By Tobias Heining and Ana-Maria Drăgănuță Briard.
Building your reputation is key
No doubt, reputation is one of the most important criteria when it comes to assigning outside legal counsel with a strategic project or even making them a trusted legal advisor for a greater variety of matters.
Now obviously, as a law firm you won’t get anywhere near consideration to potentially being selected as legal service provider, if you are lacking reputation as a basis of credibility and trust. As such, reputation is the benchmark for clarity and sharpness of the (self-) portrait a law firm projects into its respective market environment.
The two most important dimensions of a solid reputation for every law firm brand are awareness and perception in the eyes of the buying center and beyond. The buying center comprises the closer circle of people involved in assigning projects or work to outside counsel (mostly in-house lawyers or executive level division managers) but can also tangent other potential reference groups and decision makers in companies, who might have a say in the matter depending on scope, strategic importance and dimensions of a project (e.g. board level).
Awareness in this respect means the level of recognition the law firm’s name has in the market or the target segment defined as relevant: e.g. Is it unknown, well known or even famous? Perception on the other hand refers to the level of understanding what kind of experience, sectors, topics or services a firm particularly represents or stands for: e.g. If a (potential) client thinks of that particular firm, do they picture a crystal clear firm profile or is the vision rather veiled or somewhat blurred?
Paving the way on the ‘Path-to-Purchase’ with the ‘Law Firm Reputation Matrix’
The ‘Law Firm Reputation Matrix’ devides both dimensions, awareness and perception, into six different grades allowing a solid self-assessment to define the location at firm, practice group or sector group level.
While many larger full-service law firms – some partly due to sheer size – might already be quite well positioned on the awareness axis, most are not performing overly well on the perception axis. Many companies might have heard of them but have no idea what they stand for (“I know they are kind of large…”). Even most of their existing clients wouldn’t have a clear understanding of their full portfolio or particular strengths and focus areas (“We use them for IP matters, but else…”).
Some smaller or boutique firms on the other hand might project a very clear service profile in the market (e.g. Digital Transformation experts, Venture Capital power house) but lack market penetration on the awareness axis beyond a very focused, maybe even regionally limited, market segment (“Haven’t seen them around here…”).
Finally, there are very few firms – usually the top dogs in the market and some high-end boutiques – who are able to reach supreme consecrations in both dimensions, enjoying boardroom credibility and access and getting assigned with the most critical matters where cost isn’t really an issue (“A-Team for bet-the-company situations…”).
Needless to say there are many shades of grey between the showcase examples described above. But no matter where you locate in the ‘Law Firm Reputation Matrix’, your respective two vectoral positioning leaves you with a variety of strategic options to either increase your awareness level in the market, sharpen the perception of your service offering, proceed in both dimensions simultaneously or even maintain the edge and try to stay ahead of the competition.
As resources usually are limited to some extent and not all potential measures are equally effective depending on your positioning and strategic goals, these options automatically lead to some guiding questions determining further progress on the so called ‘Path-to-Purchase’: What do we want to achieve and which measures are the most effective at this stage?
If your main goal is to gain widespread public traction, boost awareness, generate leads and increasingly being taken into consideration, you’d better try to be all over the place with the marketing equivalent of a ‘water sprinkler’ by creating as much sharable content as you can and putting further emphasis on content-driven public appearances to build and establish an expert reputation.
If you already can rely on a solid market reputation and your main goal is to sharpen your profile, increase your conversion rate either with potential clients for first-time assignments or with existing clients for cross-selling additional services or if you even want to amplify the loyalty of already converted clients, you’ll have to heavily intensify your touch points and boil down the dispersion of your measures making more use of the ‘waterjet cutter’ rather than the ‘water sprinkler’.
Also, the overall market setting potentially influences the implementation of the ‘Law Firm Reputation Matrix’ concept, e.g. the approach for large and medium-sized law firms in more mature legal markets should differ from the approach medium-sized and smaller law firms in less mature legal markets might take.
Strategic approach in a more mature legal market setting
For instance, the top 10 law firms in mature legal markets are now mostly faced with the challenge of remaining top performers and securing their positioning as quality leaders. To do so, they must adapt their traditional business model (e.g. optimise service delivery), as well as develop and implement new business models.
The top 11-50 firms, on the other hand, must face the task of catching up with the top group, but above all position themselves as innovation pioneers. This also usually requires an adjustment of the traditional business model, but also building alliances and developing and implementing new business models.
The top 51-100 firms however are currently struggling not to lose ground and to maintain their positioning as stability factors and reliable business partners. They too, have to adapt their traditional business model and, in addition, specialise and develop advisory products.
For the top 101-200+ firms finally, it is essentially a matter of remaining in the game at all. In addition to the adaptation of the traditional business model and the development of a positioning as segment specialists, the conquest for new market segments and market potentials is (or should be) at the top of their agenda.
In addition, law firms in mature markets are increasingly confronted with new market realities, including digitalisation, competitive dynamics, changing client requirements and demands, decreasing profitability expectations in some areas of expertise and services, rearguard actions in the ongoing war for talent, etc.
Therefore, they are seeking support in the strategy process on many levels as well as in the conception and subsequent implementation of corresponding measures and in the operative day-to-day business. This is particularly true for the business services areas of business development, marketing and communication as well as finance, human resources, IT and knowledge management.
In all these areas the vast majority of law firms still shows a considerable need for further professionalisation, but to date usually does not provide the necessary qualifications or resources internally, does not have access to them or simply does not host an internal solution for purely business or political/cultural considerations (“fee earners vs. fee burners”).
If the prime objective is to purely raise awareness, generate leads and increasingly being taken into consideration by potential clients, the weapons of choice are producing sharable content and content-driven public appearances. The motto here is: “The more, the better”, with sheer mass beating focus.
As a consequence this means keeping an eye on and regularly picking up on current topics and legal/economic trends and developments, writing smaller and more extensive contributions, providing quotes and interviews, publishing blog articles and other intelligence pieces and commenting on social media posts. But most importantly: stay tuned and follow up on these to create a constant buzz and stay on the public radar.
Content-driven public appearances can take place within the context of internal or external events and webinars. Again: the more the better, especially external events with a higher reach than law firms usually generate through their own contact base. Furthermore, at this stage, firms should consider active involvement with associations and other professional groups, as well as initiating and conducting publicity-boosting surveys and studies.
These measures are particularly valuable and effective when it comes to building an expert reputation. This is also true for contributing to articles for manuals and professional publications. Nonetheless, these measures require a slightly more focused approach to prevent from overstretching limited resources.
If – building on a solid market positioning – the objective is to increase the conversion rate with (potential) clients this primarily means converting needs into demand by positively influencing purchase decisions of (potential) clients through clearer cut communications and creation of tangible USPs and added value. This not only requires law firms to heavily invest in and leverage from market intelligence, but also to think in terms of products and advisory solutions instead of descriptive legal compilations.
Firms should therefore concentrate on designing concrete project and module offers (product shelving), comprehensive deal sourcing, presenting at smaller, more focused target group-specific internal and external events and offering secondments, as well as highly targeted one-on-one presentations with a topical or project-related background to increase practical relevance for potential target groups
To even amplify the loyalty of already converted clients, law firms have to leave behind the ‘water sprinkler’ and make more use of the ‘waterjet cutter’ now becoming the most effective tool to further intensify touch points and boil down dispersion. To build client loyalty and stabilize conversion means creating trust and proximity with your client. Not only by the quality of advice but by the quality of service, as ultimately the relationship orientated behaviour of an organisation and not its technical and professional prowess allows the quantum leap from experts and consultants to trusted advisors.
Starting with establishing a cultural set-up and incentive scheme that facilitates true client centricity, enabling proper client intelligence, reengineering service delivery, building key client programs and serious client listening and feedback programs, secondment programs, as well as alumni programs, delivering services in a pro-active manner and finally leveraging from client testimonials to boost credibility with target clients.
Strategic approach in a less mature legal market setting
If law firms in more mature legal markets focus on new developments affecting the overall market settings and on how to potentially leverage from them in order to generate leads or raise conversion rates, law firms in less mature legal markets face other types of challenges. While is it true that taking the Digital Transformation of the firm from zero might come as an advantage, having little case studies it all goes down to learning from different strategies, adapting to the actual reaction of the market and growing in the direction that the market leads.
Medium-sized law firms don’t always lack awareness level, as they found other means of getting to be known in the market, even with some so-called ‘old-fashioned’ means as academic papers, conferences followed by legal peers, and visiting professorships at universities. However, they not seldomly suffer from considerable confusion in the market when it comes to the perception level.
As many medium-sized law firms provide full-service legal packages, it is usually hard for the public to perceive them in any specific way. The feedback mostly – similar to law firms in more mature legal markets – sounds something like “I work with a law firm, they do everything, but not really sure what exactly…”.
Smaller law firms on the other hand often locate in the lower fields of the ‘Law Firm Reputation Matrix’ lacking awareness as well as perception. Taking a closer look, it seems necessary however to further distinguish between ‘new’ smaller law firms, lacking both perception and awareness, and ‘established’ smaller law firms, that chose to remain small in numbers and enjoy some level of awareness but lack a focus and thus, the public cannot pinpoint them for specific cases.
At this level, law firms must overcome two main challenges: The first being mainly intrinsic, dealing with how to focus on one main target group and specialty of law. The second being rather extrinsic, regarding the main activities their target group mostly receives openly.
In the phase of adolescence and coming of age of a legal market, many law firms start to learn about the advantages of having help from professionals in creating growth strategies to reach their objectives. At this stage, spending resources without a clear purpose usually results in further (potentially unnecessary) expenses, when strategic alignment needs to be adjusted later on.
Climbing the first three ladder rungs of the ‘Law Firm Reputation Matrix’ is not an easy task, especially for medium- and smaller-sized law firms with scarce resources. For them it is paramount to identify the one main activity that helps the firm to reach the next level within a limited budget. In the end, no clear focus results in achieving nothing. And focus starts with a thorough assessment and identification of target groups and clients, as well as of the main domain of work. Then, according to their two strengths, focus target group and focus area of expertise, firms can start unfolding marketing activities in order to work their way up.
Finding out where to meet (potential) target clients, what keeps them up at night, where they gather and consume information and who influences them, is a second essential step. Law firms must put out the feelers, look outside the mental cocoon of their organisation. Decision makers must widen their vision by getting out there networking, discussing, presenting, trying to discover where they can find those potential clients and how to address them in an appropriate manner.
For corporation-sized businesses as target group, top-tier conferences, closed networking events and exclusive dinners might be the places to be. For smaller-scale digital companies or start-ups social media channels with a professional focus (e.g. LinkedIn), accelerator events or investor meetings could be good methods to start with. Private individuals as a target group for potentially small-scale, low complexity but high market volume assignments need a broad communicational approach implementing social media channels with a high reach (e.g. Facebook) while high net worth individuals should be targeted by much more personalised approaches and usually require a deeper insight in their preferences and a sufficient level of private information about their activities.
Being located at the lower ends of the ‘Law Firm Reputation Matrix’, marketing strategies for medium- and smaller-sized law firms in less mature legal markets should focus on getting known, becoming an expert in a specific field and attracting leads. Strategies could centre on content-driven activities, such as blog posts, commenting on real-life events or commenting and discussing legal trends and changes in the respective focus area of expertise, setting up newsletters, sharing information on social media and establishing press contacts to facilitate appearing in the specific media consumed by the identified target group. Those who fancy less conventional activities could produce legal explanatory videos or podcasts even with limited resources and technical equipment.
The ‘Law Firm Reputation Matrix’ provides firms with a broader view of where they are now and where they stand after implementing strategic activities. Even though marketing measures will not always lead to an ascending straight line, depending on the actions law firms choose to apply, they can easily assess the effectiveness of their approach and plan the next steps for growth scenarios.
As discussed, for medium- and smaller-sized law firms, the lack of resources can be a challenge. Hence, they should organise the expansion strategy according to milestones by first focusing on raising more awareness before concentrating on the perception level and then successively putting more resources on either measure with further growth.
Smaller law firms at the beginning of their activities have an advantage, if they decide to follow the ‘Law Firm Reputation Matrix’ rationale from the start and deploy professional support enabling them to healthily grow on both awareness and perception level proportionally and ascend in accordance with their values, long term objectives and target group.
After having passed the first three levels of the ‘Law Firm Reputation Matrix’, the strategy focuses more on conversions, client loyalty, and maintaining the reputation. Having reached a certain level of recognition in the respective market, client expectations tend to grow and it becomes much easier to disappoint. The creation of funnels, content-driven pieces with a more focused approach, participation in high-end events, newsletters for specific clients advising about new developments in their fields of interest and being recognised by renowned law firm directories (even in the baseline chapters), is a start to reaching fame and a three-dimensional reception level.
Endeavor to be what you desire to appear
Greek philosopher Socrates is quoted “The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear”. And once again, this wisdom leaves us with the disenchanting insight that nothing comes without effort and that a desired reputation always is the result of a strategic approach, a thorough analysis, sophisticated planning, sufficient resources, consistent management and execution, as well as hard work. But Socrates also teaches us that gaining reputation is about being authentic which means that law firm management should not only rely on the above but also on an honest self-assessment without being distracted by an overdose of wishful thinking and a purely normative approach nor by an all too ambitious scheduling with respect to the potentially challenging realities of partnership structures and overall limited resources. “Festina lente”, as Emperor Augustus allegedly used to say - proceed expeditiously but prudently. And who are we to contradict his imperial majesty or the founder of Western philosophy himself? However, with a growing reputation and a consolidation of market positioning a decreasing use of the ‘water sprinkler’ and increasing use of the ‘waterjet cutter’ demands a higher degree of strategic alignment and a more rigid management of resources. This doesn’t necessarily mean certain measures have to be uncompromisingly excluded from the business development, marketing and communications tool box or entrepreneurial freedom of partners should be entirely sacrificed on the altar of organisational dirigisme.
But it requires a firm and transparent set of criteria for decision making, clarity about the deployment and allocation of resources focusing on the achievement of the firm’s overall objectives and – above all – true commitment from all sides. There’s no getting around this, if a law firm endeavors to become what it desires to appear and work its way up the ranks of the ‘Law Firm Reputation Matrix’.
About the authors
Tobias Heining is Director Business, Clients & Strategy at Osborne Clarke in Germany. Prior to joining Osborne Clarke, Tobias was Director Business Development & Communications at CMS in Germany, where he established Germany’s first ever law firm Legal Tech unit. Tobias started his professional career as Consultant at a PR agency advising law firms, worked as Marketing Manager at a US law firm, joining CMS at BD Manager level. Tobias also is a founding member, former President, and current board member of the European Legal Tech Association (ELTA).
Ana-Maria Drăgănuță Briard is a Romanian licensed digital lawyer, founder of Legally Remote and CEO of Romanian Legal Tech start-up, Avoteca, helping small and medium-sized law firms to grow their business. Since 2017, Ana-Maria has been empowering
legal professionals to thrive in the digital world through mentoring sessions and online training. Ana-Maria also hosts the first legal Romanian podcast, Legal Tale, touching on sensitive subjects, such as mental health, family time, and self-appreciation. In addition, Ana-Maria is Romania’s Ambassador for the European Legal Tech Association (ELTA).