Thoughts on Legal Business Development

Oct 27, 2020 3:17:19 PM / by Ryan Short

My transition to the legal space (the week Indiana shut down due to COVID-19) has been eye-opening in many respects. One area of constant curiosity for me is legal professionals' and law firms' business development efforts.

Aron Solomon recently published a piece in (by way of Texas Lawyer) entitled Legal Marketing Ethics Primer for Lawyers 2020. He proffers good advice, such as:

  • don't represent yourself having "years of experience" simply because you graduated from law school two years ago; and
  • don't exaggerate the breadth, depth, or impact of your services

It got me thinking about my journey so far, drinking from a fire hose (meaning, as I enter a new industry in a pandemic: mostly googling). We're also in the midst of planning what 2021 looks like, so these topics are top of mind.

In no particular order, here are some of my thoughts and impressions from the past seven months.


"We Don't Sell"

Since transitioning into the legal space, I've asked many attorneys about their business development practices, and a common reply is "we market and network, but we don't sell." 

On one hand, I get it.

  • Sales doesn't have a glowing reputation in many quarters
  • To do it correctly, it's very time consuming
  • The rejection one faces can be emotionally draining

On the other hand - don't these three bullets look very similar to being an attorney?!

There is something intellectually honest about interacting with someone whose goal is clearly to determine whether a business relationship would be mutually beneficial - as opposed to simply hinting at it. There's nothing inherently gross or unethical about sales reps in the same way there's nothing inherently shady about attorneys. 

Often, large firms will have people dedicated to building the pipeline, replying to RFPs, and beginning new client relationships, so perhaps the bristling at the mention of "sales" indicates a communication or cultural problems at firms. Culture shifts will take intention, communication, and time.


Outlets Abound

In the corporate world, people generally discuss three different primary types of growth:

  • Sales-led (sales reps work the phones or field to begin conversations and convert prospects to clients. Inside sales teams became huge in the mid-2000s as companies discovered that hundreds of millenials working the phone was cheaper than paying field sales professionals).
  • Marketing-led (digital content allows prospects to self-select for further communications from the sales team. This allows for higher quality ratio of prospects.)
  • Product-led (a relatively new, self-serve model, whereby many clients never even interact with sales, i.e. Zoom. This provides the lowest CAC, or Customer Acquisition Cost)

I don't think this necessarily captures professional services very well, which tend to be more localized than other sectors, and more heavily reliant on referrals. However, if forced to choose one of the three, I suppose many law firms and ALSPs would place themselves in the marketing-led category.

There is a dizzying array of places to deliver marketing messages, including:

  • Blogs (personal, firm-owned, or guest-spot)
  • Podcasts (see above)
  • Email marketing (a low-cost way to keep clients informed of new material that may affect or interest them)
  • Webinars (sometimes firm-owned, often a paid sponsorship with an industry organization/association)
  • Trade shows (expensive, but excellent places to begin and build relationships)
  • Conferences (see trade shows; often speaking slots are pay-to-play)
  • Publications/periodicals (guest spots, paid ads)
  • Digital advertising (google, LinkedIn, etc.)
  • Case studies, white papers, etc. (time-consuming for attorneys to write, expensive to outsources)
  • Sponsorships (events, organizations, associations)
  • CLEs

The challenge lies in determining which outlets reach the proper audience while maintaining a budget. You can do it all with lots of funds and a staff to manage the projects. There are some private equity-backed ALSPs doing really high quality work, both in terms of content creation (e.g. white papers and case studies delivered via email) and "events" (webinars). If you are interested in marketing your practice or service, I'd recommend signing up for competitors' emails - it's not illegal, and you can get some great ideas to adapt as appropriate.

For firms that are more cash-conscious, email marketing and social media offers the best way to build awareness, deliver resources, and provide updates. 

Personally, I'm a fan of things that stick out, like video messaging and handwritten notes. 

As an aside, I remain surprised at the relative imbalance of event marketing (hugely important) and picking up the phone to begin relationships (seen as too "sales-y"). Transportation brokerage and Saas (software as a service) are two industries that have been massive employers of recent college graduates over the past 10-15 years, predominantly in sales roles.  


Digital Events Can Supplement, But Not Replace, Live Events

First, kudos to all organizations who pivoted from live to digital events this year. Planning events is time consuming, complex, and expensive - to shift on short notice with no experience to a digital event is a feat worthy of praise.

That said, while virtual options are helpful to those unable to travel for whatever reason, nothing can replace an in-place event. Attendees and sponsors alike are able to build stronger relationships. 

  • Communicating in a live chat during a panel doesn't facilitate the same depth of conversation
  • Zoom breakout rooms are often stilted and halting - the novelty was good, and it's better than nothing, but it doesn't feel organic
  • Oftentimes the most fruitful part of live events is the unplanned, organic introductions

My operating assumption is that moving forward many events will have tiered admissions; when possible, shows will resume, but attendees may be able to purchase a virtual pass for a reduced amount.


What's In Store?

Until the pandemic abates and live events return, I think a few things will remain true:

  • Many law firms and ALSPs will spend considerably more time and effort on client retention instead of client acquisition
  • Referral networks will be utilized in new ways - picking up that phone and rekindling professional relationships can help supplement the lack of live events 
  • Blended events will be the future, as organizations will be more sophisticated about targeting their outreach budget

And, as Aron reminds us: don't plagiarize!


ediscovery blog

Tags: Industry Analysis, Legal Services

Ryan Short

Written by Ryan Short

Ryan joined Proteus in 2020. He is an MBA and a Certified eDiscovery Specialist with over a decade of experience in publicly traded, PE-backed, and bootstrapped entities focused on technology-enabled services. Ryan lives in Indianapolis with his wife and their 5 children under the age of 9. Consequently, his wife won't let him buy a dog.