Be prepared

In the face of a credit crunch, firms need to mobilise their lawyers. Investing in people and client relationships is perhaps the best way to survive the pinch.

Be preparedHow many of your lawyers are equipped to make the most of the credit crunch and shift their focus to preparing for the upturn? If your answer is ‘just a few’, you are not alone.

After months of denial, firms are beginning to feel the crunch. Redundancies have started, budgets are under review and bonuses are a distant memory.

Too often the response from lawyers is to wait and see – firms wait for instructions to come through the door while quietly ­panicking and desperately trying to keep up the billable hours.

This is not surprising. In the last real recession of the early 1990s most senior lawyers and many partners were trainees. Since then they have had the lux­ury of a buoyant economy and an abundance of work. There is simply not the experience or knowledge to know what to do.

So what did the clever firms do the last time the economy hit the buffers? They focused on the upturn. They invested in their clients, their people and their knowhow and ensured that, when the inevitable upturn arrived, they were stronger and well ­prepared. Training and development was honed to building the business.

To learn from those who made it through the last time, consider implementing the following training and development ­initiatives in your firm.

Client relationship management
It is all too easy to drop off the client’s radar when there are no instructions. Lawyers avoid calling for fear of coming across as a stalker and to avoid hearing the inevitable words, ‘no work’. However, if your lawyers are falling off the client radar, other lawyers will be working their way onto it.

Client relationship management training needs to focus lawyers on developing client relationships without having the comfort of instructions. Deepening a client relationship by becoming the trusted adviser or sounding board is a sure way to be the first person called when the instructions come through. Lawyers need training in running business meetings to raise their credibility and profiles rather than their fees.

With more opportunity to leave the office before dark, lawyers have more chance of engaging in slow-burn business ­development through networking.

Again, training needs to give them the skills to work a room, make contacts, pick up the phone, follow-up and raise their profiles by making connections between people. All this needs to be done with the single ­purpose of raising ­personal profiles and developing networks, and not with the intention of selling. Selling will come later.

Presentation skills
Clients are hungry for advice and training and are increasingly seeking lawyers who will add value. Lawyers can make significant inroads by offering seminars and ­workshops. They can showcase themselves and their firms and embed themselves in clients’ minds as trusted experts.

However, key to success are presentations that are engaging, punchy and memorable. All lawyers can learn to present and use their personal styles to their best advantage. This is a good time to develop those skills and get out there to promote the business.

Technical training
Every lawyer in the City can learn more. If times are quiet for your lawyers, it is wise to invest in their technical ability. This does not have to require a significant budget. Partners with time on their hands need to invest in their juniors and impart knowledge through case studies, seminars and workshops.

Every firm has a wealth of knowledge locked in experienced brains. Training departments would do well to unlock this and ensure that knowledge is disseminated. Not only will lawyers be ­better at their jobs, but loyalty will be secured.

Knowhow development
While not strictly training, knowhow work is certainly development. Junior lawyers who are not receiving delegated work can contribute significantly by reviewing ­precedents, processes and research/­opinion papers. All this work will be adding to the knowledge bank within the firm and gearing your lawyers to be technically better when the work starts to flow again.

Last but not least, firms need to focus on leadership. The firms that do better during an economic crunch are those with strong leadership. This tends to galvanise legal teams into being productive and client-­positive, rather than being ‘busy fools’. Such skills will be natural to some, but many ­partners have not experienced the spectre of low morale, increasing anxiety and feeling there is little light at the end of the tunnel.

Learning and development professionals need to support partners in leading through the tough times with focused briefings on the psychology of a downturn, how to ­motivate, how to focus their teams and how to drive positive, business-building ­initiatives.

Learning and development departments must drive a survival strat­egy in lawyers by developing the skills that will both consolidate their value and ensure they are first in line when clients come back with work.

Gwenllian Williams is director and Michael Farrell a senior consultant at deWinton-Williams Consulting