All about making choices

Fieldfisher can lay claim to being one of the most successful European law firms. But Strategy & Marketing Director Katherine McPherson prefers to question than to assume that the future will be easy. She talks to Neasa MacErlean.

Fieldfisher is just coming to the end of its current three-year strategy. In that time it has doubled the number of offices – to 19, with a 20th about to open in Frankfurt. But despite its good results – 36 per cent growth in 2016/17 and about half that level in 2017/18 – McPherson is reluctant to boast. Far from it, she is more likely to be self-critical than most of the marketing directors who have been interviewed in this slot.

For instance, although the 250-partner practice is known for its tech offering, she says: “We know we have a lot more to do. We are doing everything we can to try things out and assess options.” And, talking of the 27-strong Marketing/Business Development team, particularly those based outside the UK, she suggests that she relies as much on their creativity as they do on hers. “I can learn as much from my European colleagues as they can learn from me.”

So why the lack of certainty when Fieldfisher recently won a Financial Times innovation award and the ‘law firm of the year’ title both in Britain and West Germany? “With all M/BD jobs now, you’ve got to be very open-minded and agile, and not afraid to jump in and try things… With all this change comes opportunity and also loss. The way we sell has changed completely. In the old days you’d put adverts in the legal press and send out bulletins and wait for the clients to pick up the phone. Now you’ve got to be out there finding ways to engage with people. It’s not one way anymore.”

Part of the three-year strategy has been an in-depth concentration on three of the firm’s sector focuses – financial services, tech and energy/natural resources. So powerful was this examination that it led to the creation of a new company, Condor Alternative Legal Solutions. The brainchild of two derivatives partners, Condor significantly reduces the costs for clients regarding documentation, data extraction and the other areas where its high-tech services are employed. So successful has it been with clients that McPherson says: “We have got some very large clients who want more and more from us on Condor. The biggest issue for us is meeting the demand.”

Much of the lead on the development of the financial services and tech offerings came from the UK where a large part of these clients are based. Energy/natural resources has been far more international. A series of lunches organised for the mining sector, for instance, has been hosted in Amsterdam, Brussels and Hamburg as well as the UK.

Paris, Hamburg and Brussels have their own Marketing/BD people on the ground. Since the BD team is client-facing, it is of particular importance to have them on the front line. With the recent recruitment of specialists, the four offices in Germany are now increasing their marketing focus. The Hamburg office, for instance, works with the Bucerius Law School, raising its profile in the city, academia and recruitment markets.

Many of the most successful M/BD campaigns these days are complex ones. There was, for instance, a thought leadership report last year called Augmented reality: the future of media and commerce. The reader could make an image of Dr Who’s Tardis move around by using a mobile phone. “We had a lot of fun with clients on that report,” says McPherson. Talking in general about thought leadership projects, she says: “When we do it well we are co-developing it with several clients. We then share the output with a number of clients and other friends and contacts whom BD identifies who are likely to be interested in the topic. Then we have the PR. The whole process can take up to six months. And we measure its success on press coverage and the meetings that come out of it.”

As well as highlighting the priorities of her team, McPherson is keen to outline the areas they do less in. “You can get caught up doing a lot of paperwork in BD. But there are far better ways of spending time than producing documents. So we try to keep those things to a minimum and to spend that time instead on engaging with people, talking to clients and keeping the relationships warm.” She is particularly aware of the “tough job” that partners have in constantly “refilling and re-engaging with their base of contacts and making sure they are still relevant”.

Collaborating with fee-earners and clients in this way is “very personal and labour-intensive”, she says. She rejects the “spray and pray” or scattergun approach used by some marketing teams. “We are very very focused. When we work with our partners we are discussing the key issues with them. Who do you want to work for? How do we get you talking to them? How do you communicate in a way that shows them you want to work for them? How do we keep the relationship warm?…”

A strategy specialist throughout her marketing career, McPherson appears to thrive in the climate of uncertainty where strategic approaches are probably the only way forward. And much of her time is spent in this area. She had a significant role in helping the firm’s 1,200 personnel understand, develop and buy into the strategy. An updated strategy will be unveiled in May. And she presents a monthly report to partners on the past and future projects and approach of her team.

“The market is extremely competitive, and we’re always running to keep up with what’s going on,” she says, reflecting on how the firm brought in £165 million in revenues in 2016/17. “But it’s all about making choices. If management can make the right choices and the partnership keeps focused it can work very well. The sign of a mature business is that it can make these decisions.”