sites such as JD Supra, he points out. Linking his own blog to people who subsequently return the favour also boosts his rankings.
As a result, his blog is getting about 9,000 hits a month and generating lots of inquiries from potential clients. “I get contacted probably 60 times a month through the blog from people with personal injury claims,” he says, noting that while the initial calls or e-mails may involve simply providing information to people considering legal action, he’s often the person they think of once they take that step.

Legally speaking, social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and blogs are so far largely the domain of smaller law firms or individual lawyers while most of the largest national firms hold back. At Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, Simone Hughes, the firm’s national director of business development, says BLG is using Facebook and LinkedIn but for the moment is content with testing some of the newer social media options. “Most of our audience [is] general counsel in Canada, CEOs, [and] CFOs. So if you think about the demographic . . . not all of that audience is on YouTube. If we’re on that, and our audience is not on that, it’s not very cost efficient. We want to be ahead of where they’re going, so in some social media we’re in [a] test phase waiting for more bulk usage of it to make it more cost efficient, and in some we’re already there.”

A few Big Law firms have made the leap into tweeting on Twitter: Oslers, Ogilvy Renault LLP, and Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP. BLG, too, was there by mid-May. For the most part, their tweets consist of links to news items already posted on their web sites. It’s a conservative approach but one people involved in legal marketing say is an appropriate one given the need to protect a firm’s image and brand on a web site known for speed and information overload. “You always want to do more, but my hat is off to them for starting to test it out,” says Michael Rabinovici, senior vice president of strategic initiatives, at AR Communications Inc. north of Toronto. The goal, he says, is to use social media to establish oneself as an expert in the field, the benefits of which outweigh legitimate concerns about them. “In terms of the business risk, I would say that the risk of inaction is far higher than going into it.”

A boutique firms that is on Twitter is Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP in Toronto. It, too, is moving cautiously on what Susan Carnevale, the firm’s manager of marketing services, says is a test to see how Twitter can benefit the firm. “It’s hard to tell at this stage what it’s doing for us other than [increasing] our hits to our web site,” she notes, adding that as a firm focused on employment law, it’s already developed a Twitter following among other lawyers and arbitrators since launching its tweet feed in March. Reposting news items from the Hicks Morley web site takes little work. “On the firm side, it’s very low maintenance [and it takes] little time to post that,” says Carnevale.

The firm has given licence to a handful of its lawyers to take a more liberal approach to social media. One of them, Dan Michaluk, operates similarly to Magraken by posting information on legal topics on his blog, which now links to his Twitter page. The benefit is it is cheap and has helped generate client referrals from other lawyers. Twitter, Michaluk points out, takes very little time since it usually involves posting snippets of information that he puts up elsewhere. “I tend to do it in cabs and airport lounges,” he says.

In Michaluk’s case, his Twitter feed is a blend of the professional and the personal. In one recent tweet, for example, he briefly described a 17-hour drive with a cat that “wouldn’t leave my lap!” The choice was deliberate, something he says “shows the real Dan Michaluk as well.” And he adds, he and fellow Twittering colleagues have the blessing of Hicks Morley which trusts their judgment to use the platform responsibly. It’s an arm’s-length model that he argues is better than that of some firms that force lawyers to embed their blogs within their own web sites. “You limit the ability to use a voice that connects with people when you do that.”

Still, Michaluk points out he has his own rules, including not tweeting or blogging about his own cases. “I’m not going to use a matter that I’m working on to promote myself or Hicks Morley. It’s just not worth it,” he says.
Countering the business impacts of the recession isn’t just about connecting to new media, of course. Law firms note, for example, that a lot of Canadian companies have been issuing requests for proposals for legal work, a trend Hughes chalks up to corporations trying to pare down the number of lawyers they deal with. As a result, Oslers’ Glendinning says firms are busy assembling teams to bid for the work. In some cases, companies are asking for a legal strategy document during the bidding process, something that essentially means lawyers are providing free legal advice. “It can take several lawyers dozens of hours to put something together,” Glendinning notes.

The changes within corporate legal work also put a particular onus on law firms to do more to retain the clients they already have, according to Michael Rynowecer, the president of BTI Consulting Group Inc. in New York. “Much less [work] is going to outside counsel. It’s shrinking,” he said at a recent Legal Marketing Association event in Toronto. Citing statistics from a recent survey of U.S. in-house counsel, he noted only 40 per cent were truly satisfied with their primary law firm. Instead, most graded outside firms at “perfect B-minus performance,” they do what the client asks of them but aren’t proactive.

To rate higher, Rynowecer said law firms must do better in four key areas: client focus, understanding the client’s business, showing they have a commitment to help, and delivering value for money spent. Firms that get there can earn a 20-per-cent rate premium — thus improving client satisfaction can be an important business development goal. But as Rynowecer pointed out, his data show that less than a quarter of law firms seek client feedback to see where they rate.

For her part, Glendinning already does some of the things Rynowecer says will help boost client satisfaction, including devoting extra time to researching what a business does even if it doesn’t relate directly to the legal matters she’s dealing with. “It’s actually about partnering with the people you work with to help them do the job they do,” she says, noting that with regulated companies, for example, corporate clients will appreciate a lawyer who takes the time to advise them on new laws or rules that might affect their business. The goal is to improve the relationship by showing that she can solve a client’s problems, she points out.

At BLG, meanwhile, Hughes says her firm does use metrics and other feedback practices to gauge what clients think of the service it’s offering. “We visit clients and we ask them how they’re doing. We look at retention numbers. We look at trends in the financials.” But, she adds, doing business development at a large firm, including during a recession, is largely about strategy. In order to cross-sell existing clients on legal services in other practices, for example, the firm has to look at where business is booming and where it’s ramping down. “Cross-selling, or cross-buying, as I would prefer to say, is a function of your strategic plan,” she says. “Are you interested? Are you a niche market and just doing one thing, or are you a broader-based line of business, and you’re going to do it anyway? So if we’re in a recession, what we did is look at our strategic plan and asked, ‘Does this present new opportunities, and what do we do about it?’”

But with the competition for client business increasing, predicting where work opportunities are has become more complex. So far, much of it comes from educated guesses about what law firms believe will happen, but as Hughes points out, they are also considering adopting the complicated models financial companies use to predict what their clients will need. “In the law industry, we are evolving into a more sophisticated, data-driven model. In the current form, it’s more of a hypothesis and [then] test and evolve.”

The key question is how to take that data to sell legal services to clients. Some of it involves marketing, something Hughes’ team at BLG recently did through a direct-mail campaign targeting bankruptcy and insolvency work. But, she notes, closing a deal often requires lawyers to do the actual sales work. “Our lawyers are the front line,” she says. “They’re the people who are directly dealing face-to-face with clients. . . . It seems to work from my experience that the person who does the work, or the top relationship professional, is usually that salesperson, although we don’t call them a salesperson.”

For Glendinning, it’s this last aspect that can be hardest for lawyers. Nevertheless, after taking clients to dinner, inviting them to sports games, or playing a round of golf, it’s something she has to do. “At the end of the day, if you don’t tell them what you’d like from them, it’s going to be a waste of time,” she says, adding that being direct is often the best way.

Magraken, however, finds he doesn’t have to aggressively sell his services to the people he hears from on his blog. Instead, they often approach him for help after a few interactions by e-mail or on the phone. “It shows them that I know what I’m talking about rather than me having to tell them that I know what I’m talking about.” That strategy is a good one, especially for personal injury lawyers who risk a negative reaction by coming on too strongly, says Doug Jasinski, a law firm marketing consultant in Vancouver. Key to success, he notes, “is understanding the channel that they’re using. The danger is for lawyers to come in and misunderstand the tone of something like Twitter and then suffer a backlash if they miss the mark by coming off as ambulance chasing or bringing some of the negative stereotypes in.”

Of course, avoiding the direct approach takes away from some of the efficiency of social media as people like Magraken spend up to 10 hours a week on online marketing without necessarily seeing the immediate benefits of their efforts. But as Jasinski notes, the approach is cheap and ultimately can be more effective than other online marketing efforts such as a standard web page. “Really, the big trend is away from the online component being the firm web site . . . to innovative firms looking at ways to extend their presence a lot more deeply. I think that makes a lot of sense in recessionary times because a lot of these tools are either free or inexpensive. What they’re doing is giving lawyers a chance to repurpose and redistribute their content in multiple forms.” Moreover, he adds, platforms like Twitter actually work with lawyers’ busy lives.

Even law students are using the Twitter-blog combination to get their names out there and position themselves in the field. Omar Ha-Redeye, a second-year student at the University of Western Ontario law school, has garnered a lot of attention through his blog as well as through the web sites Law is Cool and Slaw, too, which he says is already benefiting him as he develops a reputation well before he graduates. “I have lots of informal mentorships with lots of lawyers practising in the field.”

Perhaps surprisingly, people like Magraken say that mastering social media wasn’t very difficult. Noting that less than a year ago he knew very little about the technology, he says after hiring a company to set up his blog, he has been able to figure out most of the details on his own.

Nevertheless, some law firms still prefer conventional advertising to get the word out. At personal injury firm Diamond & Diamond Lawyers in Toronto, for example, David Diamond says ads in places like the Yellow Pages and on radio continue to work. “Advertising has always been effective but it’s very expensive. We wouldn’t do it if it’s not worth it.” Still, after 30 years in business under a prominent brand name, Diamond says younger lawyers at the firm have convinced him to consider social media as well. “The younger generation is pushing me in the right direction.” 

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