Disconnection in an Increasingly Connected World

Law firms that embrace social media but neglect relationship management do so at their peril.

Social media may not have been conceived with corporate marketing in mind but no one could question the role it now plays.

“In a population of 3.4 billion internet users, 2.3 billion of us are active social media users and 2.0 billion are active mobile social users (Global Digital Snapshot, January 2016)”.

Whilst law firms “arrived late to the party”, many have overcome their initial scepticism and are rightly reconfiguring their market-facing activities with social media in mind. The appointment of dedicated resources is an indication of the commitment and investment that firms are making.

Social media provides a powerful platform for professional services firms to interact with their clients in ways unimagined a decade ago. However, this will never fully replace the need for the type of engagement that establishes and reinforces relationships between users and providers of those services particularly at the higher value end.

In a competitive market in which clients are bombarded with data and information intended to influence their buying decisions, firms that are able to mobilise social media to support their overall relationship goals (not as a replacement for them) are more likely to succeed. Social media can help firms in their efforts or conversely distract them from focusing on relationship management and business development.

In this article, we differentiate between the roles that social media can play in professional services versus other sectors, highlight some of the pitfalls involved in integrating traditional and non-traditional media, and reflect on what this means for clients in how they perceive firms and buy legal services.

New Frontiers

Social media has challenged traditional “push” marketing strategies (ie, selling existing products rather than customising services based on clients’ needs) and provided real-time data and interaction between individual consumers and sellers. This relationship continues to evolve as technology becomes more advanced.

For example social media metrics (eg, share of voice) are increasingly used to assess the effectiveness of campaigns including as competitive benchmarks for market penetration. Tracking coupled with more sophisticated segmentation and profiling provide important tools to enable more effective targeting.

Among other things, social media has also enabled businesses to refine their messages for market segments and individuals. Subtle changes including the timing and use of traditional and non-traditional media in tandem can significantly improve the success of a campaign. This has also resulted in a blurring of the lines between business-to-business (“B2B”) and business-to-consumer (“B2C”) marketing.

The buying decisions that individuals make in a B2C relationship are much more sensitive and immediate, particularly in relation to consumer products. Big data and specific buying patterns increasingly inform sophisticated lifestyle campaigns based on profiling. Social media has irreversibly altered the face of consumer selling and, consciously or otherwise, people have bought in.

To a lesser degree, the B2B market has been impacted, specifically with respect to products. The global access that buyers and sellers now enjoy has fuelled competition.

In both cases, one can argue that social media has bridged the gap between selling and buying (and shifted the balance in the relationship between the two) in a way that traditional communication-based marketing strategies were unable to do. In this sense, business development is becoming more embedded in the way consumers buy and make their product choices.

Old Borders

Law firms are increasingly aware that, to be effective, social media needs to be integrated and aligned with other marketing communication channels.

Asia is no different and the gap between adoption rates in Asian and non-Asian firms has closed. One could argue that the level of penetration and social media uptake in some Asian markets will put the region ahead of others in the foreseeable future.

For example and as in other sectors, LinkedIn has transformed the recruitment of talent, particularly junior lawyers and non-lawyers. To the extent that a firm’s brand is the sum of individuals’ experiences of it, including the way in which it projects itself in the recruitment market, this illustrates the change that is occurring.

However, beyond recruitment, for law firms who actively use social media this is often just another means of disseminating legal updates without the firms fundamentally changing their communication strategies. Advocates for greater use of social media frequently highlight thought leadership and the use of blogging in other spheres as evidence of how social media can showcase knowledge-based services. This is certainly true, although what constitutes true thought leadership should be the subject of a separate article.

Social media clearly plays a role in increasing and reinforcing brand awareness. This is where law firms typically realise the greatest value. Social media enables firms to project their brand within and across markets in ways that were either not possible or cost-prohibitive with traditional media. Small and medium-sized firms in particular are able to reach and communicate more consistently with their core and target audiences. Campaigns can be developed quickly, say, in response to regulatory changes or case outcomes with the added agility that social media provides in terms of two-way communication.

Furthermore, with the right processes and systems in place, social media can be leveraged such that a relatively junior resource can be tasked with maintaining and refreshing content. In this way, updates are timely and need not occupy expensive partner or senior lawyer resources that should otherwise be focused on fee earning or substantive business development.

By extension, the use of social media can help campaigns including through co-branding opportunities (eg, in relation to industry-sector focused initiatives).

However, there is an important distinction here between marketing/communications and business development. Law firm business development should not be confused with marketing per se: marketing in this context is often no more than a series of exercises in communication or entertainment, with little underlying business development focus.

Demand-Driven Imperative

Some commentators have overstated the impact of social media in stimulating demand for legal services. In part, this is because they underestimate more fundamental challenges facing the profession.

Intensifying competition, globalisation and the ever-increasing sophistication of in-house counsel and other buyers of legal services expose the shortcomings of many law firms in the way in which they manage their relationships with clients.

Too often law firms not only fail to engage with clients in ways that demonstrate a genuine understanding of their businesses, but also fail to show they are competent to take on complex work involving one or more areas of expertise.

Leading international law firms have invested heavily in training partners and senior lawyers to:

  • develop and embed client relationship management skills and behaviour beyond individual relationships;
  • consider and understand clients’ buying behaviour and patterns;
  • move beyond transactional to deeper, more institutional relationships; and
  • equip them with the skills and information to conduct the conversations that they believe clients want to have.

Yet feedback from clients indicates that the majority of firms do not perform well in building closer and integrated relationships with their clients. Despite investment in people, systems, processes and “programmes”, behaviour continues to reflect a supply- rather a demand-driven mindset. For all the rhetoric about client empathy and market-orientation, 99 percent of firms continue to peddle what they do rather than what clients need.

Whilst social media continues to change the way in which firms interact with their clients (at least in form if not substance), it doesn’t adequately address this challenge because social media cannot adequately address what general counsel want to know from their providers in their decision whether and who to appoint.

Hodgart Associates conducts a large number of client interviews with buyers of legal services as a function of strategic engagements with our law firm clients. These reinforce both points that:

  • a large number of law firms (including large international firms) are woefully inadequate at effectively managing their relationships but those that do are stand-outs as a result; and,
  • social media and its virtues are never mentioned as a factor in clients’ decision-making processes, even if brand awareness is improved by, say, better access to information.

Convergence …

Social media has not only changed the way in which firms interact with their clients but also the way in which firms talk internally about how they should communicate with their clients. Most law firm business development and marketing professionals have not known a world without social media. Hence, it is self-evident that social media should be part of how they think about and promote services. Increasingly, the partners with whom they work are of a similar generation and are developing the same opinion.

There is evidence that clients are turning to firms’ social media (as an alternative to other media (ie, traditional advisories, training, and proprietary websites)) to access information with respect to their legal needs. As discussed above, this can have a profound effect for smaller firms seeking to build brand recognition and association.

Law firms are also using social media to gather data and to supplement and update existing data sources (eg, with respect to contact databases). Inevitably, this assumes that most of us have active and well developed social footprints.

More sophisticated law firms are seeking to align their social media strategies with those of their clients’ organisations in order to create secondary touchpoints. This can be in relation to values oriented marketing (eg, where there are common corporate social responsibility (“CSR”) interests between a firm and its core clients).

… and Divergence

Paradoxically, developments in the legal profession designed to reduce costs and increase efficiency are reducing the level of contact between clients and firms.

The “commoditisation” of some aspects of legal services and developments in technology will bring buying and selling closer and, to an extent, accelerate the level of self-lawyering with respect to B2C legal services. Whilst this is unlikely to be the case with higher value work, it is a further indication of a general shift in the provision of legal services, one that is bound to impact the B2B legal services in some way.

Firms will need to fight harder to gain “air-time” (beyond sound-bite interactions) with increasingly time poor general counsel.

Mind the Gap

Social media clearly provides opportunities for law firms to engage with their clients/markets particularly as part of larger brand building or brand reinforcement strategies. In some respects, this is more important for smaller firms than larger firms, but both stand to benefit.

Social media will not increase a firm’s likelihood of winning high value work in the foreseeable future. Ironically, it may provide further excuses for those who mistakenly see it as a panacea or a reason to not engage with clients more regularly and in ways that will generate higher value work.

Firms that add social media to their client interactions throughout the relationship (before, during and after services are bought) are much more likely to succeed. Social media can form part of a broader, more systematic approach to relationship building as clients’ access information about law firms from various sources.

For this reason social media supports without replacing focused, face-to-face engagement between lawyer and client, which many lawyers still find difficult to do well. Our view is that we are a long way from social media being the primary tool in the relationship building toolkit. Fundamentally, even if the quality of a client’s social media experience is high, if it is not matched by the development of a close relationship, no amount of investment in social media will improve a firm’s position with a client. 

The views expressed herein are those of the authors only and in no way reflect the views of the Law Society of Hong Kong, its officers or members.

Hodgart Associates Ltd, Director

Mr. Ashing has worked in legal services for over 15 years both as an external strategy consultant to professional services firms and in-house for a number of large international law firms. He has lived and worked in the UK, US and Africa. Prior to rejoining Hodgart Associates in 2016, Mr. Ashing spent nine years in the Asia Pacific, including four years in Hong Kong.

Mr. Ashing works with clients globally to help develop and support their growth strategies. He has particular expertise in business and organisational development.

Previously, he served on the Board of Justice Centre Hong Kong.

Hodgart Associates Ltd, Managing Director

Mr. Hodgart is recognised as a leading strategic change consultant to professional service firms globally. His client base includes leading firms in all major professions and a wide range of smaller to mid-market firms in many countries. The legal market is a particular area of focus. He works with clients throughout the world, including in the Asia Pacific.

Mr. Hodgart has written extensively on management issues facing professional firms. His two most recent books are Organizational Culture in Law Firms (Ark, 2012) and Strategies and Practice in Law firm Mergers (Legalease, 2005).

Prior to his career as a consultant, he had a successful career as a professional cyclist.