Law firm marketing and BD teams spend more time on firefighting than strategy, study finds

Law firms also lack sufficient investment in their marketing and business development teams

Reign Lee (right) discussing the results at the Law Firm Marketing Summit with panellists (l-r) Florence Brocklesby, founder, Bellevue Law; Katherine Atkinson, senior BD and marketing manager, McGuireWoods; and Nigel Clark, CEO, Nexa Law

A majority of law firm marketing and business development (MBD) teams are spending most of their time dealing with problems rather than on strategic initiatives, according to new research, presented at the Law Firm Marketing Summit earlier this month.

The survey – Agility In A Disrupted World, Dealing With Disruption – found that almost two thirds of MBD teams (65%) are spending more time on firefighting than developing strategies, with 80% of that group spending at least two thirds of their time extinguishing fires rather than on strategic thinking. Less than a quarter of respondents said they spend more time on strategy, with 14% reporting a 50/50 split. The survey was compiled by Van Bael & Bellis head of strategy Reign Lee and Hausfeld’s marketing and business development director, Silvia Van Den Bruel.

Van Den Bruel said: “Firefighting on a constant basis is draining, demoralising and wastes huge amounts of energy. It takes the teams away from what is key to the survival of law firms: strategising and executing the business plans. It is simple, yet seemingly so difficult.”

Disrupting factorsChosen by
Technology and automation, including AI61%
Economic uncertainty and the impact on firm expenses, revenues and growth56%
Recruiting and retaining talent across business services50%
Changing expectations by the client i.e. value for money, transparency, efficiency and social values33%
Data privacy and cyber security33%
Legal tech companies offering accessible and cost-effective solutions19%
Remote working, internal engagement and virtual collaboration17%
Alternative legal service providers14%

While nearly all MBD teams are empowered to make suggestions to senior leadership that can drive the business forward (97%) only just over half (57%) have a seat on the board or management table.

MBD teams are also not getting sufficient financial backing from management, underscoring a disconnect between a firm’s focus and the focus of MBD teams. Less than half of respondents (46%) said their firms are investing in talent and growing their MBD teams to meet the challenges of disruption. More than half of respondents also said they spend most of their time on addressing short-term issues rather than focusing on long-term initiatives due to a lack of resources (69%).

Van Den Bruel said: “With the vast majority of respondent firms focused on short-term rather than long-term priorities, firms miss out on the strategic expertise offered by the MBD teams. Those who can turn that around while taking measures to retain talent and ensure that they are an attractive place to work for business services and lawyers alike, build a strong foundation to do well.” 

The disruption law firms are facing ranges from tech and automation, the growth in alternative legal services providers (ALSPs), changing client expectations, regulatory change, remote work, data privacy and cybersecurity, and economic uncertainty. Respondents flagged technology and automation, including artificial intelligence, as the biggest disrupting factor (61%), followed by economic uncertainty and the impact on expenses, revenue and growth (56%) and recruiting and retaining talent across business services (50%). However, only 14% of respondents flagged ALSPs as a disrupting factor – the lowest response. That was followed by remote working and virtual engagement with 17%.

How equipped are the MBD teams to be a strategic advisorYesNo
I/we have a seat at the board/management table and have decision-making power.57%43%
I/we am/are empowered to make suggestions to senior leadership that can drive results forward.97%3%
We are investing in talent and growing our BD and marketing team(s) to meet the challenges of disruption.46%54%
We are investing in training across the firm to encourage “self-service” amongst fee earners, so that the BD and marketing team(s) can focus on developing strategic initiatives.46%54%
I/we spend most of my/our time responding to urgent requests and have very little time to help fee-earners support clients’ future needs.59%41%
I/we focus on addressing short-term needs rather than long-term priorities due to a lack of resources (i.e., time, talent) and investment.69%31%
My situation is worse than before Covid.19%81%

Lee said: “Another concerning finding is that firms have invested resources in recruitment and retention of legal talent but not their business services teams. Considering that demands on BD and marketing teams are so high, this indicates that there is clearly a gap in understanding the true measure of talent value outside of the legal teams.”

MBD teams are also likely to struggle to deal with this disruption even if they have the skills to adapt themselves. Some 64% of respondents said they have experience to deal with change management but not everyone in the firm does so it may be an uphill process. Only 17% said they are well equipped to deal with change management.

Respondents also listed a number of challenges their teams face, such as not having sufficient capacity relative to the growth in fee earner headcount, as well as cost saving pressures and problems securing senior management buy-in for tech investment.

Lee said: “BD and marketing teams are asked to continuously find novel ways to attract business; to deliver efficiencies; to do more with less resource; and to be on top of everything new when it comes to digital marketing, social media and the use of AI in content marketing. These professionals function at the commercial heart of the business and the value of opportunity cost to law firms that do not have an effective and functioning BD and marketing team cannot be underestimated.”

Some 37 business development and marketing professionals at global, European and UK-based firms were surveyed. The majority of respondents were female and 71% operate at a very senior level. 

Email your news and story ideas to: [email protected]