COVID-19: What’s Next for Law Firms

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Below is an excerpt adapted from Julie Savarino’s book Survive & Thrive Post-Pandemic: A Guidebook for Legal & Professional Services ProvidersIn her excerpt Savarino reviews how law firms need to adapt in the wake of COVID-19. 

COVID-19 has caused disruption to every person and professional on the planet to one degree or another, and the impacts will reverberate for some time. This pandemic will end once COVID-19 is counteracted by a vaccine, treatment, or immunity. But the current reality is that we are all going to be living with the coronavirus for a long time until valid countermeasures are proven to be effective and available.

Without a feeling of (relative) safety, certainty, and confidence, no human being can function at an optimal level. For many, these insecure and unsafe feelings may never completely go back to the “normal” as defined pre-COVID-19. As human beings, when our health is threatened, our (relative) feelings of safety and security are shattered. Uncertainty abounds, which puts a premium on flexibility for firms and professional services providers to react quickly to economic, market, client-related, and business changes.

What are some strategic things that professional services firms and providers can consider doing to survive and thrive?

Analyze, then optimize costs and expenses 

In the wake of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, most clients of all professional services firms and providers (except for those clients whose demand has remained stable or has exploded) were directed by clients to eliminate, reduce, and control all nonessential, non-mission-critical costs and expenses immediately and in a measurable and meaningful manner. Many clients have taken and continue to take dramatic steps to do so, such as:

  • Putting stop orders on engagements, matters, cases, and projects
  • Demanding decreased hourly rates
  • Demanding caps or not-to-exceed limits on existing work
  • Settling open cases and closing open, non-mission-critical matters and engagements
  • Decreasing the number of outside professional services firms and providers they use

Internally within professional services firms, these same demands are being made to every practice group and administrative support department. Firm leaders have asked all practice and administrative departments to reassess their budgets and planned hiring and spend and to make cuts in a measurable and meaningful manner.

But, as the legendary Ralph Baxter suggests, avoid making the mistake of cutting business development and marketing investments to the bone. Instead, do so strategically.

Embrace the new relationship realities

If there is one thing we learned from the COVID-19 crisis, it’s that people make the world go round. Without people working and interacting, the economy and our world as we know it come to a standstill. The success of many businesses—including law firms and other firms in the professional services sector—is driven by relationships with people, and all people and relationships have been altered in many ways because of the pandemic.

So, what each individual person/professional does, what we say, how we say it, and how we act toward all people we come across in every aspect of our life, along with the information we share during and after the COVID-19 crisis, will be remembered and make an impact. The impact is to your reputation and brand, which have a direct effect on the effectiveness of your business development and marketing efforts.

For example, being forced to create fully operational, remote workplaces was a sea change for many professional services firms and providers who were used to going into their offices to work each day. The questions post-pandemic are whether remote work will become more the norm once the crisis passes; how much total square footage of office space will be reduced in the coming months and years; and what the implications of less traditional office time on the firm’s brand and image are.

Rethink, review, and leverage your communications 

At all times, but especially during crises, time is a limited, valuable, and too-scarce commodity for every business professional. Firms and practitioners need to send information in the format clients prefer (not in legalese or lengthy documents) and be aware of time limitations.

People consume new information in two main ways: either by seeing it (reading articles, books, and documents, or watching television, videos, devices, etc.) or by hearing and listening to it (in phone calls or discussions, audiobooks, podcasts, etc.). Various studies suggest most people are visual learners, i.e., many prefer to consume new information by seeing or reading it rather than by listening to it.

Yet, most highly educated professionals tend to prefer using their sense hearing above others. They are auditory learners, i.e., they gain most of their information from what they hear or listen to, setting up an unconscious bias toward delivering most information orally. So, it follows that many make the mistake of not converting spoken content into written form to reach both visual and auditory learners.

For example, remarks made during live presentations, webinars, and podcasts can readily be repurposed into writing and used for blogs, alerts, and social media, which will appeal to visual learners. Firms that do not practice converting spoken words into writing and repurposing the content miss a significant part of the market.

More best practices in business development in an era of social distancing 

  1. Remember what is important: not where you meet, but the quality and content of the communication.
  2. Just because you cannot go to lunch does not mean you cannot have meaningful conversations with clients, contacts, and prospective clients.
  3. List all the socially distant ways and means you have to communicate, such as telephone, email, videoconferencing apps, webinar apps, secure messaging apps, LinkedIn and other social media messaging and events, fax, snail mail, drop-offs, or, when allowed, physical in-person meetings. Identify the ones you are not using but that your clients/contacts use and consider signing up for or obtaining them. Make time to learn how to use new ones and to optimize your use of new technology.
  4. All communications should lead with empathy—by asking how they are doing personally, by suspending all judgment and assumptions about their situation, and by preparing to deliver relevant and usable information in the format they prefer.
  5. Make efforts to be indispensable to key clients. How? Schedule time to research and monitor their industry and organization, and conduct research relating to them/their needs; consider “what if” scenarios; identify information that could be of use or value to them; and schedule and initiate regular proactive outreach.
  6. When writing:
    • Remember that the subject line and first few sentences are the most important to grab the reader’s attention.
    • Provide context and a road map by answering “what’s in it for them” (WIFT) and the “five Ws”—who, what, when, where, why – and how—using about 40 words or fewer.
    • Use examples when possible.
    • Highlight or mark conclusions, options, need-to-dos, or action items.
    • Create and use custom images as appropriate and when possible, such as infographics, flowcharts, checklists, etc.
  7. When using videoconferencing or webinar apps:
    • Test your Internet speed and optimize for video.
    • Know which apps your clients use and create an account for each.
    • Customize your background/backdrop.
    • Optimize the lighting surrounding you.
    • Create the capability to silence all background noise.
    • Square your head to the camera and test-view yourself to adjust.
    • Pace your speech a bit slower when communicating online to account for lags and bandwidth delays.
    • When clients or contacts agree to speak on a webinar your firm is producing, offer to make an appropriate donation to their favorite charity or pro bono effort in their name.
  8. When possible and as appropriate, consider:
    • Video messages, which can be pre-recorded, then emailed or sent via messaging apps.
    • Drop-offs. A drop-off can be appropriate for clients and contacts who live or work near you. Examples include purchasing sealed food or beverages or other safe items for clients, contacts, and/or their family.
    • Ask clients and contacts whether they would like to meet for coffee or a meal, preferably outside, like at a park or a coffee shop that has large-scale outdoor seating. Consider wearing a face mask and keep a 6-to-15-foot distance from them at all times.

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