Business as usual is a phrase that typically denotes routine and conjures an image of the comfortable. Yet the unusual has become the usual, with firms acclimating to a tough economic culture everyone hoped would be quick to pass. In a recent Legal Sales and Service Organization report, Roberta Montafia, a legal marketing and business development consultant, said, “The pressure clients bring to bear is relentless as general counsel are under pressure to deliver more for less and expect their law firms to reduce costs and provide greater value.” In times of adversity, lawyers often fixate on either a state of denial or desperation. Some carry on, head buried in work, while others begin throwing darts at walls, tossing marketing materials out the door to any contact they have. Neither approach yields consistent results. So instead, let’s focus on the often unnoticed opportunity this environment has created.

In order to do so, it is critical that you first understand the climate and accept it for what it is. The power is in the hands of the buyer, and the buyers are not always the lawyers. Procurement agencies are making hiring decisions. Reverse auctions are on the rise. Alternative fee arrangements are being solicited in almost every request for proposal and pitch. The Association of Corporate Counsel’s Value Challenge foreshadowed this shift years ago, but many did not anticipate how quickly the change would take effect.

To assume the change is fundamentally related to fees would be incorrect. Clients are also setting service guidelines and demanding accountability. In the past few months, we’ve repeatedly seen questions like these: “How do you manage projects? What is your approach to key account management? How do you share information? What is your diversity profile and how are you working to improve it?” Perhaps the most significant change we’ve seen in proposals over the past year is that many of these “value-adds” are what the clients are most often interested in during the decision-making interviews. The assumption is that you can do legal work; but can you do it for less while delivering more?

With all of this doom and gloom, it is easy to overlook the opportunity. Yet it stands obvious: Seasoned law firms now have to battle for a percentage of a shrinking pie, giving you the potential to have a seat at the table. So how do you move forward?

Be Client-Focused

Lawyers often get caught up in the administrative structure of a firm and lose sight of the client’s issue. We frequently see this in traditional marketing communications efforts, such as client alerts, where a team of lawyers will push out information on a new law from one practice group’s perspective. A more meaningful, client-based approach would seek the questions the clients had on an issue and apply them across practices as a comprehensive solution. Make your clients’ lives easier.

Similarly, in a current or prospective client meeting, consciously shift the conversation to ask guided questions rather than to push information. To make this more natural, do your research on clients, on your competitors they use and their business and legal issues. We have increasingly utilized more of the advance preparation time on research rather than on unguided presentation materials. When BTI Consulting Group reported that more than 30 percent of law firms intend to increase their client research budgets in 2012, and Wisnik Career Enterprises Inc. indicated seeing a trend of law firms hiring more competitive intelligence specialists in 2012, it came as little surprise to us. This intelligence, partnered with direct client feedback, will inevitably put you in a winning position.

Share information

Even if you don’t have CRM technology, make sure you fully understand the relationships with your key clients across your firm. If you can master this, you are on your way to growing business. An effective approach we have used is building a map of the organizational structure of a client’s legal department. By doing this, we determine where our relationships are strong or weak. This often unveils potential avenues for business introductions and can highlight places where further client intelligence is needed. If nothing else, it prevents a firm from looking uncoordinated, a sure-fire way to show lack of client focus.

Establishing improved communication channels with your support departments can yield benefits as well. Ensure that marketing, knowledge management, information technology, recruiting and accounting have a regular forum to share ideas. This cross-disciplinary approach will not only ensure consistency in messaging and create efficiencies, but it will also encourage innovation and creativity while yielding commercial results. In order to have that effect, it is imperative to share the objectives of your senior legal members. Use these resources wisely. While they can always act in response to a request, e.g., create a newsletter, you will yield a better product if you share your objective instead: “We’re trying to more regularly get news about legal developments out to clients; what is the best way to approach that?”

Stay the Course

Behavior modification is only successful if you keep at it. Set a manageable number of goals and communicate them often along with stories of success. Do not think of these behavioral changes as one-offs necessitated by a bad economy. Rather, think of them as positive development of productive habits.

Earlier this month, BTI Consulting Group President Michael Rynowecer presented the BTI Premium Practices Forecast and Client Service Performance report, which provided a helpful list of critical questions that law firms should ask of themselves. This report, as well as other client management tools, are easily accessible via the practice development section of the American Bar Association and/or local bar associations. Use these support resources wisely.

When “business as usual” is not feeling like it used to, it is for good reason. Law firms have many different forces shaping their futures. Technology is aiding client service by providing transparency. Communication is no longer just words on a page or messages conveyed in meetings; rather, it is real-time dialogue taking place on social networking sites. Competition is no longer on a regional or national scale — it’s global.

Embracing these differences as opportunities and understanding how to leverage them to connect with clients is your ticket to success. •

Rita V. DeCaria is the director of business development at Reed Smith in New York. Contact her directly at 212-549-0210 or rdecaria@reedsmith.com.

Jenifer L. Smuts is a senior business development manager at the firm in Philadelphia. Contact her directly at 215-241-7987 or jsmuts@reedsmith.com.