How Small Law Firms Can Punch Above Their Weight in Brave New ABS World

Posted by Paul Hajek on Wed, Mar 12, 2014 @ 04:38 PM

Small law firms pack a punchLet's begin with a glimpse in to the future ABS landscape for small law firms.

Here is a sneak preview from the opening chapter of my unforthcoming book entitled "Conveyancing Firms: 24 Hours from Tulisa?"

‘Two Tick’ Tulisa, an 18 year old, highly experienced one-to-one, customer-facing conveyancing coordinator with Inter Galactic Estate Agents.com (and author of ‘How to Successfully Tick Your Way Through the Conveyancing Process and Wave Goodbye to Common Sense’) was delighted. The enthusiastic Tulisa, acting upon a hot lead from her punter procurement department, had persuaded first time buyers Mr Poor and Miss Unfortunate (not their real names) to use the conveyancing services provided by their sister company and fledgling ABS Your-Call-is-Important-To-Us.com. Tulisa had shown Mr Poor and Miss Unfortunate the light: their appointed conveyancers were the future of conveyancing.

The ‘future’, as most conveyancing solicitors already know, has been here for some years.

As a conveyancing solicitor for over 30 years, I have dealt with many challenges and threats from the loosening of advertising restrictions in the early 1980s, licensed conveyancers, through to estate agents via HIP providers and panels managers and lenders.

I am resigned to the fact that the past may have only just finished and the future is about to begin all over again.

Everybody’s at it: Even a Bloke with Lorries

The AA and SAGA have been the latest to join to the inexorable rise of big brands achieving ABS status. Even a bloke more famous for his lorries is at it.

Conveyancing competition is getting hotter and this raises important questions about the future for small conveyancing firms and competition.

Will small conveyancing firms (punch-drunk from unfair financial competition and over-bearing compliance and regulation) be relegated to mere spectators as the big conveyancing firms stand toe-to-toe trading blows with ABSs in their bid to reach the next level of critical mass?

Does this mean that the only aspiration for which small conveyancing firms can now strive will be a billing on the undercard of the main boxing match?

Can small conveyancing firms be clever and punch above their weight in the brave new ABS landscape?

The internet has changed client behaviour for good

Put yourself in the shoes or the mindset of a potential client looking to instruct a conveyancing firm.

What would you do; would you ring straight away for a quote?

I would ask around.

My experience is that, increasingly, clients now use the internet to ‘ask around’, to get information about conveyancing services in advance of contacting a law firm – even when the firm has been recommended or, perhaps more importantly, when the conveyancers have been referred.

Leave the paranoia behind

Legal services, including conveyancing, may just be next in line to the technology disruption that every business has been at risk from, as well as the risk of other companies using innovative ways of delivering old services and products. Napoleon Hill commented in his book, Think and Grow Rich: Your Key to Financial Wealth and Power, that ‘of all the ages of civilisation, this is the most favourable for the development of the imagination, because it is an age of rapid change’.1 Napoleon’s book was written in 1937.

‘Online’ will be the new high street

Smaller law firms without a viable internet strategy will find it increasingly difficult to survive and thrive.

‘Online’ will become the new ‘high street’.

Potential clients are looking for more depth and a more detailed understanding of the conveyancing process, what it entails, what to look out for, and any tips and advice before making key decisions and this can all be found online.  To put it another way, clients and potential clients want great legal content to answer their questions and allay their fears or problems.

Promotion of your great legal content is your challenge and the best method is through Social Media.

Social Media is the kindling and bellows to ignite and fan your law firm content fire

Great Legal Content Clients Crave

Clients can ask questions, they can read reviews, digest content (in the form of articles and blogs), start conversations online with people they have never met – and they want to do this when it suits them, at any time of the day or night and weekends.

Law firms who have a static brochure website ( nice graphics and photos ‘though) but no blog would do well to heed another of Napoleon Hill's golden nuggets:

Do not wait – the time will never be ‘just right’. Start where you stand, and better tools will be found along the way

Testimonials

Testimonials can help with law firm differentiation. When was the last time you made a purchase on Amazon without reading at least one review? Law firms, more than ever, need to be able to differentiate from their competitors. However, in my experience, so few law firms bother to include testimonials on their websites or in their marketing.

Google loves testimonials

Google loves testimonials as it sees it as proof positive that a particular company should be given more prominence in search results. It is not easy, as clients are not comfortable with the concept, but asking clients to put a testimonial against your law firm directly into Google would be a great way for instant proof without navigating around your law firm website. Better still, post testimonials on specific profiles around the web (for example, Google+ Local Pages (formerly Google Places) is becoming increasingly influential). Stars next to your website on Google can also add to the social proof potential clients may seek.

Castles and moats

Renowned business magnate and investor Warren Buffet has likened good businesses with ‘castles and moats’. Buffet once said: ‘I look for economic castles protected by unbreachable moats’. An ‘economic castle’ is a great business, and the ‘unbreachable moat’ is the strategy or market dynamic that heightens the barriers-to-entry and makes it difficult or ideally impossible to compete with, or gain access to, the economic castle.

In the internet age, the challenge for law firms and their websites will be how to fend off other law firms and ABSs from gaining traction in their local, regional, or national markets. If you visualise your law firm as a castle comprising your people, your law firm brand, intellectual capital, and your existing clients, your law firm moat will comprise search engine optimisation (key words and phrases strategy), social media, and internet marketing techniques.

Improve potential clients’ buying experience: Help them buy your services

Great content powers up a law firm’s online presence and attracts more potential clients. Used strategically, online content can help defend your law firm ‘castle’.

Content is too precious to be farmed out to third party suppliers.

Be indigenous.

Find the time for it as it will repay dividends in the end.

It would be useful to remember also that many enquirers are more likely to click on an entry with a photo rather than just text. The overall goal is to retain and acquire clients by attracting and educating them with great content.

Think about it. Would a potential client prefer to use a law firm which provides enough high quality content to answer all their questions? Would the fact that such helpful content was available from you, and not from other law firms, not make you the obvious safe and trustworthy choice for conveyancing?

And what about fees?

So few law firms are bold enough to put their fees out in the open for all to see

Many firms may have misguided worries that it is only other law firms who check the fees and would offer £5 less to win the client. 

Others perhaps petrified of offending their Conveyancing Panel Managers.

Is an email request really making it easy for a potential client to get what they want?

An online conveyancing calculator surely is a must? I’ve just updated our Conveyancing Calculator at Clutton Cox.

The whole idea is to start a conversation and begin a relationship.

Client experience audit

A law firm needs to audit every single step of its business processes. You should revisit every single interaction with your clients, and potential clients, and discover how to make the client experience better.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has an ‘empty chair’ at every meeting with his key staff. The ‘empty chair’ is reserved for their customer so the whole focus of their meetings can concentrate on how the experience of the customer in the empty chair can be improved.

Do as athletes do: Get the best coaches you can afford

To achieve gold and compete with the best takes commitment and hard work. Who can forget Bradley Wiggins last year and Chris Froome this year, both with the help and guidance of their performance director Dave Brailsford and his theory of incremental process improvements (of 1 per cent initially).

Luke Donald, last year’s world’s number one golfer, enlisted the help of Jonny Wilkinson's kicking coach Dave Alred to help with the dynamics of his swing. Luke Donald was the world's number 29 at the time. Ernie Els, the winner of the British Open in 2012, enlisted ‘eye doctor’, Dr Sherylle Calder, to help with the visualisation of his putting. He holed a long putt for a birdie on the 18th to effectively win the championship. It is also no coincidence that both Dave Alred and Sherylle Calder were part of the Clive Woodward's back room staff for England's victorious World Cup Rugby team in 2003.

Success is relative, so smaller firms will have different goals than being purely the ‘number one conveyancing firm in the country by volume or profit’, or whatever metric would satisfy. The important thing is that all firms can identify their goals and improve with outside coaching and technical help.

Brave New World– Same As The Old World

In spite of what still seems, to me, to be an opinion held by too many lawyers, the law is not a different business to which other rules apply.

Law is a people business.

Law firms exist because of the people – the clients they serve.

The way forward for law firms is to embrace the tools that the internet gives us, but at the same time to go back to the old fashioned values of client service which served previous generations so well.

Social media allows us to get closer to our clients, to engender the care and commitment of older generations who built their businesses on old fashioned virtues.

Social media is about humans and communication, and it takes time

Social Media allows us to get closer to our clients as our grandfathers and great grandfathers did with their businesses – on first name terms, knowing their likes and dislikes, and demonstrably showing that we care.

The butcher and the baker who knew all their customers’ backgrounds conversed in real time about what was going on in their lives and gave added value when it was most unexpected.

Law firms need to secure, as one of my own social media heroes Gary Vaynerchuk would say, the emotional equity of their clients.

Clients do not want mere lip service to a so-called ‘quality service’

Law firms, small or large, must make caring more scalable

Do not pass go: Care immensely about your clients or face failure

The cornerstones of what law firm businesses stood for in the past and what made them successful are probably more crucial in the ABS and digital age than ever before.

It is worth reiterating:

 You need to care about your clients. Build your law firm ethos, and its brand around ‘out caring’ everyone else.

If you do not care about your clients immensely, your law firm will ultimately die out sooner or later.

Reaching out and listening to clients has never been easier than now in the digital age, and the traditional means of telephone or in-person contact have never, and will never, go out of fashion or relevance.

Client acquisition and retention

Client acquisition is important, but client retention is key. Firms can often pay too much heed to client acquisition. Many law firms have been pretty useless in keeping in touch with or clients. Yet, if we keep them happy and loyal it is possible to ring fence against the marauding ABSs.

Death by silent cuts

The danger for many small firms of conveyancing solicitors is that the phone may just abruptly stop. The opportunity to give a conveyancing quote may suddenly disappear. The conveyancing buying experience may have already taken place elsewhere – at the estate agent office, the bank, the Co-op till (so they say) or, increasingly, on the internet. If small law firms fail to adapt to the new shift in buying patterns then those firms risk a slow death by silent cuts.

And the good news

The good news, however, is that, for most firms, we still remain ahead of the game for now.

Darwin supposedly once said that it is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.

The conveyancing landscape may yet be dominated by ABSs and large conveyancing factories, but the internet is a great enabler for small law firms who are able to compete on a level playing field with the bigger law firms.

Innovative legal services can be quicker to market and can be viewed by a greater audience.

The internet is a true meritocracy where great content (and blogging is a great example) will attract a new audience for law firms.

Great content designed, as marketers would say, with your specific ‘client personas’ in mind is an important means of standing out – think context as well as content.

I have always use my own experience of blogging as reasons why solicitors should blog. Blogging is a wonderful marketing tool as part of an overall content strategy and those solicitors who embrace it can catapult their law firm into previously unchartered waters: more new clients as well as retention of existing clients and unpaid for referrals direct to your law firm website.

Small law firms can still choose to adapt and fight the challenge head on from the bigger conveyancing firms and ABSs, and they have their destiny in their own hands. It is, however, too risky a strategy to just rely upon your pool of existing clients and the fickleness of estate agents and conveyancing panels.

Seconds Out

Any small conveyancing firm with the right strategy and commitment to improve and innovate need not fear the world of ABSs and Two Tick Tulisa’s employers.

Small law firms must be prepared to turn their law firms into media outlets for great legal content.

And above all else must ‘out care’ the Co-op, Saga, AA and that bloke with the lorries.

Gum Shield: Gloves:Seconds Out: Ding Ding

Bring It On

Paul Hajek

A version of this post provides a Chapter in the Solicitors Journal publication “Residential Property Practice: An Expert Guide” priced £39.95

 

Tags: content marketing for law firms, content marketing for lawyers, high street law firms, social media for law firms, small law firm survival, ABS