The ability to generate and convert leads into business is a skill that modern firms must master, says Yuri Rapoport
Operating a modern legal practice requires considerable understanding of traditional business skills such as market research, advertising, public relations, and customer services. However, there are many legal practitioners who undertake this endeavour without any business training at all.
As a result, the business side of legal practice is something that lawyers often struggle with. No matter how much time and money they spend on self-promotion and client lunches, they fall at the last hurdle due to their inability and reluctance to engage in a 'sales'-type role.
The reason is that legal practice was traditionally founded on academic acumen rather than business principles. Lawyers were taught to build professional reputations by delivering sound advice and achieving best possible result for clients.
Promote greater competition
With the deregulation of solicitor advertising rules in the mid-1980s, however, legal practitioners were suddenly forced to think of themselves in a different light. Following some 15 years of debate on the subject, the government made the decision to relax solicitor advertising rules in an attempt to promote greater competition, thereby fusing centuries of tradition with conventional business practices.
While many welcomed the idea of increased competition as the way forward, even those supporting deregulation at the time did not anticipate that the promise of a better life for legal professionals will play into the hands of only some business savvy firms and practitioners, while leaving many others to pick up the pieces.
Lawyers who had little or no prior experience in marketing and advertising, considered the task of competing for leads to be a sufficiently daunting challenge in itself, let alone the subsequent objective of converting it into a fee-paying client. Consequently, many legal professionals fell by the wayside as they witnessed their competitors' rise towards success.
Following this discouraging scenario, which played out in the United Kingdom, law societies in other jurisdictions such as Australia resisted similar change for almost another 10 years. The then president of the Law Society of New South Wales said that it would oppose any Commonwealth or state government attempts to remove advertising restrictions because:
'The Law Society doesn't want the public to be misled or offended by the content of advertisements. . . [and that it was] . . . concerned about advertisements by solicitors that could be reasonably regarded as offensive, vulgar, obscene, sensational or unprofessional and that could be perceived as false or misleading.'
Eventually, however, Australian law societies also conceded to government pressure and have since witnessed many of their initial concerns turn into reality, as many solicitors endeavour to walk a fine line between tolerable and objectionable self-promotion. Some 20 years of advertising freedom later the calls for increasing competition in the legal profession continue to resonate. Government reviews of the legal profession in the UK have culminated in the Legal Services Act 2007, which allows legal practitioners to explore new business opportunities by establishing alternative structures together with non-lawyers to make legal services more accessible to consumers. However, the problem is that both the 2007 law as well as the laws deregulating solicitor advertising in the mid-1980s, focused primarily on encouraging success among only the business-oriented practitioners.
Needless to say, aside from the knowledge possessed by professionals who have natural business abilities or those with formal business training, the process of generating leads and converting them into business is not something that lawyers cover in law school.
Accordingly, those legal practitioners with the most number of clients are not necessarily regarded highly in their respective areas of practice. They are, however, often the ones with the most clever business strategies.
Therefore, the quest for greater competition among lawyers was, and is continuing to be, sought at the expense of practitioners' professional qualities.
The ultimate victims are consumers of legal services. As a result of being blinded by the lights of expensive advertising campaigns, prospective clients are unable to see which lawyers are genuinely skilled in their respective areas of practice, and which are merely skilled at making promises designed to lure prospective leads.
Consequently, due to poor alignment between solicitors' professional ability and client requirements, the results can often lead to case mismanagement, overcharging and overall unsatisfactory services.
Thus, with the benefit of hindsight, if the government had the chance to initiate the process of increasing competition among lawyers), it is questionable whether it would follow the same path.
Twenty years ago was a very different world in terms of competitive business ideas. Only in the past five years, market competition has evolved in an entirely new direction in many sectors of the economy. Driven by developments in information technology, consumers have literally forced the insurance, finance, and travel industries to follow new buying patterns, which have seen people preferring to independently 'pull' information off the internet rather than having it 'pushed' on them by sellers' own advertising campaigns.
As a result, price-comparison websites have cashed-in on merchandising information to consumers, who are looking for independent validations of how good something is, and who trust this type of information much more than a seller's own advertising material. In other words, information technology has directly challenged the principles of advertising and other business strategies concerned with attracting new clientele.
Shift back to lawyer reputations
If consumer buying trends affect the legal profession in the same way they have other economic sectors, internet technology could be harnessed to bring back traditional values into the practice of law by shifting the prospective client's focus from clever advertising campaigns, back to individual lawyer reputations. That is, legal online directories will offer consumers a selection of legal service providers according to objective criteria linked to professional experience and expertise that can be searched and sorted with unprecedented efficiency.
If such technology was available in the 1980s, the government may never have opted to increase competition through deregulation of solicitor advertising, and sought to do so by insisting on every legal practitioner registering their practice profiles with an online directory.
Today, however, lawyers who recognise the significance of developments in
consumer-focused internet technology can let the wave of change work to their advantage. That is, make sufficient information about their practice publically available, and simply let prospective clients find them.
Firstly, lawyers must recognise that discerning consumers will seek out lawyers who can deliver best possible results, which is likely to mean weighing up individual lawyer's measurable expertise and experience criteria. For example, a consumer may wish to locate a lawyer with the most number of cases handled in a given area of law, or with at least 10 years' experience, or with prior dealings against a specific type of company or organisation.
Lawyers who are confident in their abilities and wish to use the internet to generate leads, and to convert them into payable clients, must ensure that their professional profiles are readily available on the internet. Moreover, lawyers should:
- Keep apprised of the available search engines and online directories specialising in helping consumers locate suitable lawyers, as new ones are coming up all the time.
- Establish relationships with law brokers (such as legal referral services) '“ particularly those operating online or supported by online directories.
- When registering with online websites try to provide as much detail as possible about professional experience and expertise '“ this is the type of information that will ensure best alignment between lawyers and prospective clients.
- Update successful case results regularly on these websites '“ prospective clients seek out champions.
- When contacted by a lead focus on establishing a rapport based on prior experience with the type of matter in question.
Value for consumers
Clients can be very forgiving for not being offered a cup of tea at a meeting, or a follow-up call with their lawyer, so long as they achieve the final result they desire. Therefore, with the advent of 'legal-comparison' websites, lawyers can afford to worry far less about their business skills and concentrate more on practicing law.
As the role of advertising becomes less pivotal to legal practice, lawyers will naturally minimise their expenses associated with procuring leads while receiving the type of work they are actually good at doing. Such an approach ties-in the costs for quality proposition, which ultimately translates into value for consumers.
Most lawyers are already armed with an abundance of distinguishing information about their professional experience, which is sufficient to attract prospective clients. All that is needed are more online directories where lawyers can state their unique marketing proposition, and where consumers can find it. As online directories become an accepted standard in legal competitive practice the two schools of thought that disagree over whether legal practice should be a profession or a business will no doubt find a common standpoint in that both the 'practice of law' and the 'business of law' aim for success in competition.
However, it would clearly be a better world if the term 'successful lawyer' meant a legal practitioner who achieved the best possible results for clients, rather than referring to the lawyer's profit margin.