Thought leadership and law firm marketing with Professor David Wilkins of Harvard Law School

Lawyer thought leader

Lawyer thought leader

John McDougall interview photoJohn: Hi, I’m John McDougall and I’m here today with Professor David Wilkins of Harvard Law School and he’s also the director of Harvard Law School’s program on the legal profession. Professor Wilkins, how important is it that an attorney as an authority in their main practice area versus trying to be too good at too many areas of law?

David WilkinsDavid: Well John, first of all, it’s a pleasure to be with you and your audience. This is one of the many questions that really is hard to answer in general because it depends a lot upon what kind of attorney that we’re thinking about. There are many attorneys in this country who are generalists and who are able to serve clients in a broad range of areas. Often times, these are lawyers who are serving individual clients in a wide range of areas, and that can be very effective. Obviously, you’ve got to be competent in anything that you do, but that can certainly be affected. There is however an increasing trend towards specialization and that certainly is true when you begin to think about lawyers, for example, who represent organizations and large law firms of increasing complexity. There’s been a big trend towards increasing specialization over the last several years. Having said that, I think there’s also a risk for lawyers, even in those circumstances, to become too narrow and too specialized that they don’t understand the many dimensions or the breadth of the client’s problems. There’s always a balance I think between specialization and expertise but also having the kind of wider perspective that helps you really understand the client’s problems.

John McDougall interview photoJohn: Those are great insights. Thank you. Do people generally hire based on a law firm’s brand or individual attorneys and how much influence do attorneys of substance and their website bio pages have, for example, on hiring decisions?

David WilkinsDavid: Here again, I think there’s probably a big variation but I’ve done a lot of research on how corporate clients view this and so maybe I’d be helpful for me to say a little bit about that because that is something we have some data on. There have been kind of these competing narratives over the last few years, ‘do companies hire “the law firms” or the “individual lawyer,” and there’s been a lot of talk that the world has moved from one in which the most important thing is the brand of the law firm to one in which its all about the individual attorney. We did a very comprehensive survey project a couple of years ago on the legal purchasing decisions on large S&P 500 companies. What we found was that it was neither one nor the other that firm relationships still matter because companies have reduced the number of law firms that they used, which makes by preferred provider lists and other similar vehicles, and that makes the law firm relationship often times very important particularly for their most important law firms. Of course, they also want to pick particular lawyers for particular matters both within their law firm providers and sometimes in really important matters outside of their preferred providers.

There’s one more level that the traditional debate often doesn’t talk about and that is what we call the team or the departmental levels. It turns out that many general counsels, when they think about a law firm or even a preferred provider law firm, are thinking about that law firm as a staff or a small number of important practices for a department. So you know environmental practice or an employment litigation or security’s [laws] and that they treat the unit of analysis as being as importantly at the departmental level as in the individual or the law firm level. With respect to things like websites and rankings and other sources of data, again we found it a sort of mixed story. The traditional view was that laws totally are a relationship driven business and that things like advertising and marketing are completely irrelevant, but of course as we know, there’s been a huge emphasis on advertising and marketing in all sorts of vehicles in recent years.

What we found in our survey data was that if you ask general counsels directly whether they pay attention to public sources of data, they’re not likely to say that it’s very influential. Having said that, we think that there is a growing attention to various kinds of data, particularly the more reliable it becomes, particularly with a new breed of general counsels who are more metric driven, more focused on public sources of data, and who are under increasing pressure to drive efficiency in what I like to call the global age of more for less. So it is still a reputation business. Reputation matters tremendously and relationships matter tremendously, but I think we’re going to see increasingly important public sources of data, which aren’t just about self presentation and websites and marketing, but also about more and more reliable ways of evaluating and ranking attorneys that are going to become more and more important over time.

John McDougall interview photoJohn: With that said, what are few of the most important thought leadership activities for attorneys such as blogging, public relations, being in the news, being an author, maybe having an actual book that they’ve published from their bio pages, client alerts, newsletter, social media? Are they any things that stand out to you, maybe digital ways to build those relationships and thought leadership?

David WilkinsDavid: So I think that thought leadership is very important and I think it’s increasingly important and this is something I think is true at all levels, wherever a lawyer is practicing. That’s because clients understand  that the world is becoming increasingly complex and that they are looking for lawyers who can demonstrate an understanding of that complexity and also an ability to help them to navigate that complexity. So I do think things like writing or lecturing or speaking or blogging, all of these things can be very important in establishing a lawyer or a law firm for that matter as a thought leader. I also think being a part of important discussions and important self-evaluations and keeping current on important matters is also critical. So at the program on the legal profession in our affiliated program on executive education at Harvard Law School, we offer courses in leadership in law firms for leaders of important law firms around the world. We’ve had over 500 law firm leaders come through the course or leadership in corporate council where we had over 150 leading general counsels. We also put on a variety of programs at the law school. We just had one on called “Disruptive Innovation in the Market for Legal Services” which actually where there were something like 1280 tweets from the conference to show the connection between the digital and the in person; we’re actually doing one on Friday on global pro-bono.  Lawyers who participate in these activities, law firms that participate, who become part of the thought leadership and who are seen by their clients as investing in thought leadership and partnering with law schools like ours to help to better train and educate the next generation of lawyers who are thought to be thinking seriously about the challenges facing not just lawyers of the legal profession but our clients, I think those kinds of lawyers will be rewarded because clients at all levels know that it’s an increasingly complex and sophisticated and challenging world and they’re looking for lawyers who understand that and can help them with their problems.

John McDougall interview photoJohn: That makes sense. Does the thought leadership and blogging matter more, do you think, to B2B attorneys or to the business-to-consumer attorneys?

David WilkinsDavid: I don’t really think that is necessarily matters more to one group than the other. I think what is true is that you have to tailor what it is you do to the audience you’re trying to reach. If you’re trying to reach a market of individual consumers, you need to be where they are and where they are likely to see the efforts of your work and also where the lawyers who are going to be serving that very important market are likely to be. On the other hand, if you are a lawyer at a law firm, a partner, a law firm leader, someone who is in a senior marketing role or a senior business development role, then you want to be engaged where leading companies are likely to be engaged and around the issues that those companies think are important. A lot of what we do at the Program on the Legal Profession as I said is designed to really think through how the legal profession is changing in each of these important areas because it’s not changing at the same rate or in the same ways and all the various markets that the many lawyers who are going to listen to this podcast are engaged in, but all of them are changing. A big focus is to understand how the legal profession is becoming many professions across a range of different kinds of client relationships and different practices and different parts of the country or even the globe, and then to understand what thought leadership is in those areas and the best way to encourage a collaboration between leading professionals who are interested in thought leadership and leading institutions like Harvard Law School, which are interested in training the next generation of students doing objective, independent, systematic research and encouraging dialogue and collaboration.

John McDougall interview photoJohn: Thank you for that. I want to switch a little bit towards trust and liking as a sort of matter of influence. People buy from those they know, like and trust, and according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, being an attorney is one of the least trusted occupations in America. Can attorneys gain some of that trust back and initiate the influence principle of reciprocity by giving of their knowledge through website content?

David WilkinsDavid: I saw the  Pew survey. I think one should always be cautious about research like that. It’s very easy in a survey like that to dump on lawyers or your congressman or lots of other people who are in important occupations, and yet usually when we peel away more of the surface and we look more in depth what we find, for example, is people may dislike lawyers in general or not trust lawyers in general, but they like their own attorneys. We see things like that similarly in Congress; we hate Congress but we like our own Congress, that is we keep reelecting this person over and over again. So I think those sorts of general surveys are usual and interesting but one should be quite cautious about what implications one draws from things like this. Having said that, it is a trust business.  Absolutely, and it should be a trust business. Lawyers hold themselves out as fiduciaries and  fiduciaries for individual clients and  fiduciaries for broader issues like rule of law and democracy and important public values and the public interest. We should be held accountable for that  fiduciary relationship because it’s crucial. Lawyers I think can do a lot to bolster not just our image, but also the way in which we are acting on this important fiduciary track.

I don’t think we should look at it as a matter of image because that means well maybe if we just do better public relations, we don’t have to change anything substantively  about what we’re doing. I think to the contrary, the fact of the matter is that there are a lot of  substantive challenges out there that those who depend on lawyers are facing and they’re looking for us to come up with creative and practical and meaningful and absolution ways of engaging with these problems, and that’s true both of what you might think of as the micro level of surveying individual clients better whether those clients are literally individuals with problems with family law or real estate or small businesses or whether they’re the biggest companies in the world, which are also facing challenges around globalization and corruption issues and how to serve their markets efficiently.

We have to continue to build trust by doing what we have always said that we do, which is to serve our clients efficiently and effectively in a way that not only maximizes their individual interests, but also contributes to those larger questions of justice and fairness and the rule of law, not just even in our own society, but globally. Again, as I say, on Friday we’re going to have a conference on Global Pro bono because pro bono has become one of the most important ways that individual clients are served in the United States and increasingly important social issues and economic and political issues are served, and that this model is moving around the world. I think as lawyers, we ought to try to think hard about what is the best way that we can contribute to the development of the rule of law and justice and economic development around the world. We’ve got a team of researchers who are working as part of one of our major research initiatives which is called Globalization Lawyers and Emerging Economy, or GLEE, as we like to call it after the popular TV show, in which what we are attempting to do is to understand how is globalization affecting the development of the market for legal services in important places like China and India and Brazil. We’re looking to expand into countries in Africa like Nigeria or South Africa or perhaps Ghana, the Middle East, the former Soviet Union. All of these places are becoming increasingly important in the world and they don’t just affect what’s happening internally in those countries, but as we see in a more globally integrated world, they affect all of us.

Helping the development of legal professions across all of those countries and having legal professionals who understand that they have public and fiduciary responsibilities to those who can’t afford legal services and also to the broader issues of justice in the rule of law is critical. That’s one thing I think that if lawyers are seen as participating in these activities and in fact are leading these activities and contributing their time and their expertise and their money and other resources to those activities; they can really provide a very very valuable tangible indication of why people should trust and respect the legal profession.

John McDougall interview photoJohn: That’s a great point about the international component of building trust and getting into different markets. I just had a podcast and conversation with John Grimley of the Asia Law Portal a week or two ago and he was saying that he thinks even smaller firms can get into global markets and get more involved. Do you think that’s true or is it more the bigger firms that are going to be able to do those things that you’re talking about?

David WilkinsDavid: No I agree with him absolutely and I think that one of the best about technology, one of the most important things about technology is that it allows smaller firms to reach a broader audience and that also allows them to increase their capacity both by using information technology wisely and also by using to connect and to link together with other practitioners around the world. Look, globalization information technology and what I often call the kind of blurring together of traditional categories like law versus business, or global versus local, or public versus private, these three things are reshaping everything about our world and as lawyers of course we should think they’re going to reframe us about what it means to be a lawyer, the market for legal services, how we connect with our clients, the kinds of things that we do and how we do them. So no lawyer, whether they’re a solo practitioner in a family law practice in a medium size or small city in the United States or somebody who does the most sophisticated mergers and acquisitions around the globe, no lawyer should think that their practices are unaffected by these large scale forces that are reshaping the entire economy and they ought to be looking for ways that they can use these forces or participate in these broader trends to make their practices more effective, to make the service they provide their clients better, and to make their own lives better.

John McDougall interview photoJohn: That makes sense and from my perspective, as an internet marketer, having website content or content in any form, a book for example, not just content that you’re sharing in an email back and forth to show that you’re a thought leader in that area, globalization and some particular topics say energy or whatever it might be, I think it’s a powerful way to increase your thought leadership to have web content about that as well. Do you agree with that?

David WilkinsDavid: I completely agree with that and it’s why we’re working very hard quite frankly to update our website at the Program on the Legal Profession and I hope your listeners will visit our webpage. If you just Google ‘the Program on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School’ or go to the Harvard Law School website and go look under programs and look for the Program on the Legal Profession. You’ll find that we have a lot of content there in all sorts of forms. For example, when I talked about our conference on ‘Disruptive Innovation in the Market for Legal Services,’ we had that actually live streamed and we had literally thousands of visitors from around the world as well as we had our own Twitter feed so that people could tweet about what they were learning and we put all of the content from that conference up on our website for those who were interested in looking at it. Again, we had everyone from the best thought leaders at Harvard Business School, Clayton Christensen, who invented the phrase “disruptive innovation,” to the head of IBM’s Watson project, the computer that [00:24:02]beat jeopardy and where they’re thinking about its applications to professional services including law, to the head of Legal Zoom or the Co-op Legal Services of the UK, which is one of the most innovative things happening in the UK, to literally 30 or 40 entrepreneurs who are working in law and around legal services to try to bring innovation to what we do here.

We also have a weekly speaker series in which we have thought leaders from around the world who come and talk to Harvard Law School students about what they’re doing or about challenging questions or issues or things lawyers are involved in around legal practice or how lawyers are engaging in broader substantive debate[00:24:55]. We just had someone in fact yesterday from India talking about the role of lawyers there in issues of surrogacy and international family law which is something again that’s reaching across all kinds of lawyers. So we very much believe that websites or web content are important. Every piece of research we do, we commit not just to publish in a scholarly journal, but also in a white paper or in a podcast or webcast or in a conference, some way in which we could reach a broader range of practitioners. This June, we will be launching an e-magazine in which we are going to put the versions of our research as well as the work that we’re doing on writing case studies on lawyers and programming that we’re doing like the conferences that I just spoke of or issues programming in executive education of the courses that I just taught and just thought about on leadership in law firms and proper council and emerging leaders and other programs that we are in the process of developing. So a web presence is absolutely critical and it’s a way to engage with people around the world.

John McDougall interview photoJohn: I imagine there’s a calendar of events and these seminars sound great. I’d love to come to some of these. I don’t know if they may not be open though to the general public.

David WilkinsDavid: Many of them are open to the general public, the conference on Disruptive Innovation, the Pro Bono conference, and we do put up both a calendar and also notices and programs of particular conferences, and we also have an email distribution list.

John McDougall interview photoJohn: How do you get on that?

David WilkinsDavid: If you go to our website, there is a way for you to sign up to be on our distribution list of all upcoming events and again would be very happy not just to have you John but also to have those who are interested in these issues and who may listen to this podcast be a part of our distribution list. We will give you notices not just of events but also if we have important publications coming out or how to subscribe to our e-magazine or lots of other thing that we are in the process of doing. We would be absolutely delighted to have as many of your listeners sign up for our email list as possible.

John McDougall interview photoJohn: That sounds great. What I’ll do is I’ll get from you the different links to the website, the events page, the sign up and I’ll post that at the bottom of the podcast so people can join up. I have one last question. If a picture is worth 1000 words and researchers indicate that over 70% of what we communicate is through our tone and body language, not just through our words, doesn’t that make images, audio and video an incredibly important part of influencing people on the web?

David WilkinsDavid: Absolutely right and it is why, just to be very honest, we are trying to do more and more of that on our website. That’s why we stream, that’s why we record every speech and every talk that’s given and that’s why another thing that we are planning on doing is similar to what you’re doing, which I think is terrific, which is to do podcasts or even video clips or interviews with thought leaders. It also quite frankly means that we’re never truly going to eliminate face to face and in person that this remains an absolutely critical way in which we interact with each other and that’s also why we don’t just do virtual conferences. We also try to host meetings, not just at Harvard Law School but around the world, and in each of those meetings, we provide an opportunity not just to listen to speakers, but to interact not just with the speakers, but with the other people in the audience.

In the Disruptive Innovation Conference we had something like 200-250 people in the room and those people were themselves thought leaders, innovators, academics, policymakers, leading lawyers, and we provided lots of opportunity for them to engage with each other as well as just engaging with the speakers or the program. So I think we have to think about communication as existing on many many different levels, including the written word, and we certainly shouldn’t think of the written word as going the way of the dinosaur either because there are ideas that can be conveyed most effectively in writing and that writing needs to also be the kind of writing that is capable of being read by the desired audience. So again with respect to the research that we do, we promise not just to put it out in an academic publication, but also to make it available in white papers or blue papers or discussion pieces or short articles in our e-magazines that are accessible to a broad audience and where people, if they want to know more, can then either click on links or go to our website or read longer publications or perhaps watch a video clip or see an interview where they can get more deeply into the subject matter.

John McDougall interview photoJohn: Those are great insights and I like the thought of bringing it all back home by using the web and engaging people with video and all different types of content like you said, and then that brings people into your in person meetings and seminars and bringing back the human element and tying it altogether.

David WilkinsDavid: Terrific. Thank you John. I hope this has been helpful.

John McDougall interview photoJohn: Yeah.  It’s been really helpful and I appreciate your time today and hope we can do it again sometime and I look forward to talking to you soon.

David WilkinsDavid: I look forward to it. Thank you very much.

John McDougall interview photoJohn: Thanks again.  Talk to you later.

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