Winning new clients is a necessary but challenging proposition for today’s small to midsize law firms. Altman Weil’s 2016 Law Firms in Transition survey found that many law firms suffer from an “inefficient delivery of legal services” and fail to use “proactivity as a competitive advantage.”
The fact is that companies, and the corporate legal departments that hire law firms, have a need for outside counsel that specialize in certain areas and locations of business. However, many law firms struggle to make themselves attractive hires for in-house counsel. Setting themselves apart from the competition is an ongoing challenge for many firms, and they lose out on business because of their inability to differentiate their services and expertise.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are the top five ways that law firms can bolster their operations and infrastructures—and improve their competitive advantage.
Corporations are increasingly focusing their time and resources on security—and they are expecting their law firms to do the same. Highly publicized leaks—such as the so-called “Panama Papers” where sensitive documents were stolen from the law firm of Mossack Fonseca—has only heightened concerns.
Yet according to the Eighth Annual Law Department Operations Survey, only slightly more than half of law department operations managers consider their law firms’ ability to protect their data as “highly effective” or “somewhat effective.”
To set themselves apart from competitors at other law firms, attorneys should demonstrate that they have cybersecurity protocols that will meet and exceed corporate requirements and industry regulations. This includes installing systems with enhanced security for emails, data in transit and information that resides behind the firm’s firewalls.
At a minimum, law firms should have intrusion detection systems and two-factor authentication. Firms also must insist that attorneys and staff always encrypt emails, to keep sensitive and confidential communications safe from deliberate hacks or accidental leaks. Top-notch security is worth its weight in gold when attracting new business and protecting existing clients.
Create Better Budgets
Corporate legal departments are increasingly facing pressure to develop and maintain their own budgets. It’s not enough for in-house counsel to offer vague predictions and insist to their bosses that it’s impossible to predict legal costs. As a result, they are applying the same expectations to their law firms. Budgets that outside counsel submit to their clients must be predictable, accurate and stable in order to get new business and maintain the clients that they have.
Budgeting like this can be daunting. Fortunately, law firms don’t have to completely solve this situation overnight. They can communicate with legal departments to find out which matters have been the most unpredictable in terms of cost, then target those areas first for improvement. Law firms can also leverage their billing software to create metrics that provide fresh insights into past and current matters, then use that information going forward. Accurate budgeting demonstrates that law firms can successfully allocate resources and work efficiently.
Law departments are also expected to become more efficient. In turn, they are demanding that their law firms become more efficient. The more efficient law firms are, the more they can stay within budgets—and the more money they can ultimately make.
Law firms can improve efficiencies through the right software and processes, and by assigning the right people to the right tasks. No magic bullets or perfect programs will work for every law firm. Look at the firm’s areas of specialties, goals and current staffing levels to evaluate what will truly improve efficiencies, what will not offer significant improvements and what can set the firm’s efforts back.
Comply with All Outside Counsel Guidelines
Many legal departments have created standards and processes for their law firms, and they expect that their law firms will follow them. Outside counsel guidelines can cover anything from how to bill, limits on billing, who is approved to bill, travel expenses, business codes and conflicts, diversity and staffing. In many ways, these guidelines are extensions of the corporation, its security and its culture.
These guidelines can be very specific, and one client’s guidelines may differ dramatically from another client’s. Law firms may be tempted to ignore guidelines, or not comply fully. However, corporate legal departments can quickly decide not to work with attorneys who don’t comply, and find others who will.
The results of not following guidelines may have a long-term effect as well that dissuades onboarding future clients. After all, if lawyers or paralegals disregard one guideline, then they are less likely to follow future corporate guidelines.
In today’s 24/7/365 culture of connectedness, in-house counsel expect to be able to reach their attorneys immediately. That means law firms must be prepared to respond, and have the technology and infrastructure in place to do so. Along with office phone numbers, law firm attorneys should be prepared to provide mobile phone numbers and regularly check email. They also need to be able to access client files and data wherever they are, in case a client has a question that requires some research.
Moving the firm’s data to a secure cloud-based system is one way to allow secure access to information 24/7. Doing so can also improve responsiveness and reduce IT infrastructure and tech support costs. Some legal cloud providers offer greater security features than a firm could implement independently, which could potentially solve more than one problem.
To minimize those last-minute requests as much as possible, attorneys should schedule regular updates and reporting sessions with their clients. This will allow attorneys to anticipate problems and trouble-shoot minor issues before they become major ones.
Now, more than ever, attorneys must combine their talent for practicing law with their business acumen to attract corporate clients. By demonstrating their firms’ savvy, security, responsiveness, and proven compliance with outside counsel guidelines, attorneys can significantly increase their chances at winning corporate business.
About the Author
Joe Kelly is the founder and CEO of Legal Workspace, a provider of cloud-based hosting services and work environment for law firms. Contact Joe on Twitter @LegalWorkspace.