Coping with an economic downturn

The economic news is, to put it mildly, not good. Because so many businesses are on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, because others that are open are nonetheless starving for business, and because we are living in a time of massive uncertainty and economic markets detest uncertainty, we’re in tough times already and facing more of the same.

While forecasts are inherently uncertain, it appears that we’re moving toward a global economy that is, at least in the short term, even worse than the Great Recession that kicked off in 2008. So how do you cope?

Today, I’d like to share a report I wrote in 2009, titled Seven Secrets Every Lawyer Must Know to Thrive… Even in a Recession. While not all of the report remains on point for our current circumstances (Secret #4, which urges that you network and follow up, contemplates mostly face-to-face networking, for example), the principles still apply.

Leadership assumes particular relevance these days. In times of uncertainty, people look for leaders: nationwide, among colleagues, for clients and other business contacts, even among friends. If you’ve been watching the news at all, you’ve seen a variety of leadership styles and can make your own judgments about which are most effective.

Next week’s blog post will share some leadership tips that you can apply right away. In the meantime, I encourage you to continue thinking about current circumstances and the forecasts for coming changes will affect you and how you can adapt so that your clients and your own practice have some opportunity to deal with the changes we’re all facing. And check on the people who matter to you. Even a quick “Hello, I’ve been wondering how you’re doing” email can open conversation.

Life and practice in uncertain times

Fleming Strategic serves a global audience, and it’s safe to say that wherever you may be in the world, we’re facing unprecedented challenges. From the fact of the COVID-19 pandemic to the panic that’s generating to working from home, self-isolating, and social distancing to the economic hit that appears to be underway, times are uncertain.

More is currently unknown about these challenges than is known. What’s certain is that we have three choices: we can react or respond to the challenges we’re facing, or we can look for ways to innovate and initiate. And we face those choices in a wide variety of contexts, so it isn’t as simple as making one decision about how we will behave. We’ll make these decisions dozens of times in the course of a day.

Reaction is easy. It doesn’t require thought and simply zigzags from one development to the next, thriving on emotion and quite often fear. While our humanity means reaction may be unavoidable at times, I urge you to prime yourself to recognize the moments when you’re reacting, to take a breath, and to question whether a reaction is helpful.

Response is possible. Response requires a pause between stimulus and answer or action. News comes in, and you may choose to take a series of breaths, get up and walk around for a few minutes, or use a meaningful motto or prayer of some sort.  After you’ve created that break (which can be as short as a few seconds or as long as you need), then you can revisit the development and make a conscious decision about how you will respond. This is always possible, but it is not always easy. In times like these, it is often not easy.

Innovation and initiation require a clear view of reality and a focus on your objectives. It’s critical to know what’s happening in your world: health, culture, finances, general business. Don’t allow yourself to get sucked into the constant stream and the fear that it can generate, but stay updated. Most news outlets offer a daily newsletter that will catch you up, and the Washington Post offers a newsletter specific to corona virus news.

What are your objectives right now? Here are some I’d suggest:

  • Care for yourself, your family, and your community. Unprecedented times require unprecedented action. Please follow recommendations by the WHO, CDC, your local government, etc. And please look for opportunities to support your community where you can. The need is likely to grow and perhaps become overwhelming, but we can do so much if we pull together.
  • Maintaining the culture you’ve built in your office and/or on your practice team: consider virtual “watercooler” gatherings via Zoom or other virtual meeting platforms. Set aside a day for a group lunch via video. Be aware that others may be stuck in reaction mode and be prepared to act as a leader, whether or not you wear that official title.
  • Maintaining and developing your client relationships: Likewise, set aside time to talk with your key client contacts. Virtual coffee dates or lunches and telephone conversations may be easier to arrange now. Come to those meetings with an intention to help wherever you can. That may mean legal help to address what’s happening now, or it may mean helping to identify other resources. It may even mean something as simple as an email that asks, How are you doing? Connection is perhaps more important than ever before.
  • Thinking critically about your practice, identifying new opportunities, and spotting holes that changing circumstances may exacerbate: We don’t know what’s coming next. The news is suggesting a recession or depression. We know what happened in 2008, which offered a legal industry correction unlike anything most of us had experienced before, and indications are that the coming economy may be even more difficult. We don’t know what will happen yet and so we don’t know how to respond, but it’s important to be thinking carefully about your practice so that you can shift as circumstances change both to support your clients and your own practice.
  • Learning about new technologies and legal issues: If you’re an ABA member, check out the free CLEs that are available. Look into classes offered on the Ivy League MOOCs. Read business books that you often don’t have time for, including Blue Ocean Strategies (which will open your eyes to unappreciated opportunities) and its sequel Blue Ocean Shift, The Art of Gathering: Why We Meet and How It Matters (which may change the way you think about meetings and events of all kinds), and leadership books such as The Infinite Game or Leadership in Turbulent Times.

Finally, communicate with your clients to let them know how you’re handling current circumstances. Is your office open? If so, what structure is in place to make sure that it’s as clean and hygienic as possible? If not, what are you doing instead? How can your clients reach you? What other information do you need to share to allay client concerns? We’ve all been swamped by COVID-19 emails, most of which seem to have been written by robots. Please communicate like a human: clearly and factually, with compassion and care. 

I’ll be back next week with more ideas for how you can move with these changing times. In the meantime, stay safe, healthy, and mindful.

Legal Business Development: Do this & never compete on price again.

Warning: Being a fungible billing unit is bad for growing your law practice!

I’ve written previously on finding your Unique Service Proposition, which distinguishes you from other lawyers (and non-lawyers) serving your ideal clients’ legal needs.  In that article, I noted that if you are one of a pool of fungible practitioners, you’ll be forced to rely on other ways of distinguishing your practice—including, perhaps, competing on price.

In today’s cost-conscious environment, many lawyers feel that they must compete on price. (Note that this issue applies to all lawyers, regardless of the size of firm of sophistication of practice.) No savvy client will pay an undeserved premium, and clients seem to hold the advantage in hiring lawyers these days. But competing on price is not the only option.

Other lawyers struggle to find a reason why a potential client should choose them over someone else. Personal connections make a difference, and many lawyers feel most skilled in landing business after a face-to-face consultation. But getting to that point may seem daunting.

When it comes to marketing, if you feel like you’re just one of a large number of fungible billing units, you’ll have trouble standing out from your competitors in a way that will be appealing to potential clients.

The common thread? The belief, All of the lawyers in my practice area are the same.

At first blush, this may be true. You most likely have the same education and similar experience (though the depth of that experience may differ), and most lawyers would say that they are strategic, good listeners, responsive, and smart. Fair enough.

Your task is to dig deeper and find what sets you apart from others in your practice so that your potential clients and referral sources know what makes you the best lawyer for their specific needs. Without a clear point of differentiation, you are simply one of many fungible lawyers, which makes your business development job more difficult.

When searching for what makes you different, consider these examples:

  • Does (or should) your practice focus on some subset of clients or issues? For example, you might be an employment attorney who focuses on the food service industry.
  • Do you have previous experience or education that is particularly relevant to your practice? For example, if you do white collar defense and you previously prosecuted such cases with the Department of Justice, that insight will distinguish you from other defense attorneys.
  • Do you approach your cases in an unusual way? For example, you might offer a collaborative approach. In some practice areas, flat fee billing or a retainer engagement would be a distinctive form of practice.
  • What skills or resources do you have that benefit your clients? Consider fluency in a foreign language, a wide network of advisors and service providers you can refer to your clients, or a familiarity with a foreign legal system that’s relevant to your practice.

When you determine what sets you apart from others who practice in the area of law that you do, you lay the groundwork for business development activity that is both distinctive and appealing. But remember: the touchstone of these points of distinction must be usefulness to your clients. You should not market based on your skill in rock-climbing, because it will not benefit clients—unless you have a niche practice in representing individuals who suffered injury on rock climbs and now seek to sue an expedition leader.

Questions for you to consider today: What sets you apart in a way that your clients value? How can you capitalize on that attribute or experience in your marketing?

The powerful (marketing) message you should deliver daily.

The statement “I’ve got your back” is one of the most powerful business development messages there is. When you have someone capable and attentive on your side to offer assistance and cheer you on, you’re likely to be more willing to undertake new, difficult, or risky-feeling activity.

Consider this: a child learning to walk or to ride a bicycle will often look to a parent, to be sure that someone is there to encourage them and catch them if they waiver. We applaud speakers and those receiving awards as a way of saying, “Good job!” And we’ve probably all called a friend for support after being rejected by a potential client or date, or a job opportunity. Just about everybody appreciates encouragement and support. 

There’s another side to “I’ve got your back,” too: someone capable who’s in the trenches with you, ready to help. And that’s where “I’ve got your back” goes from a source of feel-good emotional support to a do-good, hands-on promise. That’s also where it becomes a powerful business development message.

Think from your client’s perspective. Whether your clients are legally sophisticated large companies or individuals who have never worked with a lawyer or legal problem before, every client wants to know they’re in capable hands.

More importantly, clients want to experience being in capable hands.  That means, for example:

  • Having a lawyer explain the heart and the context of the legal matter, to an extent that feels comfortable to each particular client, and knowing that the lawyer fully understands and appreciates the relevant law and its impact on the client
  • Having a lawyer who’s proactive in flagging new issues and opportunities
  • Getting calls and emails promptly returned by the lawyer or a knowledgeable staff member
  • Knowing the status of the matter, including the reason for delays or quiet periods in a representation
  • Being billed clearly and appropriately, in accord with expectations
  • Receiving emotionally intelligent communications, whether that’s congratulations or an explanation of what went wrong and why (this is the feel-good side in a business context)

When you convey that you’ve “got a client’s back” through your actions, you’re laying the groundwork for great client service. You’re building a relationship that’s characterized by respect and support, in the context of legal skill. That service not only keeps your current clients happy but also creates the potential for repeat business or referrals.

You might choose to say, “I’ve got your back” (or more businesslike words that convey the same message), but your actions must back up your words. If not, your statement will backfire: your actions will demonstrate that you don’t have the client’s back and, almost worse, that you either don’t realize that fact or you’re willing to lie about it.  (This, I believe, is one root of many lawyer jokes and the usual low standing of lawyers of lists of trustworthy professions.)

How can you demonstrate and perhaps say that you’ve got your clients’ back?

From your own perspective, working with someone who’s “got your back” as you undertake business development activity (which may be unfamiliar and feel risky, at least at first) can be a key factor in your success.  It’s the flip side of the points above, substituting marketing for legal knowledge and skill. When you have great support, you get a cheering squad, a listening ear, a brainstorming partner, a source for new ideas and insight, needed resources, and more.

Here are a few ideas on how you can get the support you need:

  • Join forces with one or two colleagues who are also working to grow their practices
  • Join a rainmaker group (or create your own)
  • Use social media for accountability and support
  • Hire a consultant or coach

If you’d like to join a group of colleagues, check out Chapter 1 of The Reluctant Rainmaker (pages 26-30 in the print edition) for specific suggestions of how to find or create the right group.  And if you’re looking to hire a consultant or coach, let’s talk and see if we’re the right fit. Click here to schedule a FREE 30 minute call.