In the past few months, the coronavirus pandemic has forced business development teams in law firms to come up with new ways of engaging with their clients. Events were suddenly scrapped. Lawyers had to be close to general counsels as they addressed the consequences of the health crisis.

The Lawyer teamed up with LexisNexis InterAction, the information services giant’s client relationship management solution unit, for a research project on how business development planning within the legal industry is changing to meet the moment. The effort included a survey of senior BD and marketing professionals, practice managers, partners and chief marketing officers across The Lawyer’s UK Top 100, Global 100, Euro 100 and APAC 100 ranks.

The findings were illustrated during a virtual roundtable attended by some of the BD personnel that informed the project and hosted by The Lawyer’s research and digital product director Roger Wagland and LexisNexis InterAction’s EMEA and APAC commercial director Steve Zangari.

Wagland said research showed that law firms were mostly well equipped when dealing with this chaotic scenario. A survey showed that 80 per cent relied on a defined business development planning process. However, almost 14 per cent of those surveyed didn’t.

Across the board, whether they had a plan or not, business development teams had to change their practices quickly to adjust to the ever-shifting context of remote working. The chief marketing and business development officer at a US law firm found himself holding calls every 40 hours with the firm’s leadership team to calm nerves. Every two weeks, they would then try to come up with ideas. “It was incumbent upon us to amplify the frequency of revisiting our strategy and planning,” he said.

Turn on your camera

The first few weeks of lockdown were frenetic, punctuated by regular calls and the adjustment of working practices to the situation. New habits and techniques were gradually cemented.

Participants at the roundtable agreed that the challenge was not reinventing their strategy fortnightly. The difficult part was to keep up energy and creativity in the team as time wore on. There was no commute, but the hours were longer; and people slowly got tired of videoconferencing. The global BD director of an offshore firm endeavoured to make catch-ups as personal as possible. “Videoconferences on Skype or Teams work only if you get buy-in from people to switch their camera on,” he explained. “A face to face environment helps a lot in making everyone feel part of the team.”

Being organised and clear on the meetings’ objectives also made things easier. Having a list of points to cover allows everyone to know what they can expect. “It is important to have an agenda to guide the meetings,” he added.

These specialists soon realised that an excessive amount of meetings is as unproductive as lack of interaction. The daily meetings of the first few weeks gradually became weekly and monthly.

In that period, BD teams became more involved in sector focus meetings with their own firms’ partners. Almost 60 per cent of those surveyed said they were invited to attend practice area meetings on a monthly basis. With the same frequency, 55 per cent joined sector focus meetings and almost 40 per cent attended client group meetings. High percentages were involved in similar meetings on a weekly basis. “We realised the importance of getting partners to share stories about what they were hearing in the market,” said the BD head of an international firm, who gathered partners from different practices to share their insights in 30-minute calls. The more they shared views internally, the better informed people were. Partners were encouraged to have virtual coffees with clients; having heard their colleagues’ stories made them better equipped in conversations. “From a BD perspective, we had more exposure coaching — or coaxing— partners on calls and making them more meaningful,” the BD head noted.

Despite their best intentions, clients often complained they didn’t hear much from firms during lockdown. And when they did, it was mostly in the form of annoying spam-like coronavirus briefings. The discontent pushed BD functions to find more creative means to foster relationships. A BD expert of a professional services firm took on running coaching series of 15 minutes to teach partners how to get in touch with clients. She reminded them that they did not have to sell anything; it was enough to ask how they were doing.

Meanwhile, these professionals spent time engaging with lawyers to map out which ideas they could develop based on the specific needs of each practice. The same BD expert tapped into the knowledge of the firm’s lawyers to offer some horizon-scanning live events so clients could find out what was coming down the tracks. On Skype, roundtables turned out to work way better than webinar-like talking heads. “Preaching is boring,” she explained.

The measure of success

It would be disingenuous to forget that events are always a commercial opportunity. More than ever, during this period it was fundamental for BD teams to measure client engagement with their output, especially when asked to get data to partners’ fingertips. “There is no point in running them unless you get the data fast and you make follow-ups,” a participant at the roundtable noted.

Getting useful data is not always easy. These teams tend to use client relationship management (CRM) platforms to track engagement and obtain insights. However, in the survey, 49 per cent indicated that they face challenges when accessing data for business development planning processes. The Lawyer’s Wagland was keen to understand which challenges they face specifically. “Is the data accurate? Which systems are supporting you best?,” he asked attendees. For some, it is a cultural issue rather than a technical problem. “In organisations of our size, we are not good at tracking data around client conversations,” the BD head of a global firm explained.

The BD lead in the litigation practice of a UK firm is on a constant evangelical mission to convince fee-earners of the importance of data. Having adopted platforms like Lexis Nexis’ Business Edge allowed fee-earners to see the value of data around client conversations. Suddenly all that information appeared more “accessible and actionable.” Participants’ experiences showed BD teams have gone beyond the basic functionalities of knowing who is meeting whom. They look at who opens briefings, as well as historic matter data to assess the breadth of the relationship. They connect everything from billing and marketing insights into a client dashboard. Once it’s visible in the CRM system, it allows to go under the skin of client relationships. Partners have proved supportive of this use of data.

A CRM analyst at a UK insurance firm relies on a data warehouse that pulls information together on visualisation platform Tableau. She is able to show in real time sales operations, recording of activities and billing performance. “It proved helpful for us and we found that it started to drive better CRM behaviour,” she explained. Being able to show statistics in a dashboard made the content more alive for the lawyers.

New techniques

Pulling together data and tracking business development performance comes at a time when the right degree of engagement can save a client relationship. But the means of keeping it going are changing. Leaving behind the inbox flooding of the lockdown period, the challenge has become reducing output and increasing its quality. “There was more content on our website in this period than over a normal year,” says another attendee. They now favour items that are more personalised instead of general emails. They are more discerning on what to write and publish. And they consider carefully who they are reaching out to and why, rethinking distribution lists according to sectors and jurisdictions. A coronavirus briefing for Germany will need to be different from one for the States.

While these targeted initiatives are likely to stay long term, other business developments habits might dwindle. The participants would happily do without the “ridiculous” amount of events that filled their diaries — instead, they will bet on a hybrid of online and more exclusive in-person gatherings.

While preparation was paramount, creativity will be needed in a period marked by continuous change. Business development plans work best when they are dynamic and not rigid. While agendas provide structure to conversations with lawyers, it will be essential to revisit the plan frequently, “Our strategy should not be a fixed document set at the start of the year,” said the BD lead of the offshore firm. “We need to follow client and market trends data. We need to keep it dynamic and alive.”

To find out more on how BD approaches are changing due to the pandemic, download your complimentary copy of the research report from The Lawyer in association with LexisNexis InterAction here.