Many of us who were lucky enough to be part of successful law firms of 20 years or so ago will recall how, in each of those firms, a couple of partners stood out for having impeccable client development and relationship skills. At the time we probably  assumed it was just the way things were done. There’s something in that, but in fact we were witnessing and experiencing a combination of terrific talent, something of an art form, at work, combined with hard work, commitment, genuine interest in others (mainly clients) ahead of own interests, keeping in touch, remembering important occasions, sending them snippets of useful information, and so on. This was old style business and client relationship development at its best; quite an art. The question is; is this a dying art?

Internet-related marketing activities are getting a lot of attention, quite rightly, but as practitioners have only so much time available for marketing, there appears to be an opportunity developing to selectively revert to old marketing practices. As lawyers have moved away from more traditional relationship building practices they may be leaving a gap for a return to old tried and trusted methods. (Sean Larkan, Edge International)

Many of us have said or heard said how clients no longer like to be lunched or invited to too many social functions. A quick coffee has become the new ‘client lunch’. Anecdotal evidence suggests however that some clients may be missing the more personal touch of old. They also, it seems, like the trust and closeness of these personal relationships that are steadily built up and strengthened over time.

Law firm leader Scott McSwan of Queensland mid-tier McKAYS feels there has been a shift – he has always been willing to try innovative new ways of delivering service or differentiating his practice or firm (he was one of the first practitioners I knew who geared up a matrimonial practice to 10 to 1) – when he mentioned he had picked up on changing trends and a possible gap he felt existed around building client relationships I took note: ‘lawyers now have ever more kinds of marketing activities to manage, undertake and keep track of – particularly via the Internet and using social media channels. However, everyone has only so much time to do non-billable work and the more time that lawyers give to these other kinds of marketing, the less time they have to give to the more traditional kinds of marketing like client relationship building!’

And what are some of these new marketing avenues which are getting attention? Scott:It depends very much on the area of practice. Some areas are more conducive to, say, Internet marketing, social media channels, electronic wire and news snippet services and so on, than others.  Certainly a lot of firms are giving more time to their online profiles and websites which of course is necessary and good, but at what cost? There is an interesting marketing shift. With the advent of the Internet the effectiveness of the traditional methods are in my view being eroded. There is proliferation of accessible alternatives online now available to the prospective client.’

This may leave a gap for the re-introduction of the more traditional ways of developing and nurturing client relationships – back to a more personal touch.

Candice de Bruin, the dynamic young CMO of Werksmans confirms this: “We see it come up more and more that investing in long-term relationships has real benefit for the client and for the firm.  However, it is incredibly time-consuming when it comes to thoroughly understanding your clients’ business needs, but I’m sure most lawyers will admit that the clients they have known for years and where they have built up a trust relationship, get more insightful and targeted advice than newer clients.  And the benefit works both ways; those long-term clients are the ones who view us as long-term partners, not just short-term advisers.  I’m not  saying there is no place for online marketing.  There are many benefits: it’s got wide reach, it’s more immediate, can be cost effective and can be tailored to suit the needs of a particular target market – but I would think that this can’t and won’t ever substitute for getting to know your clients and their business. Thankfully, this is still very much the driving ethos at at our firm.”

So, what are some of the more traditional means of marketing/building relationships that are coming to the fore as possibilities?

In this context Scott feels that: ‘clients experienced in choosing legal services – and those that have substantial spends on legal services – and these are the ones we target, are not (in my experience) using online alternatives to do their real choosing. Furthermore high value referrers of work are not using online alternatives. They are still staying with traditional personal referrals and personal contact driven methods of identifying and selecting legal providers. I believe that law firms that seriously diminish their personal network are, to that extent, excluding themselves from consideration. 

Looking ahead – any implications?

Candice: I feel strongly we need to take care to  ensure the importance of an investment in the long-term relationship is instilled in the younger lawyers too. We must never lose sight of this. Scott adds: ‘There is an opportunity here – law firms that ramp up their personal contact can fill the gap increasingly left by other lawyers who are possibly occupied with or even distracted by online and related marketing activities which is necessarily less personal. I also anticipate in time there will be a generational gap and loss of marketing know-how… as junior lawyers are less likely to have been role modelled relationship marketing by partners they report to.

LLB: I think there is something in each of the points made above –

  • things have undoubtedly changed; one has only to stop to think for a minute where all the attention is being given from a marketing and relationship development perspective;
  • also, many clients still hugely value the comfort and business benefit that comes from being engaged in a long term strategic relationship built around a deep understanding by the practitioner of a client’s needs and imperatives;
  • while there is massive benefit that can be achieved taking full advantage of the many new avenues of marketing activity (while not as personal as the more traditional ways, they still involve sharing and building very good relationships, even if some of these are ‘online’) sight should not be lost of the value and place in a marketing mix of retaining and nurturing the traditional client relationship building methods and skills;
  • it is also imperative that these skills are passed down to young practitioners – this will not happen on its own, it is something that will require recognition of the challenges and opportunities, and then leadership, drive and implementation.

As markets and client prerogatives have  evolved and younger professionals have more actively adopted new strategies to cope with them like embracing social media and Internet marketing in all its forms and all it has to offer, they have left some gaps for experienced practitioners to use the tried and tested methods of old – ‘the old dogs can come out to play’. What I am talking about simply is taking a step back to when building business and client relationship management was all about doing just that, building personal relationships and trust and putting real time and effort into that side of things. Nowadays there is a danger that some will overlook these fundamentals. I think both approaches have their place and I suspect that when we look back in ten or so years’ time we will find them co-existing; just two approaches to the same thing – building rich, long-standing client relationships around trust and respect and a mutual sharing of information.


Sean Larkan, Edge International