A Chat with Dr. Silvia Hodges on How to Prepare for the “New Normal” in Private PracticeSilvia Hodges in Ms. JD, February 13, 2012
As law students, most of us generally don’t think we need to worry about strategies for marketing ourselves or learning how to build business for our future employers. Dr. Silvia Hodges, an expert in the field of legal marketing research, shares with Ms. JD that a new era in the legal services industry is approaching and now is the time to prepare yourself and your firm for the challenges of the soon-to-be new normal.
What is this new normal? According to Dr. Hodges, there are two main shifts ongoing in the legal services industry. First, law firm clients used to be less proactive and informed about the legal services they were purchasing, allowing their general counsels to make decisions about which firms to hire based on personal experience and recommendations. While this is still largely the case, clients have become increasingly sophisticated, growing their legal departments and encouraging firms to submit bids and compete for business. The second change is within the law firm itself: in 2007, the United Kingdom Legal Services Act allowed for the creation of alternative business structures for law firms, in which up to 25 percent of management may be non-lawyers. This is a serious departure from the traditional law firm partnership structure, and is a sign that law firms need to start thinking along more corporate lines. While the effect of this law may be gradual, Dr. Hodges suspects that within the next five to ten years major changes will develop as a result, both the U.K. and the U.S.
What does this mean for young lawyers trying to succeed at a law firm? With the power in the legal services industry shifting toward the client side, young lawyers need to focus not only on meeting their billable hours and their substantive work, but also on their familiarity with the business of their law firm and the business of their clients. With developments in e-discovery and outsourcing of much of the traditional junior associate work, Dr. Hodges emphasizes the importance of developing your ability to bring business in early to maximize your value. To do this, lawyers need to conceptualize their work as part of a service and focus on marketing and improving that service. It’s not enough to rely on marketing departments, says Dr. Hodges, “Clients buy your brand, so you must be involved….The misconception about marketing is that it is advertising, but this is not true, it is so much more.”
How can law students start to build these skills? Start with your online presence, suggests Dr. Hodges. Every student should have a Linked In profile and build and follow up with contacts through Linked In. Also, edit and control what the public sees of you online. All human resources departments research potential employees online, so make sure those Facebook photos are private. Next, stay in touch with everyone. “You never know,” admonishes Dr. Hodges, “the person sitting next to you in Torts might just be the future GC [general counsel] of a potential client.” Also, get connected to what you think your client industry might be. Think about what you are interested in, and whether you have any unique strengths, such as a foreign language spoken in a developing region, then start to read up on your client industry. Finally, consider taking some business or accounting courses. Most importantly, don’t give up. Business and marketing skills are not always the easiest to develop, but that is exactly why you need to start now.
Dr. Hodges is an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School and Director of Research Services at TyMetrix. She regularly advises law firms on international legal marketing and cross-cultural decision-making. Learn more about Dr. Hodges at silviahodges.com.