In February, 2020, Bangkok-based legal business development professional William McLaughlin launched BDRoundtable.com, a private online community for legal marketing and business development professionals. In this interview with Asia Law Portal, McLaughlin details what inspired BD Roundtable’s creation and what’s in store for its’ future. He also provides his unique insights into current challenges facing legal business development and marketing professionals in Thailand and the ASEAN Region
What is BDroundtable.com and what inspired its’ founding?
The BD Roundtable is an online community for business development and marketing professionals who work in the legal industry. At the heart of the community is our private Slack group where members can build real connections with their peers, bounce ideas off each other, and get solutions to challenges they face in their day-to-day roles.
To support our community’s professional development, we conduct video interviews with industry experts, hold live chats with members from around the globe, and provide tried and tested resources and tools.
The BD Roundtable was started out of frustration by the lack of community and decent resources for people in my position. When I first started in the legal industry back in 2014, I was thrown into the deep end with no training or support group. I ended up joining a local group of business development professionals who met every month for casual dinners and found the community and support I was looking for.
Jumping forward a few years, my career advanced and I was now managing the business development efforts for five countries. Wanting to develop my skill set, I turned to the internet for resources but was greatly disappointed.
The communities I found online could be classified into two types – the formal ‘associations’ that cost hundreds of dollars to join and the LinkedIn or Facebook groups that are full of self-promoting and recycled content.
So, facing a lack of proper online community, I decided to start my own.
What are the plans for the future for BDRoundTable.com?
The BD Roundtable was started in February 2020 and we are now shaping the platform to best suit the needs of the community.
As we grow our membership, our number one priority is to facilitate an active community through engaging content and resources. Unfortunately, much of what we find online is simply recycled information that we’ve seen a thousand times. We already know the theory – what we want are real-world solutions to our problems.
So, with this in mind, we are producing video interviews and resources with industry experts that get to the point, cut out all the sales talk, and offer solutions that the community can implement in their firms. And what sets us apart, is that you can lean on the community to fine-tune your ideas and get extra support if you need it.
Membership is free and open to all professionals working in a law firm, regardless of position, firm size, or location.
What’s unique about legal business development in Thailand and the ASEAN region?
As many readers know, the legal profession in many of the Southeast Asian jurisdictions is tightly controlled. The techniques for lead generation used by our peers in North America and Europe simply won’t fly here.
In Thailand, business development activities tend to be on the conservative side. Most firms have an online presence and are building their brand. However, very few firms have shifted into the sales mentality that will be needed in the future.
You help organize a group of legal business development professionals to meet on a monthly basis in Bangkok. Tell us about that
We have a small group of business development professionals from both the legal and professional services sectors who get together for a casual dinner once a month. We affectionally call these our BD dinners. It is essentially a chance to vent about issues at work with people who understand.
Many of us are the only people doing business development work in our firms and we can feel very isolated. So, it is great to chat to other people and build a sense of camaraderie.
Through the BD Roundtable, I hope to bring this sense of camaraderie and community to a wider group of people who may not have BD dinners of their own.
How is legal marketing and business development developing in Thailand?
Generally, the profession hasn’t changed much since I started back in 2014. Most firms, if they have a BD department at all, still operate by combining business development and marketing functions. A BD professional’s workload is still dominated more with marketing and less with proactive BD initiatives.
This is slowly starting to change as partnerships get younger and firms feel the pressure to shift to a more proactive BD approach. Firms are struggling to stay relevant and cut through the noise when every firm has a social media presence, every firm is pumping out client alerts, and every firm is positioning themselves as a ‘thought leader’.
I know several Thai firms who have recently hired their first BD professional. So it feels that lawyers in Thailand are not only realizing the necessity for BD, but also treating it as an important function to maintain and build their client base.
What new initiatives have you seen by legal BD professionals to help lawyers build their client base?
At the back-end of firm operations, by far the most important and impactful initiative is embracing data. We now have the capabilities to analyze every client touchpoint with our firm and take calculated actions based on this information. Best of all, we can see the outcomes in real-time and change course if necessary.
This is a huge advantage because BD teams can now provide lawyers with realtime data when and how they need it. For firms with a limited technology budget, there are plenty of low-cost tools in the Microsoft Office 365 suite such as Power Automate and Power BI that can be used to manage the data.
From a client-facing side, BD professionals are getting savvier with how they target potential clients and are actively taking a sales approach to generate clients for the firm. For example, using LinkedIn Sales Navigator can be an invaluable resource when targeting new clients and building relationships.
Is it difficult to build a legal brand in Thailand and the ASEAN region in general?
There are a few more restrictions imposed by some local bar associations. For example, advertising for legal services not allowed, so firms tend to build their brand through an online presence, attending conferences and seminars, and working with other outlets to showcase their expertise.
It takes time and a consistent effort by management to shape the brand and become a trusted name in the legal sector.
Through experience, it is important to note that buyers of legal care more about the quality of service you provide than the number of followers you have on social media.
What type of content do you find works best with prospective clients?
Firms need to consistently put out content that identifies a particular business pain-point, shares useful information on the topic, and demonstrates the firm’s expertise in handling similar issues.
This recipe is fairly simple but implementation is difficult without partnership buy-in. Generating valuable content is a firm-wide effort that needs to run in concert with multiple departments, not just business development.
What issues are law firm clients asking questions about in 2020 – and how are business development professionals responding?
Until the coronavirus hit, the topic du jour was data privacy. Almost every company collects data in one way or another and non-compliance can be costly. Other topics such as compliance, labour disputes, and tax issues continue to remain popular topics for inquiry.
For Southeast Asia, many larger clients have operations in multiple countries. As such, firms are faced with having to provide advice that is tailored locally but can also fit within the company’s broader business plan. Business development professionals can help lawyers by staying on top of regional news and keep a regional mindset within the firm.
What are the most important discussions law firm leaders are having about how to manage firms in 2020?
Traditional law firms are now confronted with new competition from legal tech firms who have received almost USD 2.5 billion in funding. Firms are acutely aware of the need to stay relevant and are looking at how to keep their firms agile and innovate new cost-efficient measures.
On the operations side, firms are making several changes such as moving from their traditional software systems to cloud-based platforms, hiring employees with technology backgrounds, and implementing new technologies to lower the price of their services.
On the client-facing side, firms are taking client relationship development seriously. Lawyers now understand that clients are not as loyal as they once were and are ready to drop a firm if someone else can provide a better value. As firms get to know their clients more, they are also finding opportunities to offer more recurring services as opposed to one-off transactional work.
ZICO is developing a sales mentality. Why is this occurring?
The ZICO sales mentality is a result of our ASEAN wide integrated services platform. This hybrid business model embraces a more client-centric service delivery mindset and has instilled an environment where we embrace change.
The firm saw disruption on the horizon and made the necessary changes before it hit. We are now seeing the benefits of that early action and continue to adapt to the changing market.
What inspired you to pursue a career in legal business development in the ASEAN region and what advice do you have for those aspiring to a similar role?
I certainly didn’t plan on working in the legal sector. Upon completing my master’s degree, I started working with an institute that helped Thai SMEs with developing business plans for investing in ASEAN. I found the work very rewording and continued along the business development path. I happened to be introduced to Baker McKenzie while organizing a joint seminar and joined their team shortly after. I knew nothing about the legal industry, but I had a good deal of business development experience.
For those looking to jump into the legal sector or are new to business development work, the best advice I have is to get out of your comfort zone, make new connections, and reach out to those already doing the job you want. You’ll be surprised at what comes your way.
Heading over to www.bdrountable.com and joining the community is a good place to start!