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One big reason lawyers should do more thought leadership (and three common ways to get it wrong)
Author : Rob Ashton
Posted : 08 / 06 / 21
Of all the many conversations I had with senior lawyers in the strange summer of 2020, there is one in particular that stands out.
It was with an M&A practice head at a top 20 law firm. She’d spent months wining and dining the founders of a mid-size tech company who were planning an exit. It showed every sign of being a sizable deal and the perfect match for her team. She ought to have been a shoo-in.
Yet she’d ended up losing the work to a partner from a rival firm with far less experience. Why? Because an article he had written convinced the client that he was not just the best but the only lawyer for the job.
If ever there were a perfect example of the power of good thought leadership, this is it.
It’s not just the spectacular return on investment of the few hours the author had probably spent writing the piece. It was the fact that by targeting his advice so carefully, he had managed to set up camp in the prospective client’s brain. Nothing the bigger firm could do after that could shift him.
Could you need a bigger reason to take thought leadership seriously?
Yet thought leadership is something most law firms continue to both undervalue and misunderstand. Instead of seeing it for the opportunity it is, they rely on methods of business development other sectors have long seen as outdated.
In another memorable Zoom meeting, a partner at another large firm confided she was still under pressure to take clients out and stick with them no matter what, even if that meant staying out till 2am. Just the thought made her shudder – not only because she was (like many lawyers) an introvert, but also out of concern for her own safety.
Winning work through wining and dining was an anachronism even before the pandemic so dramatically undermined most firms’ BD strategies. The idea of spending your spare time or precious billable hours networking with strangers – in the hope of meeting someone who might one day become a client (even if you have to keep up that effort for years) – is one that almost every other profession abandoned decades ago.
And then along came Covid-19, which made it not just completely impractical but banned by government mandate. No surprise then that most lawyers realised they needed to find other tactics – including thought leadership.
Yet there are other, more positive reasons to make this a key part of your BD plan.
Winning work through wining and dining was an anachronism even before Covid-19. It's time for law firm partners to take thought leadership seriously as a winning BD strategy, says @Robert_Ashton @EmphasisWriting Click To Tweet
Instead of attending event after event, meeting after meeting, you post an article once and it does the best part of the work for you.
Instead of building your reputation one person at a time, each piece could be read by thousands of potential clients.
This approach even defies the laws of physics: if you publish your articles in the places that your target clients already go, you can appear to be everywhere at once.
But to work, it has to be done properly. And there’s the rub, because most firms tend to misunderstand or misuse thought leadership. Not surprising then that they see lacklustre results and often give it up as a bad job. Before long, they’re back on the rubber chicken circuit, relying on hope and endurance to fill their work pipelines.
Fortunately, most ineffective thought leadership falls into one of three traps. So let’s look at the pitfalls you need to avoid and what you should do instead.
Article writing is not just a great way to position yourself with potential clients but a way to do it at scale. It can enable you to reach many more people than you ever could through networking.
Not only that, but it can drive enquiries from people who are serious about engaging you, so that you don’t waste precious billable hours giving free advice to people who aren’t.
But too many lawyers sabotage their efforts by holding back, out of concern about giving too much away.
Here’s why this is a huge mistake.
Imagine your reader – a potential client – with a problem they’re desperate to solve. They type their query into Google’s search box and your article appears, with a headline that perfectly matches what they’re looking for. Boom! They’ve found it. Hope builds, along with positive feelings that you – a perfect stranger mere seconds ago – could be their salvation.
They start reading, relieved that they’re going to find all the answers to their most burning questions. But instead, they get only one or two, and it becomes clear that they’ll have to contact you to find out more.
Now, what do you think they’ll do if the answer falls short of the initial expectation? Will they wait till office hours and call you to fill in the gaps for them? Or will they continue to search until they land on another article (probably written by a competitor) that gives them the information they’re looking for?
Even if they’re reading in office hours, they’ll still probably keep searching. That’s because they’re in search mode and search is addictive. Every morsel of information they find gives them a dopamine hit and leads them to keep searching. Google gives them access to the world’s knowledge. They’ve no reason to stop searching and pick up the phone to you.
Thought leadership is about building authority and trust. And the best way to do both is to deliver value. The more you give away, the more valuable real estate you’ll occupy in that potential client’s mind, cementing your reputation as the expert in the field.
And when you’ve done that, they’re probably still going to need a lawyer anyway. Then, who do you think they’ll call? The lawyer who promised a lot but left them with lots of unanswered questions, or the one who gave them what they were searching for, so that they needed to look no further?
I don’t know a single partner who would leave nurturing relationships with their most valuable clients to someone else. It’s the cornerstone of rainmaking: a pivotal part of finding work and bringing fees into the firm.
Yes, it’s hard work. But you still do it, as it’s part of partner life. (Or at least it was before Covid-19.)
And yet, those partners who wouldn’t dream of outsourcing real-world relationship building are often the first to outsource writing thought leadership pieces.
‘But that’s not the same,’ you might protest. ‘That’s marketing – I’ll leave that to the comms team.’ Or perhaps you delegate those tasks to associates, as part of their professional development.
This is a mistake, because it looks at thought leadership in the wrong way: as a secondary, lower-value activity compared with building relationships in the ‘real world’.
You set yourself up for more success if you view well-written, well-placed thought leadership as a direct replacement for client networking and entertainment. Remember: it enables you to network at scale, and can position you not just as the best lawyer in your field (in the client’s eyes) but as the only lawyer.
Think back to the example I started this article with. Nothing that partner did could excavate the seed a competitor had planted in the client’s mind: that they were the people to handle the deal. They planted that seed with a perfectly targeted article. And they won the work.
Writing articles should be at the centre of your rainmaking campaign. At the centre of your campaign, not your associate’s and not your comms team’s.
Does it take work? Yes, undoubtedly. Is it worth it? Absolutely. You don’t have to write many articles. You just need to target them perfectly and publish them where your client is likely to find them. Do that well and you will appear to be everywhere. (You won’t be, of course: you’ll just be everywhere your client goes.)
But a campaign only works if it’s written by somebody who knows and understands the clients inside out. It’s about engaging with those potential clients, just as you would if you were meeting them in person. So it can only be done by someone who’s spent years talking to them, getting under their skin, understanding not just their problems but the language they use. In short, it can only be done by you.
A quick review of my LinkedIn feed throws up a number of posts by lawyers. There’s the trademark-of-the-week post, in which a registered patent attorney takes a deep dive into some of the more arcane points of IP law.
Then there’s the ‘we tied up another big deal’ post, which is a regular feature and often includes a picture of a practice head celebrating with his team, flush with their success at getting another merger over the line.
Today, one of my connections went even further, dedicating a post to criticising a conveyancing client for his ignorance and complaining that it was going to be another long day.
Posts like these appear to be aimed at one of two audiences: partners in the author’s own firm or their direct competitors. Many even use language that speaks to the profession (and even specialist areas within it), using terms absent from the lexicon of any would-be client.
Now, some of these approaches might work. It should go without saying that bashing existing clients on social media, even anonymously, is unlikely to help BD or that lawyer’s reputation overall. But telling the world about your success should – in theory – demonstrate that you are worthy of hire. Demonstrating your knowledge of IP law arguably is also proving your expertise.
But that will only work if your victory is so directly relevant to prospective clients’ lives that it stops them in their tracks while they’re scrolling through dozens of other posts. And the key word here is ‘directly’. Your success matters primarily to you.
Yes, there’s a secondary message that you must know what you’re doing if you’re successful. But that’s two steps away in a busy client’s mind. It’s probably not enough to stop them scrolling. To do that, you need to address their needs, not yours.
All those meetings you’ve had following your traditional rainmaking strategy have taught you nothing if not what problems tend to preoccupy most clients. That’s the perfect place to start. Focus on your target audience and what they care about most. Even better, start to solve their problems for them.
It’s not surprising most law firms don’t follow this advice. In many ways, it’s counterintuitive.
You’ll have more success if you don’t hold back and instead give away your expertise. You’ll end up able to bill more hours by sacrificing a few to write the pieces yourself. And you’ll connect with clients if you focus on their problems (and speaking their language) rather than on shouting about your expertise.
But all of this is good news if you’re trying to gain an edge on competing firms. Because if most people are getting it wrong, you can immediately and easily differentiate yourself by avoiding their mistakes.
If you want to give your team a strong foundation in writing effective thought leadership, get in touch for a chat or have a look at our Writing inspiring thought leadership articles course. The course content can be tailored to your precise needs and includes individual analysis of each person’s writing.
Image credit: stockfour / Shutterstock
Rob is a former scientist who set up Emphasis in 1998 after a career in magazine and journal editing. He designed the document analysis that underpins all our courses and believes training should always be based on evidence, not pseudoscience or wishful thinking. His writing has been featured in the Guardian and The Telegraph, as well as specialist publications including Accountancy Age, Training Journal and Nursing Standard. He's also a member of the Association of British Science Writers.
He's currently working on a new book about the science of the words we write and the effects they have on all of us.
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