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Using events to build your firm

There are many ways to host your clients without breaking the bank.

Business people shaking hands during an event

Typically, only large law firms with deep pockets stage events – splashy launch parties for new practices, high-toned information sessions for clients, or professional development courses that draw on the firm’s expertise.

All these events have a common purpose: to attract new clients, to nurture relationships with current ones, and to raise the firm’s profile and prestige with other lawyers in hopes of boosting referrals. “This is why we held a party last year to launch our firm,” said Kathryn J. Manning; one of five lawyers in the Toronto boutique law firm DMG Advocates LLP.

Most solo practitioners and small firms don’t have the physical or financial resources to splash out on events like their larger competitors, but this doesn’t mean they can’t do things on their own scale. With precisely-targeted planning, even solo practitioners can manage to stage events that can increase their business. Here are some things to think about.

What’s your goal?

There are many reasons to stage an event.

For instance, the purpose of a launch party is to announce to clients and other lawyers (especially those likely to refer/share cases with you) that your firm is open for business.

The venue and level of catering you choose should be in line with that goal. Scrappy startup firms wanting to communicate that they are competent yet cost-effective should consider entertaining at the office with appetizers and maybe a local wine or craft beer. A high-powered specialist firm might want to consider reserving an elegant restaurant to signal that its services are premium-priced and worth every penny.

In contrast, holding an information session – such as a panel discussion of experts aimed at the public, other lawyers, or both – is all about selling more services to clients. For instance, it makes sense for a real estate law firm to host public sessions related to buying and selling houses. To save money, these can be held in the firm’s offices, or low-cost public spaces like libraries, arenas, and community centres.

Hosting professional development sessions is a good way to boost referrals from other firms, because “lawyers are always under pressure to meet their PD requirements,” said Manning.

The key is to host PD sessions that attract lawyers whose areas of practice mesh nicely with those of the hosting firm. This improves the chances for referrals and shared cases.

What’s your draw?

The secret to a good information session is twofold: it needs to be interesting, and it needs to create value for attendees.

Good information sessions offer compelling topics and respected, interesting speakers to attract and hold an audience. Sticking with real estate example, an information session could examine the pros and cons of going with fixed-rate sellers like Purple Bricks versus a traditional real estate agent: Is the money saved on commissions worth the risk?

What makes such a session attractive is that it could help attendees save money on selling their own homes; and nothing attracts people like enhancing their personal fortunes. By hosting such an event, a firm stands to meet new clients and renew relationships with old ones.

“While the focus from your firm's perspective may be to develop new business and grow your firm’s reputation, the #1 driver for your event needs to be creating value for your clients/prospective clients,” said Mike Greenwood, President of Oxygen Events Ltd., an event organizer based in Ottawa. “Content is key!”

So is brevity.

Sessions should go no longer than 40-50 minutes, and be structured to give attendees clear, concise information that matters to them. Choose your speakers wisely – would you listen to them for 50 minutes without reaching for your smartphone?

To entice attendees, session topics should have some edge to them, advises Andrew Bowyer, founder and Principal of ADB Insights, a Vancouver consulting firm that organizes high-profile events like the Canadian Legal Innovation Forum.

“People should not be scared to take some risks and offer truly interesting topics that push the envelope,” Bowyer said. “Edginess brings people into the room.” 

What’s your budget?    

Information sessions can be affordable business-builders. If the event’s content appeals to the people you want as clients, and the event’s content is interesting and offers real value to the attendees, then you can get away with a bare-bones venue. In fact, savvy firms can cite this plainness as proof that they are keeping costs down for clients.

“In terms of cost savings, it may be in your best interest to find strategic partners to co-develop your events with,” said Bowyer. This could include clients with whom you share a passion and want to be active with in the community, or complementary but non-competing industries, like insurance or health-care. “These partners may offer up venue space or share in development cost.”

If your firm can’t afford to host anything quite yet, raise your profile by sharing your expertise as a panellist at legal learning events. “This can be very helpful in building referrals,” said Venus Sayed, a criminal lawyer who runs a trial and appellate practice in Toronto.

What’s your follow-through?

After staging your event, follow up with the attendees to see (officially) how they liked it, and (unofficially) to leverage any sales/referral opportunities that their attendance may have generated for your firm.

As well, be sure to ask if they want to attend future events. Just because you may have missed a sale/referral this time, doesn’t mean you will the next. But if you don’t invite them back, you’ll never know.