Why your lawyer’s not a social media ninja

23 05 2011

Let me start with a confession.

It took me a while to “get” Twitter. The first time I tried it (which I think was 2008), I just used it to consume information. It wasn’t great for a number of reasons – firstly, I didn’t put a lot of time in to work out who to follow (and in particular I didn’t discriminate between those companies or people who had anything interesting to say online and those  I simply had an interest in) and secondly, at that time it wasn’t as widely adopted as it is now, so there were simply fewer good users.

Sam in IT security did not mess around when enforcing the firm's policy

The next time I tried, I switched to “broadcast mode” and used it as a one-way tool to let the world know about my blog. Of course, because I had nothing else of any interest to say (or to be more accurate, if I did, I didn’t say it on Twitter), I got very little traffic as a result and soon gave up.

The third time was when I got it. A bit of experimenting, understanding the world of hashtags, retweeting and trending, and soon I found a community of likeminded folks (two of which have been featured on this blog in the past).

This of course led to the critical step – engagement, which is where the value comes from.

Now I have an established community, the news I get is both relevant and extremely timely. In terms of sharing my content, whether it’s this blog or other work-related content, the community are generally much more receptive and interested than simply broadcasting to the world at large. And of course the more I engage, the more that community grows and the more I gain.

What I don’t pretend to be, is some sort of social media guru, but I absolutely see the benefit from it.

Twitter, Linkedin and my Blog have all provided very tangible positive benefits to my professional life (Facebook I keep separate for personal use), and given the user numbers for social media, the valuations of the main players, and the newsworthy status of the platforms (super-injunction anyone?), at first look it seems strange that more law firms are not using social media effectively.

Scratch the surface, and the reasons are obvious. At least to me.

Perhaps the reason that’s most often cited is the perceived risk involved.

Trained to be wary of defamation, and qualifying into organisations which are (rightly) protective of their reputations, the more risk-averse partners in law firms can often see huge potential danger in allowing individual lawyers to express themselves in an informal and opinionated way.

This can lead to social media being simply struck off the agenda (“it’s just a fad anyway”), or so sanitised any communication simply resembles a bland summary of the firm’s press releases. zzzzzzzzzzzz.

If you want to test this, firstly check out the more forward thinking media and look at the amount of their engagement. Are they tweeting, blogging and active on discussion groups? Is their engagement commensurate with their brand and positioning?

Or in fact do the lawyers have to engage without mentioning the firm? Or does all the comment come with the health warning “views are the personal opinion of the author” (meaning if they generate goodwill and thought leadership, the firm will promote the content and benefit, but if they step out of line, they’re on their own and we did warn the reader it was nothing to do with the firm!).

Some of the other reasons are perhaps a little less obvious, but I have some theories for you to consider.

The first is the very restrictive IT security policies than many firms enforce. While I’ve written before about the deficiencies in many firm’s information security, the need to be seen to have all systems locked-down means as well as restrictions on employee internet use (which are becoming less Draconian over time) there are pretty stringent controls on which applications can be used on mobile devices. In the age of the app, this seems to come at the expense of productivity – I certainly do much of my Twitter use remotely while walking around the building or waiting for trains. Without the ability to exploit these micro-chunks of time, the busy lawyer will find it difficult to contribute meaningfully to the marketplace.

The biggest unwritten hurdle is of course time. When the primary method of measuring lawyer performance is the chargeable hour, anything outside that category, especially something where the return on investment is less tangible, is heresy. While those who know how to use social media and can demonstrate the profile and connections they build for the firm may get some leeway to invest some time, those who are new to the game are often denied the time and encouragement to try, and it remains a mystery and missed opportunity.

The related point is the need for timeliness, and again, when lawyers are chained to Microsoft Office and their practice management system, with one eye on the clock, grabbing five minutes to check what’s going on in their network, and respond in a timely fashion to questions and comments can be doubly challenging, putting the pressure on even the most adept online legal ninja.

Now just for the record, I’m not for one minute saying that interacting with social media should take precedence over client work and critical deadlines. Holding up closing a multi-million dollar aquisition because you are engaged in a juicy debate on liability clauses on twitter is not a bright idea.

But, if law firms are going to make the most of the social media revolution, then they need to find ways to allow their best people to experiment and engage which in turn will allow their stars to shine.

I’ve no doubt as the demographics of firms continue to change and more lawyers who have grown up with social media join and have a meaningful presence, the culture will of course change. The question is, which firms can get ahead of the curve and reap the benefits before their competitors?





The future of law firm sales?

17 04 2011

Inspired by a recent dialogue on Twitter between Mike Ames (@Mike_Ames_Flair) and I (@intchallenge), I was struck by the similarity of some of our messages to law firms on the thorny subject of sales (talking about “client development” is much easier…). After posting some linked blog posts, we decided it was time to experiment with a social media-sales-mash-up.

James was not sure the practical sales training for lawyers was wholly relevant, but was willing to give it a try

Mike recently blogged about why lawyer’s don’t like the “S-word”, and I thought I’d add some of my thoughts to what I thought was a great post. It’s an interesting perspective, because while I’ve sold legal services, bought legal services and sold to law firms, I’m not an out and out sales person. Mike on the other hand has worked in business development for over 20 years, and has a history of both his own business development and coaching others to sell.

So, let’s mash (Italicised text is Mikes)!

Let me start by saying not all lawyers hate doing the “S” word. There are quite a few that I know who would prefer to do nothing but sales especially if meant getting away from all that tiresome law stuff and those impossibly demanding client-typesBut, whilst business development is an acceptable alternative phrase for sales (but not real work apparently) actually getting down to doing it is not top of the to-do list for most lawyers, but why?

Based upon my own coffee-house investigations (OK some of them weren’t carried out in coffee houses) these are my top 5:

  1. It takes too long – I just don’t have the time to fit it in. This is true, and the underlying cause is of course the tyranny of the chargeable hour. Maister talked years ago about the chargeable hour being today’s profit and the non-chargeable hour being tomorrow’s profit and nowhere is this truer than in the context of business development. How many other businesses would fail to recognise the importance of bringing work in to such a degree?
  2. It’s not my job – that’s what marketing are employed to do isn’t it? Sadly, the distinction between functions such as marketing communications, marketing strategy, pitch support and pure sales is often blurred in law firms, and thus the easy to understand link between sales and revenue often gets confused with other marketing-related activities that have much more difficult to calculate return on investment metrics.
  3. The law is more interesting – it’s what I was trained for and it’s what I want to do. This seems to me to be an entirely valid statement if you are working in a firm that can accommodate this approach. If not, then there may be a problem!
  4. I’m not sure what to do – I’ve had no real training or guidance. Definitely true at smaller and mid-sized firms. At the larger firms, I’d add a qualifier – the lawyers may well have had some training, but haven’t had the opportunity or encouragement to actually practice their skills and hone them. It might seem obvious, but selling is a skill – I remember first being taught Strategic Selling and SPIN selling as a circa 2 year qualified lawyer, but it wasn’t until I’d practiced them many times, often with an experienced business development professional at my side, that I began to internalise them and crucially, feel more comfortable using them.
  5. It’s just a bit grubby – I’m a professional not a used-car salesman. In my experience, while this attitude does exist, it’s dying out.

I’m not sure how close this to your own beliefs but they did crop up fairly consistently. By way of a response I would say: –

  • It is your job and is going to grow in importance. Accept it and move on. 
  • Sales is what makes the world go around – nothing happens until somebody sells something. If it helps consider yourself to be more of a facilitator. This is particularly true at the moment – you’ve cut costs, but revenues remain sluggish. Firms need revenue to grow. Of course it’s servicing the work that generates the revenue (and yes I know, managing WIP and aged debt are important too), but if you don’t sell effectively, the firm is unlikely to grow significantly – incremental growth of existing accounts in the current climate is unlikely to do the trick.
  • Like most things you can do it in a highly professional or decidedly sleazy way. You choose. This might seem like a no-brainer, but I’d go a step-further. If you are a lawyer with good client skills, the chances are you can be an excellent sales person. Professional, bright and good at asking questions, these are core selling competencies. Put some structure around them, season with a little theory, and then finish with a liberal serving of practice, and you’ve got yourself a rainmaker!
  • Once you have been trained it is easy and does not really take a lot of time. The sales cycle may vary depending on what you are selling, but importantly it will become a process that you can help shape, rather than just being on a treadmill of responding to client RFPs (requests for proposals).
  • It can actually be great fun, satisfying and very financially rewarding. Hell yeah. Closing a big piece of business can give a buzz that’s just as good as getting a deal signed, and you’re unlikely to have worked 48 hours straight to get it done!

I’m not a lawyer but I believe in the future the lawyers who get on most won’t necessarily be great at the law but they will be great at sales.

This I’d also agree with, but I’d also add some gloss. I think as more and more firms re-examine their business model, this will highlight the importance of the sales function. This may manifest as lawyers getting better at selling (more professional training, perhaps truly looking for sales skills and experience when recruiting), it may also result in the development of sales departments in law firms? Sounds a long way off? I’m not so sure. I’ve worked with firms who have business development managers who are very good sales people, and often accompany partners when they go out selling. This is a great model and it works very well. Where it falls short is of course scale, and for a large law firm (which is likely international), to have two or three really skilled sales people seems like an unnecessary restriction on revenue growth.

Now of course there are arguments that with professional services, clients are buying certain individuals, and to some degree I accept that. But even now there are challenges that can be made to that concept – when a partner pitches for work, will the client really be getting much of the partner’s time? The more efficient firms push work down to the minimum qualification level possible that will meet quality standards, and that will rarely be the partner. This of course helps keeps costs down, which translates into lower fees or higher profit margins, depending on the pricing structure.

In the IT industry, the concept of a pre-sales expert is common. This is someone with real technical knowledge who accompanies the sales force on prospect meetings to answer technical questions and demonstrate the company’s expertise. This model may need a bit of adapting for the legal profession, but I absolutely believe that the firms that invest in a highly skilled sales force, whether it’s lawyers, sales professionals or a mixture of the two, can really grow market share and win some serious business.

In that scenario, the losers? As Mike says, they’ll be those that turn their nose up at the S-word!

Mike’s website is here if you want to learn more about his approach to sales.