This article first appeared in the Law Society for NSW online newsletter. It was written by Leading Thought co-founder Craig Badings
Five years ago I conducted one-on-one research with the top six Australian law firms on their views of thought leadership and how they were using it.
Most were grappling with it and the reasons ranged across: “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.”
While many of these concerns still remain, a lot of the same firms have subsequently made clever use of their intellectual property combined with research to produce some compelling thought leadership pieces which in turn has built eminence for partners and practices. Many have also, through the rapid internationalisation of law firms, been exposed to the thought leadership content of leading global law firms and adapted some of these ideas locally with great success.
In analysing those firms who are doing it well, I have been exposed to some great minds in this space, people who truly understand that, used well, thought leadership can open doors, engage clients and prospects in exceptional conversations and build a profile for individuals and practices as experts in their fields.
How and where do you start your thought leadership journey?
The first step for any firm or individual setting out to establish a thought leadership platform is to clearly define why you are doing it, make kit audience centric and set measurable business objectives that are:
- Singular in focus
- Easy to measure
Get this right and you give yourself every chance of success. But bear in mind that to be classed as a thought leader, the material you produce should:
- Be empirically based
- Offer new insights or points of view into a sector, an issue or challenge your clients face
- Shift paradigms or stimulate debate on an issue, topic or sector.
Merely producing opinions or educational content may be useful but don’t fool yourself that it is thought leadership.
Once you have your research or point of view make sure you package it in a way that your audience consumes content – this could be one or a combination of: one on one presentations, podcasts, infographics, a pdf in a report form on your website, a hard copy booklet. We all consume content in different ways so make it as easy as possible for your audience to access it, download it and share it in a way that suits them not you.
Never lose sight though that the big driver for thought leadership is the ability to engage with clients and prospects one on one in conversations you otherwise would never have had.
Hosting your thought leadership on your website is one thing, what you do with it behind the scenes with your prospects and clients is an entirely different matter and where it really counts. I have seen too many firms come up with a great idea, launch it, generate a bit of media coverage and then put it in the business development or marketing tick box and move on. This is not only a terrible waste of time and resource but it flies in the face of thought leadership best practice where the effective and compelling campaigns are more often than not long-term – often lasting for a few years.
The traits of a thought leader
The following four traits are commonly associated with thought leaders:
Brave/courageous: Thought leaders are brave. They have the courage of their convictions. They are brave with their ideas, brave with the work they present, and brave in the knowledge that they may endure criticism and in some instances ridicule for their ideas.
However, as we’ve seen with good thought leadership, the rewards far outweigh the risks.
Client or customer centric: True thought leaders are aligned with their market, clients or customers. They have an intimate knowledge of their needs, their greatest challenges and issues and they tap into one or more of these in a way no-one else is doing.
Visionary: Thought leaders are visionary, think of Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Marie Curie, and Anita Roddick. Let’s not forget that Nelson Mandela was a practising attorney before he entered politics.
Abundance mentality: Thought leaders readily share their views. They have an abundance mentality and are happy to share their ideas and thoughts openly.
Case study – how thought leadership worked for one law firm
Spearheaded by Clayton Utz partners Karen Evans-Cullen and Jonathan Agar, ‘THE REAL DEAL’ is a report that provides insights into the M&A market in Australia for deals over $50million. The insights are driven by 250 questions asked by up and coming M&A lawyers.
It has been running for five years and in that time it has:
- Substantially raised the practice and partner’s media profiles
- Better informed conversations with their clients about the overall state of the market and the M&A trends, which in turn impacts the advice they give
- Given them an entrée to other important target audiences such as investment banks
- Helped fast track young lawyers’ M&A knowledge
- Created a valuable M&A database which, now with five years of data, is proving a reliable informer of future trends.
Craig Badings is a partner at SenateSHJ. He has spent years researching, writing and consulting about thought leadership, what it is, what it isn’t and has evolved a methodology for arriving at a strategic thought leadership point of view and taking it to market. He is the author of “Brand Stand: seven steps to thought leadership” and co-author of #THOUGHT LEADERSHIP Tweet: 140 Prompts for Designing and Executing an Effective Thought Leadership Campaign.