As legal markets become even more competitive over the next ten years, commercial law firms will need to reconsider many of their long-held assumptions and practices about marketing and business development. Some firms will negotiate the coming seismic shift well and continue to succeed. Others will not.
the declining value of traditional law firm marketing
Some traditional marketing activities, many of which already have only limited value for most commercial law firms, will become even less productive. This might be uncomfortable for some law firm partners and their marketing advisors.
Here are a few examples of currently popular law firm marketing tactics that probably will produce ever-diminishing returns in the future:
- mass advertising, such as at airports and in business magazines
- "pay to publish" articles in business and legal industry publications
- "law firm of the year" awards presented by legal publications
This is not to say that any of these examples will be utterly irrelevant or worthless in the future; but their return on investment -- especially of partner time -- will decline to a point at which most law firms will no longer consider them to be priorities.
Other traditional marketing tactics will need to be executed in better-focused ways. For example:
- The return on investment in speaking at international legal conferences and other networking opportunities will decrease, compared to using those events as venues to meet, and development more business from, existing or recent clients.
- Social media will continue to have very little value in attracting new clients to commercial law firms, but they can become very powerful tools to demonstrate competitive advantages, such as especially responsive communications and availability, to existing clients.
- Rankings in major legal directories will continue to be important channels for communicating a firm's expertise to the commercial legal market, but only to the extent that they demonstrate differentiating competitive advantages.
from increased visibility to more intense client focus
The better strategy for commercial law firms of the future will be to focus on building client loyalty and engaging new profitable work from existing clients. Instead of working hard to try to attract new clients, the most successful firms will focus most of their resources and efforts on cementing and expanding their relationships with the good clients that they already have.
This will be a seismic shift for many of today's law firms, and many of them will not make a successful transition. Business development in the legal market of 2025 will require more astute people, not high-tech, glossy marketing tools. The firms that will make this transition, from the visibility-oriented marketing of legal services today to the precisely targeted business development that will be most successful ten years from now, will have three critical characteristics not frequently observed in law firms today:
- cultural and intellectual diversity to relate better to an increasingly diverse global client base;
- well-developed business skills and emotional intelligence to focus legal knowledge on better understanding and meeting the expectations of clients; and
- a shift in the role of in-house marketing staff from promoting the firm's general visibility in the market to collecting, managing, and disseminating market intelligence to the firm's partners.
Being "Big Law" will not be enough.
This most emphatically does not mean that the world's legal markets are destined to be dominated by a small number of "Big Law" service providers, with the rest of us being relegated to scurrying in the shadows for whatever work we can find.
Large law firms do not possess any inherent advantages with respect to any of these three critical attributes. An ability to anticipate shifts in the legal marketplace and in the needs and expectations of clients, and the willingness to make fundamental changes in long-held assumptions about the business of practicing law, can overcome a relative lack of financial and staff resources compared to those of large firms. In fact, a small firm with well-developed change management skills might have an advantage over larger ones, because of the relative speed and agility with which they sometimes can execute significant changes in their strategic direction.
Alertness and agility, not size and resources, will make the difference.
To learn more about business development in the fast-changing legal markets of the next 10 years, order your copy of Business Development: A Practical Handbook for Lawyers, to be published in early 2016 by Globe Law and Business. Click here for more information.
 "Commercial" law firms generally offer sophisticated corporate and commercial services to corporations, government agencies, and high net-worth individuals. Most large law firms and many midsize firms today can be characterized as commercial law firms. By contrast, "retail" law firms tend to be smaller practices, including most solo practices. They usually focus on a limited number of legal services and products delivered primarily to individual clients and small businesses. Of course, there are many exceptions and "hybrids," but most law firms in the world today are influenced toward one of these two "centers of gravity," describing their most profitable legal services and client sectors.