Australian Law Firms Lag in Thought Leadership Landscape

I had the privilege of speaking at the 4th Australian Legal Managing Partners Conference at Sanctuary Cove on the Queensland Gold Coast in Australia recently. The topic “What do you want to be famous for?” The angle I took on how you get there – thought leadership.

The interesting part of the talk was what I discovered during my research and information gathering phase in the weeks preceding the presentation. I spoke to some of the heads of communication at some Australia’s largest law firms about their views on thought leadership in the Australian legal industry Australian Intellectual Property Law 4th Edition.

This was followed by some desktop research on what six of the leading global legal firms are doing online with their thought leadership properties. The six included Allen & Overy, Baker & McKenzie, Skadden, Linklaters, Clifford Chance and Freshfields.

The legal industry spokespeople were unanimous that thought leadership across Australian legal firms is still in its infancy. While there are some great pockets of thought leadership it is generally ad hoc and not a lot of time or resources are spent on it.

Contrastingly when I explored the global big six law firm, or Magic Circle firms as they are known, they seem, based on my online observations anyway, to be well on their way with their thought leadership properties.

Before I touch on the Magic Circle firms I want to illustrate what is happening in the thought leadership space for the legal industry down under and it is probably best illustrated by snatches of the conversations I held with four of the leading communication professionals across Australia’s leading law firms.

“It’s unsophisticated; we’re not nearly there yet.”
“Partners often have competing interests.”
“Our partners are more like media champions than thought leaders.”
“Most lawyers are reticent to stick their necks out.”
“We worry about upsetting clients.”
“It’s a time issue – the billable hour is king.”
“I don’t think the partners have seen the benefit of thought leadership yet.”
“There’s a feeling we’re giving our intellectual property away.”

It wasn’t all bad though, there were some positives. For example, there were a number of comments which indicated that thought leadership is growing and becoming more of a recognised marketing and communications tool. These included:

“Thought leadership is starting to seep through the firm.”
“The legal market is changing rapidly, there is increasing competition globally and locally and we will have to differentiate.”
“There is a golden opportunity to use older partners to drive our thought leadership efforts.”
“We’ve seen some fantastic benefits using our website for our thought leadership content.”

A mixed bag but some really positive noises for thought leadership around the corner.

When it comes to the Magic Circle firms, all six have some great thought leadership properties online:

Linklaters – have something called “Year in Review”and “The Year to Come” which summarises major developments in English law and expectations for the new year. They also have Hot Topics which hosts papers across wide ranging issues.

Freshfields – have what they call “Briefings” which are papers on various issues. They also have a separate microsite called Mobile Matters site which discusses all things mobile. It is one of the best examples of legal practice thought leadership I have seen. In addition, they have collaborated with The Economist Intelligence Unit to report on the opportunities and risks in Africa for the extractives industry.

Some great thought leadership from these two firms but there was something nagging me when I viewed these sites and it is probably best illustrated by a quote from an interview I conducted last year with Ken Blanchard. Ken is the author of over 50 books including “The one minute manager” and he said: “You can have the greatest, most innovative thoughts in the world but if nobody hears about them they’re worth squat.”

And therein lies the issue with the two firms I have just mentioned – I had to search and sift through layers to find their thought leadership material.

The following firms had their thought leadership front and centre on their web sites:

Clifford Chance – great scrolling content blocks, big and bold across the front page. They also have a very impressive webinar series covering numerous topics and featuring panels and interviews with third parties. In fact they label it their thought leadership impetus. The topics include, among others: remuneration reform in the financial services industry, trends in M&A, cross border tactics in takeovers and inbound investment in China.

Allen & Overy – slap bang on their front page they have something called Insights. What’s great is that when you click into this you can search by topic, by country, by practice area or merely enter a search term and it will kick out all their content on that. They’ve made it very easy.

Skadden – on their home page they have big and bold their “2011 Insights”, an annual issue of critical legal issues its clients will face in the year ahead across key areas such as governance, M&A, Capital Markets, Corporate Restructuring, Financial Regulation and Global Litigation to mention a few.

Baker & Mckenzie – front of centre of their home page they have a large title block “one step ahead of Dodd Frank”. For me though the coup de grace is that the first button top left on their home page is something called “Supporting your business”. I love it! This is not the typical me language you find on website i.e. “About Us” “Our services” “Who we are”, rather it’s all about you the client and your business.

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