Law Firms Become IP Knowledge Factories in New Effort to Compete
When the legal industry hit a wall during the last recession, its reaction was typical of most businesses: laying off workers, postponing new hires, and devising alternative payment structures. Such quick fixes made no one happy, as legal work continued to move in-house and clients demanded services that went unbilled. The situation (“Is Big Law Dead?” blared the headlines) looked grim.
Yet in the last few years, law firms have largely jettisoned knee-jerk survival strategies, seeking to lure back and retain clients – and most of all, compete – using resources that they should have deployed in the first place: their expertise and capacity to share it. Today, virtually every law firm’s website is a portal to tons of up-to-the-minute information on every practice and industry in which the firm is involved. In IP, where endless minute clarifications of arcane points can affect clients’ short- and long-term strategic plans, the firms are outdoing themselves with blogs, webinars, seminars, videos, white papers, apps, books, and alerts; they are pushing to one side traditional descriptions of “What We Do” with website tabs entitled “Knowledge,” “Insight,” “Intelligence,” “Resources,” and even more grandly “Thought Leadership.” The law firm as knowledge factory has arrived.
It takes hundreds of hours per month to create and post all this information, not least to curate all the blogs. A big IP practice usually has multiple blogs, and they all need curating. Yet what is amazing is how quickly the posts go up: if the Federal Circuit issues a major ruling, you read about it as an alert the same or one day later and as a blog post soon thereafter. Even obscure questions rate discussion, for example, the timing of Requests for Continued Examination, or how to attack patents on written description and enablement grounds even in IPRs. The firm is not showing off. It is letting clients – and potential clients – know that it respects their need to understand the legal process. It is acknowledging that with increased complexity comes the responsibility to proactively inform clients of the ensuing risks and opportunities. It is staying connected, refashioning the attorney-client relationship as a stream of constant communication.
All this activity, riding a wave of social media, is the new attorney advertising. Posts are frequently signed, and sent to anyone who asks to be placed on the mailing list. Along with the articles, alerts, and other materials these posts are fully searchable. Law firms are creating databases, ambitious parallel compendia to rival the more obviously commercial sources of news and commentary.
In IP, posts address issues with an immediacy – and usually from a client-centered perspective – that “established” IP blogs do not try to match. They are less concerned with politics, gossip, sage analysis, or wry personal observation than with imparting practical knowledge that allows clients to talk with their lawyers without starting from square one.
The result is an arms race, ratcheting up the pace and quantity of production. The best websites are now destinations, where a quick survey of the offerings will likely yield at least some pertinent information on a very current basis. If your site is not yet in that league, companies such as LexBlog will help you build an array of blogs, specifically designed for your practice.
Of course, the question is: does any of this matter? Do clients care? Is it actually working? The answer is: whether or not it matters in some commercial sense, it is now expected. It is becoming the norm, certainly for firms of a certain size competing for clients’ allegiance. The jury is still out as to whether this strategy is helping to retain clients or increase profits, but it reflects the current, on-demand M.O. that law firms feel obliged to integrate into their marketing efforts. Every Business Development office now has at least one “content manager” who oversees and coordinates the firm’s digital output.
Eventually, however, these moves will likely pay off, even if not for the reasons that law firms may think. All this outpouring of information, this staying connected, gives clients a sense of empowerment. That is, it enables clients to ask more sophisticated questions, which in turn allows them to exercise some control – if only by asking questions – over the legal process. In areas as challenging as IP, the law ceases to be quite so much of a black box.
This is exciting. Clients can enjoy that their lawyers are working hard (without billing!) to meet them half-way, and provide means for them to engage in strategic discussions. In effect, all of this free knowledge creates an environment where clients can be more like players than passive consumers. This adds value, which is what clients want.