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Wellbeing, being human, strongholds and innovation – reflections from the IBA’s Business Development and Marketing Conference

MD Communications partner Keith Hardie shares his thoughts on this week’s virtual Legal Business Development and Marketing Conference, hosted by the International Bar Association.

Summarising four days of great speakers, collages and roundtables pulled together by our CEO Melissa Davis, Itzik Amiel and Deborah Farone – three leaders of legal marketing and business development – is definitely not easy but, for me, the takeaway from the IBA’s Legal Business Development and Marketing Conference was a reminder that much of what we are trying to deliver within law firms is deceptively simple.

Wellbeing – now a top priority

One major theme was that the sector needs to look after individuals better. During a discussion between two people who are in the vanguard of trying to tackle wellbeing within the legal profession – our founder and CEO Melissa Davis and Antoinette Moriarty of the Law Society of Ireland – a survey was conducted that highlighted the issue; it seemed almost 80% of the audience were exhibiting signs of burn-out. Antoinette highlighted that these results were similar to the results from other audiences she’s surveyed, and reflected the recent Lawcare report published this week. These findings demonstrate the toll the pandemic has taken on everyone in the profession and other speakers like Kirsty McWilliam and Elizabeth Rimmer also highlighted why lawyers often struggle more than most.

Of course, there is a human aspect to this urgent priority – we all care about our colleagues as people we know and hopefully like, so their wellbeing is important to us on that basis. However, speakers like Keith Fullenweider from Vinson & Elkins, also highlighted the strong business reasons for ensuring people are happy at work. Law firms are built around their people and empirical evidence, as well as our own personal experience, which clearly demonstrates people need to be happy and well supported if they are going to deliver great service. So for business development and client service, addressing the emerging mental health and internal engagement crisis within the profession is a critical issue.

In terms of practical steps to achieve this, I particularly appreciated the discussion on the panel between David Cohen of DS Cohen & Associates, Howard Kravitz from Winston & Strawn and Lauren Resnick of BakerHostetler. They highlighted that listening to feedback from your people is essential to building a strong culture within a firm – people only feel engaged when they feel involved, and they only feel they are involved if you listen to them.

Relationships – the human touch

The importance of listening was highlighted in the discussions around building relationships with clients, with numerous speakers highlighting that clients want to know they are dealing with a fellow human being, not a robot. One quote from a great discussion between Gabor Damjanovic, Forgó, Damjanovic & Partners, Brad Karp from Paul, Weiss, and Ingrid Pierce from Walkers, was that lawyers shouldn’t forget they were humans before they became lawyers! Too often that seems to be forgotten!

Their discussion also highlighted that, while technology can help drive the right behaviours, it is not a substitute for the personal touch and getting to know your clients. This is something that Mitch Zuklie of Orrick also mentioned in a wide-ranging, fascinating contribution that, for me, pulled together the strands from many of the other contributions.

Strongholds – playing to your strengths

One concept Mitch highlighted was focusing on ‘strongholds’ – key areas of strength that you build on. The idea came from an unlikely source – a book about one man’s quest to save the world’s salmon population – but it resonated with me and, I am sure, many others. Essentially Mitch’s advice was to find your firm’s strongholds – the places that could really make a difference to your success – and concentrate on enhancing these areas, even if that means dropping some of the other areas.

This is, of course, the essence of differentiation, a concept anyone in marketing will be familiar with. However, Mitch found a way to translate the concept into something that every lawyer could grasp, which is no mean feat! His advice was to focus on the core sectors and client relationships where you already have deep expertise; you will undoubtedly provide a better service if you do this.

Mitch also highlighted one other issue that links to this: innovating with a purpose. Orrick is highly regarded as a leader in legal innovation, but that doesn’t mean that the firm is asking its people to pursue any new idea that they can think of. Orrick’s approach is to focus on solving issues for its core clients, and its innovations flow from this perspective.

For Orrick, that advice has clearly paid dividends but it remains surprising how few firms manage to replicate its successful approach.

Much more I’ve left out but …

There was much more covered in the four days of great content, including some great discussions about the increasing use of legal technology, but for me these fundamentals always hold true. So the lessons from the sessions were:

1. Focus on your people

2. Focus on building great, human-centred relationships

3. Focus on your core areas and strengths

4. Innovate with a purpose and keep getting better

These steps may sound simple but, as host Itzik Amiel highlighted, they are not that easy.

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