Law: Minor crime? It won't pay: If firms are to find new clients they must have a clear strategy. Sharon Wallach reports on competitive practices

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The Independent Online
THE LAW firm of the Nineties cannot afford to rest on the laurels of past achievements, or for that matter on its existing client base. Identifying new areas of business and incorporating them into the firm's expertise are imperatives.

Competition is fierce, and firms are reluctant to reveal details of their business strategies. But there is general acceptance of some basic rules. According to Stephen Fielding, the business development manager at the City firm of Titmuss Sainer & Webb, the best source of new business is to be found in the existing client base. 'A satisfied client doesn't go elsewhere; he maintains a regular demand for your services; he asks you to do a wider range of work; and he is often the source of new business introductions,' Mr Fielding says.

The source of client satisfaction is quality of service, including a commitment to knowing and satisfying his or her requirements. The key, he says, is active consideration of how best your firm can match the client's needs.

Replenishing the client base is vital. 'Getting new clients requires a crystal-clear focus,' he says. This includes looking at areas of market growth and reasonable margins - there is no point in pursuing a market sector where the margins are wafer-thin. 'It would not be profitable for us to pursue minor crime, for instance,' Mr Fielding says. 'Our cost base in the City doesn't enable us to support small-scale work.'

Having a clear focus also means collecting data. 'You can't make judgements unless you have analysed the market, looked at trends and understood what makes the client buy legal services,' Mr Fielding says. This process requires patience, imagination and wide knowledge, not least of the economy. 'In a nutshell, we lawyers have to apply the same principles of sound business development as our clients in winning and retaining their custom.'

Patricia Lennon, the head of marketing at the regional and City practice Dibb Lupton Broomhead, believes that new business comes from a combination of planning and traditional ad hoc practice.

'Business opportunities occur when our partners are out talking to people. That's no more than you would expect,' she says. 'We also have a procedure, part of our business plan, for spotting new areas of development.'

She cites the example of public-sector work. 'We identified this as a new area for potential business. We did some basic market research, to discover for instance who the major players are, then developed a detailed programme for targeting specific areas.

'It is a problem that there is no immediacy between marketing activity and results. But we do keep a database to record initiatives, activities and outcome.'

If a firm is to be effective, it must look at potential new fields that fit in with its expertise, resources and position in the market. 'Going from a standing start would not work so well,' Ms Lennon says.

The approach of City-based Richards Butler, says its managing partner Ken Ollerton, has been 'disparate'. 'Now,' he says, 'we are trying to organise things in a more focused way.'

This includes the setting up of a practice development group. 'I am keen that we identify ourselves in business marketplaces and not simply ally ourselves to legal disciplines that we want to sell,' Mr Ollerton says.

'We have looked at ideas concerning potential practice development areas. There are 15 or 16, but it is not realistic to fund them all. We are identifying the two or three most likely to succeed and putting the majority of our resources behind them, while keeping the others ticking over.' What is most important, Mr Ollerton believes, is to identify what the client actually wants rather than impose the legal services that the lawyers think the client needs.

A department within the national practice Eversheds, has responsibility for identifying and bringing forward new opportunities, says its deputy chairman, Richard Collier.

'The first thing is to spot your potential client,' he says. 'This means reading widely in the industrial, business and financial press and taking note of companies or public bodies that might be seeking representation.'

The second step, he says, is identifying business through the firm's specialist departments, which have their own marketing and client identification teams.

A danger for lawyers keen to attract new business is forgetting to look after their existing clients, Mr Collier says. Cross-fertilisation (keeping clients au fait with the gamut of a firm's services) is all-important. 'For every new client won cold on the street, you've probably missed 20 on your own client database.'

Ian Reaves, the marketing partner at Edge & Ellison Calow Easton, of Birmingham and London, says that a team de-briefing follows any out-of-the-ordinary work for a client. 'We discuss whether it was a one-off occasion or has wider implications. We also have a structured but flexible approach to seeking new areas of work via the firm's central marketing function.'

Mr Reaves believes that a focused commercial interest should be combined with a close two-way relationship with clients, contacts and friends. Also important is detailed information on both the regional and the national economies. 'There are no guarantees that lawyers will be practising the same law in two years' time as today, because the outside world is moving very quickly,' he says. 'You've got to spot the opportunity, then put life into it. It can be a frightening prospect for older lawyers.'

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