(Note—This is the third in a series of posts taken from my recent presentation to attorneys and legal professionals at the DRI conference in New York.)

In his book “The Value-Able Law Department” – which, by the way, I would highly recommend reading because it is, in essence, an inside counsel’s cookbook  – Steven Lauer talks about a survey conducted by the Association of Corporate Counsel to study characteristics of the relationships between corporate law departments and outside counsel. One of the primary questions asked was, “How do in-house legal departments find and subsequently hire outside law firms.”

Overwhelmingly, the answer was through referrals. The ACC survey found that more than 77 percent of decision-makers used out-of-company referrals in hiring legal representation. More than 52 percent also used referrals from other in-house attorneys within the buyer’s company.

A BTI Consulting Group survey of in-house counsel at Fortune 1000 companies confirms those findings. Again, peer referrals provide the most direct route to hiring consideration, with 57 percent of corporate counsel saying they will consider hiring a new outside attorney based alone on a single peer recommendation.

Perhaps best of all, referrals are free and, often, they are there for the asking. Perhaps it is human nature, but I have found that attorneys who are pitbulls in the courtroom or at the negotiating table can be reticent to ask a client for a good word. Fierce advocates for clients, they are pussycat advocates for themselves.  This is a mistake. I stress with my team that we should “make the ask” – if we know that we have provided a client with outstanding service, why shouldn’t we ask the client directly for a referral? The client won’t be offended – going back to my story about the repairman, most people want to be able to give positive evaluations to people who perform work for us. When we know that a person’s livelihood depends on customer satisfaction, and that they are working hard to achieve that satisfaction, it creates a bond between buyer and seller. In fact, I would say that most clients would be delighted and honored to offer a positive referral to a valued attorney.

So we know referrals work best, according to the BTI study. The same survey cited indicates that face-to-face meetings, while not quite as effective as peer referrals, are pretty darned effective.  The face-to-face meetings to which I refer are not those engendered at cocktail receptions or on the rubber chicken circuit, but rather meetings that are scheduled in advance, powered by a specific agenda, platformed on reasonable research efforts, and driven by intelligent questions that elicit true needs and wants on the part of the client.  In other words, not the typical show-up-and-throw-up meetings that have been a staple of law firms for aeons.  Again, the lawyer receiving consideration has been screened at a personal level.

Another important factor in getting hired is credentialing – establishing oneself as a go-to source of legal acumen and exemplary service. One of the best ways to do this is through what we called “earned media,” that is, being quoted on a topic by a news source or contributing an article for publication.

One good avenue for credentialing is to speak at small seminars and panel discussion. Interestingly, BTI’s research found that speaking to large groups doesn’t create the same credibility as speaking to more intimate gatherings.

The key to credentialing activities is that a trusted, independent third party, such as a media outlet or seminar organizer, considers this attorney’s expertise in a particular subject to be of value. Outside counsel should constantly be on the lookout for ways to push their message out, either by writing articles, making themselves available for interviews or speaking at small, topic-appropriate seminars.

Again, social media can play an important and positive role. By distributing the published articles or speaking engagement dates through nurtured social media channels, the messages have the potential to travel exponentially via the viral process. Along the way, the possibility grows that the accumulated viral support can generate a level of rapid, peer validation that is difficult to achieve with any other single channel.  The more credentialing content that is added to the social media pipelines, the more value created within search engine rankings, which positions the content provider higher in relative online searches.

Conversely, what doesn’t work? Well, all of the various and sundry rankings of Best Lawyers, Super Lawyers, Greatest Lawyers, etc. don’t resonate with buyers of legal services. Clients don’t want to hear lawyers talk about how great they are. We still deal with these rankings, because many of our senior attorneys still value them and, after all, we work at their pleasure. But we have gently tried to de-emphasize participating in such rankings, which can be quite time-consuming for a client development department, in favor of activities that legitimately bring us closer to the point of sale.

Also, traditional advertising has a low rate of return. Television ads, mass mailers and newspaper advertisements are just too broad-based to have much impact on satisfying a business client’s sophisticated legal needs. The target audience for these outlets is too broad to allow for the level of specificity that would resonate with a corporate client. And, again, advertising is a one-way form of communication, which isn’t what companies are looking for today.

Clients are skeptical of what they see, hear and read in advertisements, perhaps justifiably so. Traditional advertising had its place at one point, as firms worked to establish their names in specific markets. But buyers are much more skeptical and savvy these days.

In my next installment, I’ll discuss the “myth of cross-selling,” and how corporate clients are looking to hire lawyers, not law firms.

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