by Josh Ensign, Jon Chapman

One of the most pernicious myths in business is the story of powerful businesspeople and entrepreneurs closing deals and making decisions on the golf course or over martini lunches, making decisions that alter the commercial landscape and shake the world. A skeptical observer might suspect there’s a Big Golf conspiracy at work, but the root cause is simpler and sadder: for many professional services firms, chasing new business has always been a matter of personal or professional relationships.  The truth is that no other business development approach with the same cultural resonance has broken through to take its place. Too many lawyers are still trying to use the modern version of the martini lunch as the primary means to bring in new business. And this makes sense – when it is difficult for a client to distinguish between their professional service providers based on expertise, cost, or customer experience, a relationship with current or potential clients is all that distinguishes one firm from another in a client’s eyes.

Today, COVID-19 is upending the way we work and exerting pressure on our ability to generate new business through relationships alone. For the most part, we aren’t traveling, meeting in person, or pitching deals with new clients at happy hour. We aren’t even mentoring and managing junior-level associates in the same way.

While challenging, this COVID-19-induced vertigo does present us with the opportunity to adapt how we operate, rather than making marginal tweaks to what we have done in the past. Professional services firms that take this opportunity to successfully transform their operations, client and prospect interactions, and how they mentor and train their juniors will develop a sustained competitive advantage over their peers. Many leaders at law firms recognize the need to adapt their old business models but may not have a clear vision of where they should be going. And now, with competition from every angle – from larger firms expanding and adding more technology resources and expertise, to smaller firms commoditizing transaction-based services and encouraging downward fee pressures, and even their own clients who are bringing expertise in-house – law firms must think beyond simply outgrowing the problem.

Law firms must differentiate from the competition by becoming more transparent, more communicative, and delivering a better client experience – deploying tools and ways of working that make the firm easier to work with. In an age of uncertainty, growing your business by focusing on expansion with your existing clients is a rational choice. And if your firm is easier to work with, communications flow smoothly, your clients can easily determine the status of the work, and your intuitive-easy-to-use technology platform houses critical client data and documents – you’ll give clients very little incentive to look elsewhere for help.

On the technology front, law firms must take an approach that installs future-ready technology in the form of an integrated technology platform spanning legal matter management, client management, billing, and document management. However, success is not merely a matter of technology. Implementing people-centered workforce and operational changes, including training for future workforce skills, and workspace and remote work design, is critical as well.

To develop a long-term strategy that will give your firm a significant advantage in the market, you must:

  • Understand actual client buying and decision-making behavior and think through future market disruptions.
  • Adapt by building institutional resilience to allow adaptive decision making.
  • Re-evaluate the key value drivers for your business, and prioritize your business development efforts and compensation structure in the directions that yield the results you want.
  • Uncover opportunities and set priorities based on data, insights and predictive analytics to drive real-time business decisions.
  • Ensure your total ecosystem – employees, partners, technology – is structured to deliver your impeccable legal services with an impeccable client experience:  intuitive, transparent, and painless.

Positioning your firm for the future is not as simple as replacing your associates’ desktops with laptops, hiring more attorneys with a new expertise, or implementing a new matter management system.  It requires implementing a thoughtful business strategy that balances four key dimensions – human, machine, physical, and digital.