Market News

COVID Pushed Firms to Overhaul How They Connect With Clients. They Aren’t Going Back.

By Patrick Smith for

The tried-and-true methods for meeting clients—in-person events, client dinners and in-office review sessions—have been around for a long time because they work. 

But the pandemic has forced business development professionals and attorneys in major law firms to move away from these methods. In their stead, a wave of progressive thinking, including virtual events, increased collaboration between practice areas, expansive content generation and sales development training for attorneys, has allowed most firms to exceed expectations for their pandemic-remodeled financial goals in 2020. Now that they’ve found success with those advances, many are here to stay, even once the pandemic subsides. 

“From a business development perspective, there are advantages and disadvantages [to the pandemic],” Carolyn Manning, director of business development at Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, says. “When the whole word went remote in March—and this isn’t unique to Mintz—we went from zero to 60 in producing content in-house.”

Clients faced myriad business issues revolving around COVID-19, including how to handle various federal and state financial assistance packages, employment law issues and even how to conduct business. But most firms recognized these issues, creating a glut of content and forcing creativity. 

“We worked on trying to break through the clutter,” Manning says. “We changed how we packaged things, doing more video and podcasts, and looking for different distribution platforms for information. There is a lot of competition for eyeballs.”

Lee Garfinkle, chief client development officer at Goodwin Procter, says that while he was cognizant of the rash of content being produced and disseminated by law firms, he found that more was actually better. 

“There were a lot of interesting pieces online saying you don’t want to have too much content,” he says. “We found the exact opposite. We created content such as over 200 written alerts in the first six weeks, and our webinars focused on technology, real estate, finance and transactions, and it really resonated with clients.”

Garfinkle says part of the approach was to target topics that were meant to highlight transactions that were more common during an economic downcycle, and the firm found a receptive audience. 

“We were innovative in how we approached our clients, and really customized our approach,” he says. “And we trained our partners up on Zoom to get to clients one on one.”

Training Up

Speaking of training, business development professionals say the pandemic has made reticent attorneys more open to suggestion when it comes to instruction related to customer relationship management (CRM), sales techniques and discovery and collaboration questions. 

“People are much more open to hearing ideas that may not be as tried and true as techniques that were already in everybody’s comfort zone,” Michael Zwerin, director of business development at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, says. “You used to meet with people in person, and plan the travel and organize for that. Now, you can spend that time preparing, and if you need to, hone a new skill set.”

That’s included instruction on how to ask discovery questions that may lead to cross-practice interaction, as well as on using sophisticated CRM strategies to manage cadence on client outreach—two valuable techniques that don’t often make the cut for busy attorneys.

Rory Channer, chief business and client development officer at McDermott Will & Emery, says the firm has seen an uptick in utilization of its sales training program for attorneys, including how to produce requests for proposal and how to pitch more effectively. 

“We had an award-winning sales training program for attorneys, but we had to adjust that,” Channer says. “We had to figure out how to do that training remotely and how to keep the attorneys engaged. We are doing a lot more business development coaching these days.”

Channer and Leslie Tullio, chief marketing officer at McDermott, both came from outside the legal profession, and have used approaches for business development more common in consulting and technology sales, such as CRM cadence and discovery sessions. And they’ve done so to good effect. 

“Some of the attorneys were a little lost when things went remote,” Channer says. “But we have found some pretty strong activity scoring [on CRM-monitored contacts between attorneys and clients], and that is highly predictive of results.”

Existing Clients

Regardless of industry, in most cases there is higher return on investment in mining existing clients for more work than attempting to get new clients. The economic downturn forced by the pandemic and the uncertainty it caused with clients only magnified this reality. Law firms are well aware of where they need to be spending their time. 

“Our strategy has been to double down on existing clients as opposed to new clients,” Wendy Bernero, global chief marketing officer at Baker McKenzie, says. “But we do look for opportunities to develop clients in areas that are going to be big growth areas, like 5G, artificial intelligence, health care and health care technology.”

Bernero says the firm’s decision to focus on growing and maintaining existing clients was partially rooted in the somewhat advanced notice the firm got regarding effects of the pandemic due to its strong presence in China and Europe. 

“I had a front-row seat in China and saw what happened in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Wuhan,” she says. “I can see right now, really clearly, what the recovery and renewal phase is going to be like. It will be different in different parts of the world, but I am seeing patterns in the markets and manufacturing centers.”

Future Developments

As firms have managed to make the necessary adjustments to stay in front of their clients, and in some cases get in front of new ones, the question is what will stick and what won’t when things get back to normal. Of course, there are also still questions about what the new normal will be. 

The one change that everyone focused on business development agrees won’t be going away is videoconferencing as a pillar of client communication. 

“The new normal of Zooming with everyone is not going away,” Garfinkle says. “I feel the absence of being with someone in the room, but this is the next-best choice.”

Business development professionals say the pandemic has encouraged a growing acceptance of alternative methods of client development and outreach, including the use of varied delivery methods for content.

“I expect attorneys to be much more comfortable with concepts of multichannel marketing and business development initiatives now that so many of them have had positive experiences using techniques that aren’t new to the market, but maybe new to them,” Zwerin, of Wilson Sonsini, says.

Tullio, of McDermott, agrees, noting that the multimedia marketing efforts have proven to benefit clients and will remain a focus going forward.

At Baker McKenzie, Bernero says the changes made in 2020 are going to become permanent fixtures going forward.

“Everything we have put in place will endure post-pandemic,” she says. “We believe client expectations, buying behaviors and service preferences have been forever changed.”