Talking straight, thinking smart

London law firm Howard Kennedy sees vast opportunities on the horizon, and has been working hard to prepare for them. Managing Partner Craig Emden and Business Development & Marketing Director Daryl Atkinson tell Neasa MacErlean how they are targeting particular areas in the UK and around the globe.

Howard Kennedy is operating on the “tip of the iceberg” at the moment, according to Emden. This is despite the fact that the 50-partner firm is growing strongly – at five per cent in 2018/19. “There are great opportunities out there at the moment,” explains the commercial litigator. “We are going out to see people a lot, and the scope is huge for us. In the US, for instance, it might be that the top five firms in New York instruct the top five firms here – and the same in Shanghai. But outside New York and Shanghai, it is different. There are very big cities where firms have not identified their relationships here yet.”

And the 150-lawyer firm has turned on all the switches in order to build up those relationships with practices in Miami and Shenzhen and elsewhere. Having the Mandarin, German and other language-speakers on the specialist legal desks is just the start. Howard Kennedy is also seeking to recruit lawyers with a flair for sales. It is training partners and senior associates in the sales culture. And its marketing and BD systems – from CRM (Client Relationship Management) to communications – all cater for Shenzhen, Berlin and Delhi as well as for the UK.

The fact that a firm with a single office (by London Bridge) earns a quarter of its income from international clients shows the effectiveness of the marketing reach abroad. Emden himself is leading by example on the sales training initiative. Senior lawyers (including Emden) are going through a three-day course, delivered by a former solicitor. “He is convincing lawyers that it is OK to sell, that selling isn’t a dirty word,” says Emden. “Selling is how you convert contacts into clients through building relationships. It’s about confidence. This is particularly useful for the younger generation who seem to find it more difficult.”

The firm has “a very clear focus on bringing work in”. When recruiting, Howard Kennedy is keen on people with the potential to sell. “If they can sell, that is one of the important factors,” adds Emden. The 14-strong M&BD teams supports the sales flair of individuals by developing “a data-driven culture, where decision making will be more evidence based”, according to Atkinson. “Rather than second guessing, we want to understand what people are interested in and then deliver more of it.” And analyses are being conducted to see exactly where revenue is coming from – “and we can expect to see a tightening of our sector focus in response”.

The M&BD team has also constructed a CRM system virtually from scratch in the last couple of years. Fee-earners have their own dashboard access to the database which now contains about 70,000 contacts. The system uses Artificial Intelligence to enter contacts and activity because, says Atkinson, “it’s well known that the biggest inhibitor of engagement of lawyers with CRM is the reluctance to spend time inputting data”. Emden gives an everyday example of how it assisted him recently after he met the managing partner of a Scottish law firm. “Using the system, I found that three of our partners had contact with her organisation,” he says. “So we can now set up the right people to meet their team next time… The CRM helps me enormously as managing partner.”

Howard Kennedy is on a mission to grow. Emden explains the reasoning: “To improve profitability you need to increase your revenue as you can’t do it just by cutting costs.” Working from a revenue figure of £56 million (in 2018/19), the firm combines organic growth with lateral hires and acquisitions. In 2018/19, it recruited six partners – 12 per cent of its total – from other practices.

One of the most important parts of the way that the firm makes itself attractive to new recruits, clients and other partnering law firms is by personalising its messages. Like many other professional organisations, it aims to draw contacts to its website. Using that platform, it then adapts its communications to the particular profile that each individual visitor presents. “We are aiming to deliver content to them in their own languages on subjects they are interested in,” says Atkinson. “We will be able to do this because the website will identify you through the CRM system or because of your on-site behaviour.” So the high net worth Chinese investor will have a very different journey through the website to the one followed by the property specialist from Dubai or the potential trainee from Manchester.

Many of the techniques that Howard Kennedy employs are used by most leading professional firms. But their success or failure also depends on how efficiently the systems are run and how fee-earners interact with them. To arrive at this point, the practice has taken many other steps. It carried out a brand positioning project, listening externally and internally. This helped it define its “optimum client type”, as Atkinson puts it – and these tend to be “entrepreneurial, often privately-owned growth businesses”. This study then informed Howard Kennedy’s development of preferred routes to market, its PR strategy, a new visual identity and a website overhaul.

Having examined its essence and appeal, the firm now sees its new look as being “much simpler, cleaner and more assertive than before”. And it expresses its values as “Talk Straight, Think Smart and Be Yourself”. These concepts feed into the practice’s day-to-day life in hundreds of ways – from the “Talk Straight, Think Smart speaker series” to the dress policy. Rather than having a dress code, the personnel are asked to “dress for their day”.

What is so surprising about the M&BD work at Howard Kennedy is how far the firm has come in such a short time. Nearly all the 14 M&BD members have joined in the last two years, and they are the ones who have created the present systems. And Atkinson expects to see a lot more change in future as technology increases efficiency and accuracy levels. While values may be perennial, the ways that they are communicated appear in constant change.