What can the legal sector learn from startups?

22/03/17 |

The startup is often feted as the future of the business world. At the same time we are constantly made aware that, statistically, a large proportion of startups will eventually fail. So, startups represent both great potential and a lack of permanence.

Most new businesses generally suffer from a lack of financial backing and/or long-time experience and expertise – two things the established legal sector tends to have in abundance. However, startups benefit from fresh perspectives, a willingness to try new methods and infrastructure, as well as resourceful talent when more established businesses find these difficult to access and implement.

As a firm focused on the legal sector, MD Communications has had the privilege of working with a number of new law firms that would probably fall into the category of a startup.

While the legal sector is often viewed as somewhat static and staid, these firms are a great example of how startups are helping to change the rules of the modern working world.

So, what insights do these new firms – and other startups outside law – have to offer to an ever-changing legal industry?

Startups are agile

Of course 'agile' has become a vastly overused word in modern business but there's no escaping the fact that startups are lean business machines, less wasteful and more responsive than big corporate beasts that have had years to get mired down in admin and infrastructure.

There's a lot we can learn from practices such as remote and flexible working, early tech take-up and hot desking. We recently worked with several new firms that are already achieving prominence without the traditional legal infrastructure of expensive City office space and onerous schedules. Flexible hours, remote working and co-working spaces provide resources as and when required and allow the teams to be leaner, more effective and more in control of their schedules.

Insight: there's no reason why businesses selling legal services shouldn't be as agile in structure and approach as sectors such as tech or retail. Change doesn't have to be dramatic - even small steps can make a difference.

Startups find market gaps to fill

A friend of mine is the founder of a fashion startup called The Glass Pineapple. She began the business out of frustration at never being able to find fashion she wanted to buy – clothes from unknown designers and emerging labels that didn't cost an arm and a leg, and which she didn't have to spend days trying to track down online. Emerging designers existed, catwalk shows existed, fashion retail existed - but not all working together in the same place.

And so The Glass Pineapple has grown into a community with a social following of 10k and insider status at London Fashion Week and fashion weeks all over the world. The business is currently looking for seed funding (get in touch any potential Angel investors out there).

The funding will enable them to open an online shop selling the designers and labels they have discovered, combining these finds with the kind of quality customer experience that new labels could never offer on their own. Fresh talent meets sophisticated UX. In such a high-value market as fashion you'd have thought all gaps were covered by the big players but this brand is proof that it's not the case.

Insight: even overcrowded marketplaces still have gaps to be found and filled. Sometimes a business or service innovation comes not from inventing something totally new but bringing two existing elements together.

Startups evolve

Many new businesses hit what could be defined as 'success' in a completely different format to the vehicle they started out as. Sometimes the period of time in which this happens is relatively short - challenges arise, ideas don't work, projects fail and startups must, phoenix-like, take on a new incarnation that leaves behind the dead wood and progresses and develops what works.

In the legal sector we have had stability and structure for decades – perhaps until the Legal Services Act introduced alternative business structures. Now, we're in a period of flux where the legal sector of the future could look very different to that of today – those businesses that evolve as a startup could well be the ones that win. Those that can't leave behind entrenched but inefficient practices and processes could suffer as a result.

Insight: jettison what isn't working, even if you've been doing it for years. Embrace new tech, social media, cutting edge digital marketing and fresh business concepts – the likelihood is that clients are doing this too and will want advisors who can pioneer or, at the very least, keep up.

While startups have plenty of issues – and many will fall by the wayside – they are a perfect example of unencumbered business. From catwalks to conference rooms, any professional environment could potentially benefit from a bit more startup mentality.

About us

MD Communications are experts at boosting the reputation of law firms and suppliers to the legal sector- whether that's raising your profile in the mediaenhancing your legal directory submissions or improving your social media presence.

Melissa Davis is the managing director of MD Communications, the international legal PR agency. She is also chair of the IBA Law Firm Management Committee Business Development Working Group and a member of the ABA Transnational Legal Practice Committee.

MD Communications is on Twitter @mdcomms

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Directories, key questions: referees and extensions

16/03/17 |

Referees are key to the directories process. However, they also provide the source of the widest range of questions we receive from clients who sometimes struggle to get to grips with the way the things work. It doesn't help that different directories have different rules. So, let's start with the basics for the two big ones:

Chambers

  • 20 referees per submission, max
  • Submitted using an Excel spreadsheet downloaded from the Chambers website
  • Referees are due at the same time as the submission itself

Legal 500

  • Unlimited referees
  • While Legal 500 doesn't have a pro forma submission document, it does have a set referee spreadsheet that you can download from the Legal 500 website
  • Referees are due on the same day as the submission itself

Referee tips

The first stage of the process with referees is collecting all the data to fill in the above spreadsheets to send off to the directories. Many firms assume that's where the task ends. However, making your referees work for you requires a little bit more effort.

Don't always go for the most senior person. Think seriously about whether the name you put down is someone who is likely to answer a directory request for feedback or whether, however much they may want to help, it may just get forgotten. Choose someone accessible who will respond – directories don't reduce the impact of feedback if it hasn't come from the top of the tree.

Prep your referees. By this we mean warn them that a feedback request is coming (we don't mean call them and give them a script). You can find out from a researcher or editor when feedback is likely to be collected (this often follows in the month or so after the submission deadline) and ask your referees to keep an eye out for the message.

Choose referees who will talk specifically about you. The problem with opting to have some of the larger institutions as a referee is that they may be working with multiple firms. If they're asked to talk about firms they work with, yours may not be the first name out of their mouths, so sometimes it's smarter to choose referees whose feedback will be more focused.

Split referees between directories. Don't submit the same referees to both directories or they will be contacted twice and you're much less likely to get responses to both researchers. You could also end up with irritated clients.

Directories deadline extensions

Missed submission deadlines are not the end of the world. Directories are normally willing to offer extensions to firms (even repeat offenders), however, the starting point for every firm we work with is to assume an extension won't be available and submit on time.  Worst case scenario, at least make sure the referee spreadsheet gets there on the due date.

However, it's also worth remembering that, while you may succeed in getting an extension, this shouldn't become a habit because doing the directories this way can damage your chances of getting the ranking you want.

Mike Nash, Editor Legal 500:

“the "don't be late" advice is crucial because being late limits the researcher's time for fact-checking / validation, which then inhibits the strength of conclusions which we can draw.”

Alex Marsh, Editor Chambers Unpublished:

“I would stress to firms that they can't rely on directories granting extensions, as there will be times when this will simply be impossible. Furthermore, if a research period has already started then even if a firm does receive an extension, it doesn't necessarily mean that the late submission won't be harmful to the directory's ability to accrue the maximum possible amount of information on a practice.”

If you'd like any advice on your directories submissions, whether you're already ranked or looking to be, our expert team is here to help.

About us

MD Communications are experts at boosting the reputation of law firms and suppliers to the legal sector- whether that's raising your profile in the media, enhancing your legal directory submissions or improving your social media presence.

Melissa Davis is the managing director of MD Communications, the international legal PR agency. She is also chair of the IBA Law Firm Management Committee Business Development Working Group and a member of the ABA Transnational Legal Practice Committee.

MD Communications is on Twitter @mdcomms

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#WhatFeministsWear

08/03/17 |

“What do feminists wear?” That might sound like the opener to a joke – probably a bad joke and one that might make you secretly want to slap the person telling it – but it's not.

It's the question that's been circulating, in one form or another, ever since Harry Potter (and now Beauty & The Beast) actress Emma Watson appeared in the most recent issue of Vanity Fair with a fair amount of breast exposed. As it's currently dominating pretty much all the press, and as it's International Women's Day today, it seemed like exactly the right time to talk about it.

Emma Watson has made no secret of being a feminist – she has been a driving force behind HeForShe, a solidarity campaign for the advancement of women initiated by UN Women. She's openly, intelligently and unashamedly spoken about issues of inequality and the obstacles that humans with certain biological makeup face.

But let's get back to the important issue here – can you be a feminist and wear nipple grazing crochet couture and not much else? 'Feminist' is one of those words that tends to make some people very angry. It can inspire real hatred but also derision – often the view is that to be a feminist you must be ugly, unloved and generally somehow unacceptable to the male gaze and angry about it (example: Trump tweet from November 2015 “I asked myself why are there no feminists in Japan? Then I remembered…the Japanese hunt whales!”).

So, no wonder there is such confusion over a feminist who doesn't fit that mould – and such a rush to shoot her down in any possible way.

For me, the really telling part of this story is that anyone thinks that they have the right to an opinion on it. That's what really shows how far equality has yet to go. There's no correlation between being a feminist and what a woman chooses to wear. Maybe you demonstrate empowerment by head to toe coverage, maybe by being naked. Choice is the key here – not being told that before you are valid you must look a certain way.

It's crazy that we even have to have this conversation. That's especially so when you look at the reality of the world for women on International Women's Day 2017 – our parliament debating whether companies should be able to force women to wear high heels, a UN report in South Sudan revealing militia are allowed to rape women as a form of 'payment' for service, only 33% of UK law firm partners being female, and the depressing statistics showing women are paid less across 90% of UK sectors.

These are the issues that should be creating headlines, no? Watson's lack of bra is a cheap shot, a lazy argument as full of holes as Emma's crochet top – if I had a client trying to use such an approach I'd quietly, but firmly, find them an alternative that wouldn't do them such reputational damage.

And so, to go back to that 'joke' in the opening line of this blog, which sort of sums the whole sorry argument up. Patricia Arquette on Twitter this week provided the most succinct and accurate punch line to it:

“#WhatFeministsWear Whatever The F-ck They Want”

About us

MD Communications are experts at boosting the reputation of law firms and suppliers to the legal sector- whether that's enhancing your legal directory submissionsraising your profile in the media,  or improving your social media presence.

Melissa Davis is the managing director of MD Communications, the international legal PR agency. She is also chair of the IBA Law Firm Management Committee Business Development Working Group and a member of the ABA Transnational Legal Practice Committee.

MD Communications is on Twitter @mdcomms

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Has Facebook failed in tackling its content issues?

07/03/17 |

Facebook has a problem today. Or to be more precise, the social media platform has two problems – both are being played out in the media, and one of them was entirely avoidable. 

Websites where the content is user-generated will always present a problem for the people who run them. For newspapers, the risk is that comments posted by readers after stories are offensive or libellous. This they monitor for, and a reader complaint routinely results in action such as deletions.

Facebook has a more complex problem. 350 million photographs are added by users every day – many shared in closed groups, some of which, the BBC reported last year, run by and for people with a sexual interest in images of children. The pages of these secret groups included obscene posts and images, and images that should have remained private.

Facebook has established two ways of spotting and dealing with problems in such a vast amount of data – programmes to try and spot inappropriateness; and a reporting function that results in a programme using an algorithm to reach a judgement on appropriateness.

The BBC came back to the story – of course they did. Its journalists found a 90-strong sample of posts and images that were in apparent breach of Facebook's policies and reported them via the site. 82 remained up after that adjudication.

What followed made a bad situation worse for Facebook. Contacted by the BBC, the company asked for the journalists to send them the images referred to – and on receipt of them, reported the BBC to the police for sending indecent images. This is now leading the headlines, and will likely broaden criticism of Facebook and mean the story is in the media for longer.

Let's leave aside the fact that a secret group called 'Teenage fantasy's [sic]: secret group' should ring alarm bells for the right algorithm… this is a post about PR, not computing.

There are lessons to be learnt here in how a media crisis should be handled. If Facebook learns those lessons, in fact, it will also come a bit closer to its stated goal of protecting children.

How could Facebook have done better?

  1. Recognise a crisis: any organisation should have a way of spotting a problem that has the potential to get big. Facebook either isn't very good at this, or doesn't care, as the words 'journalist', 'investigation', 'paedophile' and 'photographs' in conjunction should see a matter passed up the chain to someone who can assess the seriousness of what's unfolding.
  2. Have a team: any crisis, even a mini-crisis, needs a team that includes the right people – here, you'd expect that to include a technical person (who understands the IT), a lawyer and an experienced PR professional. I'd expect the PR to be the one counseling against reporting the BBC to the police.
  3. Know the BBC were always going to come back: 'A year later, has anything changed?' is a classic and legitimate journalistic device. The Beeb were looking at Facebook last February – the fact interest in the story had faded by March never meant it had gone away for good.
  4. Tell the truth: sounds obvious doesn't it? Following last year's story, Facebook gave reassurances about the systems it put in place to guard against inappropriate content. The urge to say 'all sorted!' is strong when you're under pressure. If that's not true, you prolong the story and destroy trust in what you say next time.
  5. Work out if the press have everything: the BBC presented 90 images – remember 350m are added to Facebook every day. What do you reckon – likely to be more than 90 problem pics out there?
  6. Show by its actions it takes this seriously: some tangible action – or action that will lead to a tangible action – is important. And once again, no, that's not reporting the person who's brought the problem to your attention to the police.

Finally, Facebook needs to know what the 'end' of this looks like. The 'end' is not when it drops out the news – it's when Facebook knows the problem that led to the story has been substantively sorted – otherwise, and imagine the surprise on the average Facebook exec's face when this happens – 2018 will see a report along the lines of: 'Two years later, has anything changed?'

And it's when an issue keeps coming back that real damage is done.

If you'd like to talk about making a plan for a crisis – or have a situation that's ringing alarm bells for you – I hope you'll get in touch.

About us

MD Communications are experts at boosting the reputation of law firms and suppliers to the legal sector- whether that's enhancing your legal directory submissionsraising your profile in the media, or improving your social media presence.

Melissa Davis is the managing director of MD Communications, the international legal PR agency. She is also chair of the IBA Law Firm Management Committee Business Development Working Group and a member of the ABA Transnational Legal Practice Committee.

MD Communications is on Twitter @mdcomms

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Legal directories in the Middle East

04/03/17 |

The 12th April is, apparently, the anniversary of the day that the first US colonists arrived at 'Cape Disappointment'.  This year that coincides with the publication of the EMEA Legal 500.

How, I wonder, will you be feeling? Disappointed? Elated? Vindicated? Numb? 

I'm thinking especially about the Middle East chapters. This is a crowded market to crack – highly competitive, supposedly over-lawyered, and as a result, write-ups really matter.

Several foreign firms pulled out of Middle East jurisdictions in the last couple of years. Herbert Smith Freehills, Latham & Watkins and Clifford Chance gave up their Qatar offices. Clifford Chance left Riyadh.

Hogan Lovells, Baker Botts, Latham & Watkins, Simmons & Simmons and Vinson & Elkins all left Abu Dhabi, pulling back to Dubai – thereby increasing the 'crush' in Dubai.

These are all elite law firms, so we can assume they're not retrenching because clients found their work shoddy.

No, the pressure in such a crowded market is to stand out – and that's why the directories, awards and media profile are important.

There are more than 30 eminent international firms in Dubai – what will those who get what they want in the 2017 write-up gain?

Recruiting talent will be easier – candidates will question the firm's commitment less, and assume the opportunities for high quality work are there.

Marketing will be easier. You can say you're just great till you're blue in your disappointed face – a good write up gives you external validation.

Non-local clients will notice – the search for in-country counsel starts with a list. That's the power of the directory.

Conversations with other firms who refer work become easier to start.

Credit for what you achieve goes on the record.

General counsel at existing clients can justify instructing you when budgets come under pressure.

That's the power of differentiation. So if you arrive at your own Cape Disappointment on 12 April this year, get in touch, and we'll tell you how to make April 2018 a happier time for you and your firm.

About us

MD Communications are experts at boosting the reputation of law firms and suppliers to the legal sector- whether that's enhancing your legal directory submissions, raising your profile in the media or improving your social media presence.

Melissa Davis is the managing director of MD Communications, the international legal PR agency. She is also chair of the IBA Law Firm Management Committee Business Development Working Group and a member of the ABA Transnational Legal Practice Committee.

MD Communications is on Twitter @mdcomms

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Latin America: challenges and opportunities for law firms

03/03/17 |

As a fan of 1980s US TV exports, I'm worried that the five days I have planned in Miami won't include many encounters with people who wear shoes with no socks, or who sport a white blazer jacket with the sleeves rolled up.

Instead, this will be time spent with lawyers (partners and associates from a spread of jurisdictions) who know that a fast-changing legal services landscape means they need to innovate to thrive - looking at how they address everything from leadership style to marketing, PR, governance and IT. 

It's a five-day intensive course, offered by IE Law School, and I'm one of the speakers.

I'll be focusing on business development through communications and marketing, using firms' experiences in Latin America for many case studies - and then looking at ways to exploit opportunities available through publications and awards.

1. Latin America

Opportunities, so the saying goes, can be staring you in the face, but you still can't see them. There is, therefore, no shame in using some basic rules to help you see what's there.

I am thinking in particular of the opportunities in new markets or markets that are changing rapidly. A useful model for this is the way some firms are approaching the opportunities in Latin America - the subject of a white paper MD Communications put together with several firms in the UK and LatAm.

In Latin America the number of established international firms is relatively small, but rich natural resources are fuelling a growth in projects linked to the exploitation of those resources.

The very large instructions on project finance, say, tend to go to global firms who work a 'fly-in/fly-out' model. But there are plenty of ancillary areas from disputes to private client and immigration; company and commercial, listings and trade. A lot of opportunities are centred on outward investment.

You can request a copy of our white paper but here are the basic highlights.

Know your firm

Or more precisely, know your people. Many firms know very little about their people in the round - interests and previous experiences sit in a file in HR. But languages, family connections, student exchange years, previous employers - all may be things that include a connection to your target market. This sort of intel may change who you take on a trip to make connections and drum up business. At the very least, you may identify someone you can sense-check your approach with.

Look at the market

Let's think about 'oil and gas'. It's a very particular sector, but don't be put off if you aren't an oil and gas lawyer. Exploiting resources intended for export creates other opportunities - executives who need visas, family trusts are created, disputes with an origin in Mexico are settled in London.

Be patient, keep it personal

The personal connection and trust mattered hugely in the markets we looked at. The advice was to take your time getting to know those who can refer you work or instruct you direct. In the US and UK, the expectation is of a much quicker return - if you forget that, you'll feel like you wasted your time.

This works at all levels

Don't just think about charming the CEO or senior partner. A lot of people are doing that - think about whether your more junior people can make connections in the target firm.

Be helpful

Can you be helpful to the people you're trying to win work from? This is a two-way thing - how better to keep yourself at the front of their minds than by helping them out with connections, information, or small bits of assistance?

This may all sound pretty old fashioned in a world where we are also debating what legal tasks a robot can take off an assistant lawyer. But doing business in huge swathes of the world remains a very personal thing - and being good at this side of it also reduces the chances you lose your career to a robot.

2. Publications and awards

Even if you are doing the above and it seems to be going well, it's also well worth:

  • getting a few press mentions
  • getting articles published in journals
  • spending time on legal directory submissions (mainly Legal 500 and Chambers),
  • and putting in for awards.

These are not 'new' opportunities, but in a world that has increasingly more 'out there' about you, even people you've met and who are learning to trust you will need the reassurance that you are as good as you say you are.

They may find you this way - a focus on new areas of work related to fast-growing economies makes this more likely. And at the very least your online and awards presence matching the story you present to people is important - a sort of hygiene check.

You need to consider some questions in this regard:

  • What are you known for? And are you known for what you really do?
  • Are you pleased with your directory mentions? How do they compare to what you put in for?
  • Have the correct bits, in your view, of your firm been the ones that won awards?
  • When quoted in the press, is it because your lawyers are seen as 'go-to' lawyers?

If you are unhappy with your answers to any of those questions, then perhaps it's time to roll up your sleeves, remove your socks, and head to Miami. 

If you're interested in the course, here's the full programme or you can start your application.

It would be great to see you there!

About us

MD Communications are experts at boosting the reputation of law firms and suppliers to the legal sector- whether that's raising your profile in the media, enhancing your legal directory submissions or improving your social media presence.

Melissa Davis is the managing director of MD Communications, the international legal PR agency. She is also chair of the IBA Law Firm Management Committee Business Development Working Group and a member of the ABA Transnational Legal Practice Committee.

MD Communications is on Twitter @mdcomms

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Insurers everywhere, but where are the lawyers?

02/03/17 |

The Lord Chancellor's decision this week to cut the discount rate used to calculate lump-sum payouts in personal injury (PI) claims from 2.5 percent to minus 0.75 percent was bad news for insurers but good news for those injured through no fault of their own.

But it was the Association of British Insurers and the wider insurance lobby that dominated the headlines, warning of big car insurance premium hikes for the public as a consequence. So where were the lawyers and injury client community in this media storm?

The media have widely reported that it will be Joe Public's insurance costs that will take the hit from this move by the Ministry of Justice. The insurance industry got its message out quickly and ensured the story was that they have no choice but to increase their customers' insurance next year. Of course, the reason they will have to raise the premiums has a lot to do with not wanting to see their profits drop, but that's not the story being told in the media.

Nor is the other side of the story getting much airtime – that many people who suffer serious, often life-changing, injuries through no fault of their own will actually get a payout which reflects today's cost of living thanks to the Justice Secretary's reform.

The temptation for lawyers might have been to keep quiet to avoid being drawn into a public battle, but the consequence is the insurance sector gets the public onside by warning of the risk to their wallets – always a winning tactic when it comes to messaging.

The PI legal sector had a rare chance here to be on the side of angels and trumpet the cause of the PI victim community. Usually, PI law firms are seen as ambulance chasers and they may have missed their chance to tell the good news story here. Instead, media commentary from the legal sector that did get out into the media were footnotes to the message from the louder insurers.

Even a day after the announcement the story is how the insurers were 'marching on the Ministry of Justice' (code for having a meeting with the department to try and reverse the decision).

So what could the PI lawyers have done to dominate, or even get a fair share, of the headlines?

  1. In an ideal world, they would have known the Ministry of Justice was going to make the announcement and prepared a statement, though that depends on how effective their relationship or their representative body's relationship is with the Ministry of Justice. To be fair, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers responded quickly, but it wasn't enough.
  2. Law firms' PR companies should have been targeting the right kind of media directly, starting with the major news outlets, with the clear message that the move would benefit victims.
  3. Arguably, the insurers have benefited from building strong links with the media over time, which paid dividends when they needed it. There's no reason why the PI lawyers couldn't have done the same.
  4. There's nothing wrong with contacting media outlets who have already run a story to tell them your legal experts are available to comment on it. Online media regularly update stories as they develop, while broadcasters will often run a news story throughout the day and want fresh input and new angles.  
  5. Law firms have a 'bank' of clients who could be potential case studies for the media and examples of why the change to the way compensation awards are discounted could benefit those in similar circumstances in future.

It's not too late. The insurers are still gunning for a reversal of the policy change and are doing so publicly. They've even wheeled out the CBI to add weight to their cause.

This means there's still time for lawyers to get the more positive message out there and stop the insurers from not only dominating the issue in the media but reversing these compensation changes as their lobbying efforts step up a gear.

There's an opportunity for the lawyers to stand up for their clients – PI victims – in a very public arena and perhaps even dilute the perception that lawyers are out for themselves.

About us

MD Communications are experts at boosting the reputation of law firms and suppliers to the legal sector- whether that's enhancing your legal directory submissionsraising your profile in the media,  or improving your social media presence.

Melissa Davis is the managing director of MD Communications, the international legal PR agency. She is also chair of the IBA Law Firm Management Committee Business Development Working Group and a member of the ABA Transnational Legal Practice Committee.

MD Communications is on Twitter @mdcomms

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