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Globe column advocates return to the past

I found this Globe and Mail article by law firm recruiter Carrie Mandel somewhat humorous and a throwback to what has been tried before and not always worked at law firms.

Mandel advocates that law firms reach beyond their current hiring practices and bring in people from industry to run their firms. I am not going to debate that a fresh eye is welcome.

Mandel praises Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP and McCarthy Tétrault LLP, (clients perhaps?) for hiring COOs from outside the legal business and suggests it’s something new.

Not even close. It’s a cycle that law firms have been going through over the past 40 years. In 1980s and early 1990s, law firms often had a chief administrator who was usually an accountant or management consulting professional. Then the trend in the early 1990s was for law firms to hire CEOs from outside the legal industry. That was an abysmal failure and most leadership structures today at the big firms have a partner at the helm.

Why? Because lawyers own the business and most lawyers are not prepared to take marching orders from non-lawyers nor should they as business owners.

Mandel argues that firms reach outside for things like marketing directors. In 20-plus years of writing about the legal profession — starting when there were only a handful of marketing directors at law firms — I’ve seen that with mixed success. (I remember one firm that hired someone from the cosmetics industry. The person lasted maybe six months. There are many others who have stopped in for a cup of coffee before moving on.)

Making the leap from a business with a CEO structure, with one person in charge, to an environment where you have multiple owners is a challenge that many cannot handle.

Mandel is right when she says law firms can learn from people who come from other industries. But it’s just not that simple. Their success will depend on their ability to juggle the challenges that come with working in a partnership model. It’s not for everyone and it is not a panacea.

Canadian law firms fail to make the China grade

Maybe Prime Minister Stephen Harper should have taken some law firms on his trip to China this week. The China Briefing Magazine and Daily News Service reports that only one Canadian firm has a presence in mainland China. That ranks us right up there with the UAE, population 7.5-million.

Belgian, Spanish, French, Swedish and Brazilian law firms have more offices in China than Canadian firms. Pathetic! Meanwhile, law firms from the U.S. have 90 or more offices. Only Blake, Cassels & Graydon was mentioned on the list as having a representative office. It’s in Beijing.

China is poised to become Canada’s second largest trading partner. Chinese investment into Canada’s energy patch is in the billions. You would think that Canadian law firms might be interested in establishing local relations. Apparently not.

Yet, law firms from foreign countries that are smaller than some of our biggest firms have made such an investment.

Canadian law firms have been reluctant to invest in bricks and mortar abroad, choosing instead to focus locally and fly lawyers into foreign hotspots and build relations with local firms on the ground. That works in a world of independents. But the world of law firms is rapidly consolidating.

The Norton Rose merger with Macleod Dixon and Ogilvy Renault has no doubt prompted many Canadian firms to reassess their international strategy. Expect more mergers. If you’re a Canadian firm, chances are those merger partners will come from the firms on the China Briefing list. They are the ones with vision and the willingness to invest in the future and take on risk. Canadian firms are totally playing a defensive strategy focused on protecting the home market.

Sadly, it’s unlikely there will be many stand-alone Canadian law firm brands in the future. Like many of our companies, our legal industry will simply be branch plants of a bigger organization run offshore. It’s the Canadian way.

The Slater & Gordon advantage

Canadian law firms are privately held organizations owned by the partners. But that’s not the way it works everywhere in the world.

Take Australia, which has allowed its law firms to tap the capital markets and raise money from investors. One of those firms is Slater & Gordon. It has shareholders and trades on the Australian Stock Exchange.

On February 6, 2012, the firm made a notable move. It announced that it was “acquiring” a UK law firm, its first overseas move.

By tapping the capital markets, Slater has been able to acquire capital and begin to build out a world-class law firm. Granted, Slater & Gordon is far from a corporate law firm. It’s a class action plaintiff firm.

That is neither here nor there. The point is that Canada, by preventing its law firms from being able to raise capital in a similar fashion, puts its law firms at a competitive disadvantage to their global counterparts. Why can’t a Siskinds or a Koskie Minsky be allowed to pursue a similar strategy in pursuit of justice for their clients. (Class action practices require hefty capital to carry cases.)

Other jurisdictions, such as England, are loosening restrictions on who can own a law firm and now supermarkets are entering the legal game. Canada is falling behind and needs to reconsider who can own a law firm. Access to justice is too precious to let stodgy concepts or regulation and old ways of doing business get in the way.

Canadian law firms and web strategies

My latest column in Canadian Lawyer looks at the top 20 law firms and their internet presence and Klout scores. Klout is a web site that measures online influence by using algorithms to gauge activity and influence in social networks, measuring things like “re-tweets,” “mentions,” “likes,” and “comments.” Klout uses a scale of 1 to 100. For simply existing, you get a 10 and build from there. An average Klout score is about 20, and those who achieve 50 or more sit in the 95th percentile, according to a recent tech podcast.

I ranked the firms according to size and contrasted that with  their Klout scores. It clearly shows that size doesn’t matter, since Canada’s biggest firms scored down the list when it comes to building influence in an online world.

The chart accompanying the story shows which firms are using LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and youtube. Clearly, Canadian law firms are at the early stages and there is lots to learn.

Blogging and using Twitter can allow practice groups and individual lawyers to build a community and become thought leaders in their area of expertise. The race is on. Stikeman Elliott is well down the path of creating blogs for their practice groups, with eight blogs.

The gaunlet has been laid. It’s now up to the other law firms to strut their stuff.

Legal Marketing Association conference

Ad gurus Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin of SWIM say that law firms need to take a chance in their marketing collateral and it is up to the legal marketing department to drive the bus.

Speaking at the Legal Marketing Association annual meeting in Toronto, the women, formerly of Ogilvy, gave kudos to Torys LLP mergers and acquisitions video.

They says law firms are too focused on details, things like their rankings and deals, rather than trying to build a brand that tells the market what they do and how they are different from their competitors.

Blogs are too boring and web sites too similar. You can simply cut and paste one law firm name over another.

But some firms get it.

The women say law firms need to be thought leaders and share knowledge and information. Tell your market about trends. Steal from packaged goods marketing and tell a story.

You need to put a “stake in the ground” and tell the public about your service. It’s not about the case you won. “Generic isn’t the way to go. Identity matters.” Differentiate yourself and tell a story.

Online Video as a Grassroots Campaigning Tool

With a federal election looming quickly in Canada on May 2, online video could one of the best ways to get an individual candidate’s messages across to the electorate. There are only a precious few days left now for door-to-door campaigning and limited access to the local media, however, online video offers a great way for candidates to connect on a personal level with hundreds or thousands of viewers, control the messaging and reach many more people than possible on walk-abouts. This tool also has a broader application in corporate and other spheres where constituents or audiences are diverse and far-flung.

Below is an example of a series of video clips we produced last week for one forward-thinking candidate in Toronto. Uploaded within hours onto his own “channel” on YouTube and Tweeted to followers, this series allows the candidate to speak heart-to-heart about why the constituency is special, why he feels a connection to their issues and what he can do differently.

Kevin’s channel can be seen here.

And, by the way, you can have a lot more fun with this medium (and perhaps attract some buzz) than you can with many other communications tools, as illustrated in this cheeky video for the same candidate.

The nice thing, by the way, about using YouTube as a distribution channel is that it is quick, platform independent (works on iPhones, for example, unlike Flash-based players used on most corporate Web sites), can be embedded anywhere (such as other Web sites, as seen on this page), and is free. If desired, you can also set privacy options so that only specified audiences can watch the video and block advertisements.

The same communications approach could be taken by CEOs and other leaders in regular “fireside chats” with employees, professionals updating clients on new developments in areas of interest, not-for-profits campaigning for funds, etc. By adding in free social media tools such as YouTube, iTunes, Twitter and others, you then have an easy and inexpensive way to distribute your messages without relying on traditional news media or expensive advertising.

Online Political Rally Draws Massive “Virtual Crowd”

Canada’s Liberal Party scored a “first” recently with a live and interactive “Town Hall” webcast. The event, designed to unveil the Party’s platform, reportedly drew a crowd of over 9,300 unique viewers and elicited nearly 1,000 questions through Facebook, Twitter and the Party’s website. The Party believes online webcasts can reverse the trend toward declining voter turnout.

Couldn’t agree more. We saw the power of the Internet to rally voters in the 2008 U.S. presidential election and we will see it in Canada as more politicos recognize that most people would prefer to spend time sitting in front of their computer screens than answering the door bell and politely listening to campaigners ineffectively chat them up.

Webcasting can be a highly effective tool for political parties, as well as anyone else with key messages to communicate. It is amazingly cost-effective (imagine the costs and logistics of hosting a crowd of 9,000 in a public hall or hotel). You control the messaging and questions you choose to answer, you can track viewership, you likely get some press coverage, and the event can also be recorded for playback on-demand.

There are plenty of other options for politicos interested in leveraging video. Imagine launching a series of YouTube 4-5 minute clips with your candidate talking heart-to-heart about why the constituency is near and dear, why he or she feels a connection to their issues and what the Party can do differently. Or, imagine a candidate hosting a webcast interactive “fireside chat” regularly or throughout a campaign from the local constituency office, fielding online or emailed questions. After the event, it’s loaded onto YouTube.

Video and webcasting are not the be-all-to-end-all of communications methods, but they do offer a highly personal way to inexpensively engage thousands of people at once.

Enhanced Audio Podcasts: Effective Communications Tools

While webcasting and video are exciting tools, I have to tell you I still have a soft spot in my heart for audio podcasts. Particularly, short and informative bursts that harken back to the days of radio. Too often, though, it’s tough for clients to make them short, so what I often recommend is the Enhanced Podcast. With an Enhanced Podcast, audio is paired with the equivalent of a Flash-based slide presentation. They look great, are easier to listen to then a pure audio podcast and can include a lot of great information. They can even be click-able and send you off to a Web page.

Here’s a great example of one we did for the Securities Litigation Group at Cassels Brock (the full podcast series is here).

Enhanced podcasts are a simple, quick and cost-effective way to communicate with clients, shareholders or employees. Using the latest audio recording tools, podcasts can be created easily onsite — in your own offices. If need be, the turnaround time from recording to finished product is just hours (perfect for events such as the Federal Budget). Whether it’s a major announcement, a news release, a CEO’s monthly fireside chat, a training session or an informational interview with your own in-house experts or customers, podcasts are an excellent communications vehicle. I identify at least five key advantages enhanced audio podcasts have over video:

  • Rapid response time to events. Preparation time is far less than other formats, such as video or even writing. Your podcast is ready for upload to your Web site in hours or easily distributed by email.
  • Convenient format for information. People much prefer listening to reading a long article or announcement.
  • You control everything. Ultimately, unlike traditional public relations tools, you control the message. And you control the quality. We edit podcasts for brevity, interview subjects can start over when they stumble, ums and ahhs are removed.
  • Easy to do. A simple Q&A format, for example, can take the pressure off the interview subject and enhance your audience’s listening experience.
  • Last and best of all, it can all be done in your offices where it’s most convenient for you and your people.

Give us a call and learn more about how podcasts can help add a new dimension to your communication strategies.