The importance of virtual connections—a view from London International Disputes Week 2021

The importance of virtual connections—a view from London International Disputes Week 2021

London International Disputes Week (LIDW) 2021 began with an insightful and practical discussion on the topic of ‘The remote-working lawyer: how to build new professional relationships, and maintain the ones you have’. The panellists—international disputes practitioners and a business development professional—shared their thoughts on how, and how not, to develop business relationships remotely, particularly in light of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. This piece includes a summary of some of the themes discussed, including humility, selectivity and creativity.

The panel was chaired by Barry Fletcher, Head of Arbitration and Head of the Dispute Resolution Group, LexisNexis UK and Sophie Lamb QC, Partner, Latham & Watkins. Speakers at the session were: Stephen Auld QC, Barrister, One Essex Court; Rovine Chandrasekera, Partner, Stephenson Harwood; Liz Heathfield, Head of Groups Business Development, Pinsent Masons; Tafadzwa Pasipanodya, Partner, Foley Hoag.


How to grow your business—virtual pitches and beauty parades


Heathfield highlighted pitching remotely as one of the greatest challenges in her line of work during the pandemic period. Although there are numerous difficulties, both Heathfield and other panellists highlighted that remote connections can aid inclusivity—as Pasipanodya succinctly put it, the size of our Zoom boxes is the same, and this can help break down barriers which may be felt more keenly in a physical environment.

As many of us have realised, and industry research agrees (see for example the McKinsey report on The future of work after COVID-19), certain aspects of remote working are here to stay. Heathfield provided us with her top tips on pitching successfully in a virtual environment, which included the following:

  • beware of presenting fatigue—even if you are an expert in presenting, remember to keep things formal and well-structured, pitching is not a time to get sloppy in your work
  • prepare—it is not just about pitching on the day. Research who will be on the panel, try to anticipate questions and prepare for things to go wrong
  • boil down your content but amp up your delivery—it is much harder to keep an audience engaged virtually so focus on how you can make your presentation stand out
  • engage with your audience—build a bit of small talk at the beginning, in the same way as you would in a ‘real’ meeting
  • don’t panic if there is silence—this is more common when online and it is not necessarily a sign of disinterest

On the other side of the Zoom table, Auld expressed his thoughts on the role of barristers in the business development process. He said that the shift to the remote world has shown that barristers also need to pitch themselves—something which historically may have been left to solicitors or clerks.

He spoke of the importance of webinars and ‘beauty parades’. As well as the features highlighted by Heathfield, Auld noted the importance of humility. He spoke of two ways in which barristers (and indeed solicitors) should remember to demonstrate this:

  • in an international context, have the humility and do not take for granted that lay clients know the difference between solicitors and barristers—clients have different areas of focus
  • even if you do not get the work, have the humility to follow up and thank the participants—next time you may

Chandrasekera highlighted that the pandemic had enabled him to involve the broader team in BD and not just a few select senior colleagues. However, he stressed that even if you are attending meetings in your living room, remember to be considerate of other participants’ social and cultural norms—for example, is it appropriate to be having your mid-morning cup of tea while prospective clients in the Middle East are fasting? Consider these issues before hand and ask your clients what their expectations are.


Beyond specific opportunities such as client pitches and beauty parades, how can you grow and maintain your network?


Chandrasekera told us that he has seen ‘phases’ in his and others’ usage of Linkedin.

  • at the beginning, he was adding many new connections and publishing many articles. He acknowledged that in this stage, his usage may have favoured quantity over quality.
  • then there came a more refined stage, in which usage dwindled
  • now, there may be a hybrid model, as we learn what will be worth keeping from both sides of the Linkedin usage coin

Pasipanodya is based in Washington DC but is focused on developing Foley Hoag’s clients in Africa. She told listeners that she no longer feels limited to connecting only with people who are in front of her. She shared three things she does to keep up the quality of her network:

  • be more selective—not all networking opportunities are created equal
  • put networking reminders in your calendar—this helps her remember that BD is important
  • ask for help—from more junior colleagues and the BD department


Has the shared experience of the pandemic enabled us to interact more with our clients?


Heathfield reflected that lawyers are good at keeping in touch during litigation but maybe not so much outside of it. During the pandemic, we have had to rack our brains to keep in touch with people, without ‘casual lunches’. She encouraged participants to reflect on what they have in their armoury:

  • if you are writing articles, make sure the ones you send out are at least personalised to those receiving them
  • use the network you have and work it—introduce people
  • use your organisation’s knowledge and open it up—for example, offer training for their teams

In brief, be generous with what you have and be creative in how you are offering it.


How do we understand what clients want?


In a nutshell, Chandrasekera told us that the key word here was feedback. Lawyers must incorporate a feedback process into their BD strategy and act upon the feedback received. This makes the client feel that you care about their interests and are focused on engaging with them.

Pasipanodya then highlighted the importance of ‘the platinum rule’ in building client relationships ie

Do unto others as they would like to have you do unto them.

She has found that using WhatsApp more with her clients has been helpful. Initially, she was fearful of bringing this into her working life as it gives the impression that you are available all the time. However, she has found that connecting with clients through this on things that have little to do with the law has made it easier to then connect on business related aspects.


What about more ‘fun’ networking?


Heathfield said that, like Linkedin usage, this has improved and become more tailored over time. Remember that one size does not fit all—think whether the client would actually enjoy the emu racing or umpteenth cocktail masterclass you are proposing. Keep tabs on what their interests are and personalise. As with all BD, think ahead and be creative.

Chandrasekera highlighted that it is important to know your clients. Consider whether they would prefer to see you in person and try to do what makes them trust you.

Pasipanodya brought an example of a successful virtual tour of an exhibition held by Foley Hoag. This enabled stakeholders to connect on a topic that wasn’t law but ultimately led to work for her and her colleagues.


So how can lawyers use social media effectively?


Fletcher introduced the topic of profile raising in the online environment. While noting that delivering thought-leadership formed a key part of many lawyers’ practice, and reflecting on the role of LexisNexis is this regard, Fletcher stated that this was just way of raising profile. Pasipanodya highlighted the benefits of social media (particularly focusing on the use of LinkedIn):

  • it can let you have a more dynamic, holistic and authentic view than your website bio
  • it lets you build your network quickly—for example by connecting with connections of connections
  • it allows you to amplify your voice in a way writing an article or speaking at event (without publicising it on social media) may not enable you to do

Our panellists then provided further tips on how to use Linkedin more effectively:

  • keep track of your and your company’s profiles—ensure Linkedin, website, brochures are up to date and do not provide contradictory information
  • always think about your audience—ensure what you are doing is relevant and not just ‘more noise’ in a saturated landscape
  • consider the market—have you responded rapidly enough? If you miss the initial phase, take time to create a more detailed response
  • remember that Linkedin is just a starting point—consider when is appropriate to move to Whatsapp, virtual coffee or other, more personalised means of contact

The session concluded with Lamb QC asking the panellists for their views on what good practices would be taken into the future, and highlighted comments submitted by the audience. As stated by Fletcher at the beginning of the discussion, whether you love it or loathe it, building relationships is a key skill for lawyers to have. This was the first session of LIDW 2021 on career and business development and it will be followed by others throughout the week. To find out more about these sessions, LIDW 2021 and the networking opportunities it provides, visit the website.

Note: this is a summary of the discussion and does not purport to be a full account of the event.

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About the author:
Gloria is a Paralegal in the Lexis®PSL Paralegal Hub. She graduated in International Law and Globalisation from the University of Birmingham in 2019 and has been at LexisNexis UK since March 2020. She has experience working for US, UK and Italian law firms on a range of matters, including IP, financial services and immigration law.