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Peloton rides, beer by mail, and bouncy castles: Here's how Big Law partners are getting and keeping clients during a pandemic

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  • A lawyer's network is a key source of business opportunities, but traditional ways to bond outside the office — over cocktails or at sporting events — have vanished because of COVID-19.
  • Bike rides and beer tastings have gone virtual, with lawyers saying that offering a small digital diversion can open the door to business down the road.
  • Even a sympathetic ear, a technology tip, or a suggestion on keeping kids entertained can build a relationship, consultants and lawyers say.
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A lawyer's book of business thrives on relationships. Whether they're forged at conferences or over cocktails, in the heat of closing a complex, time-sensitive transaction or in the sweetness of a courtroom victory, good relationships can lead to referrals and repeat business.
But with the coronavirus pandemic still raging across the US, many courthouses closed and all but the most important mergers and acquisitions put on the back burner, the old way of doing business isn't cutting it anymore. Some business development work already took place online and over emails, but the pandemic has led others to develop clever ways to stay on their clients' radars.
James Lee, a partner at Proskauer Rose who works in the firm's private-equity and mergers-and-acquisitions groups, said he's organized beer tastings with current and prospective clients over Zoom. Each participant got a sampler pack of "good old domestic beers" in the mail, he said — the theme being nostalgia — and a few "friendlies" joined to help spur conversation and avoid the lulls that might accompany videoconferencing with a room full of strangers.
"These smaller-group-setting kind of reach-outs work better," he said. "And we don't make it long. … It allows people to just get away from some of their responsibilities for 30 minutes and from that, you've gotten certain follow-ups."
Read more: 10 lawyers who navigated the biggest bankruptcies in history are seeing a boom in business thanks to a restructuring surge
In the early days of the pandemic, big law firms took a shotgun approach to market, blasting general counsels' offices with webinar invites and client alerts in ways that led to some public grumbling about the information overload. Deborah Farone, a legal marketing consultant, said firms need to dial down their "broadcasting" and scale up their "narrow-casting" — one-on-one outreach.
For Jeffrey Cohen, the vice-chair of the bankruptcy team at Lowenstein Sandler who counts among his clients athletics companies like Under Armour, industry conferences used to be a reliable way to meet in-house lawyers and other potential clients. Cohen, a marathoner and triathlete, said he would email his contacts to schedule a casual group run from their hotel in the morning, no talking business allowed.
"I don't believe that a client relationship and a personal relationship need to be mutually exclusive," he said. "I've always believed that creating the personal relationship first is the most important."
So with most conferences canceled, he's hit upon a new way to bond with fellow fitness junkies at his firm and outside of it: simultaneous Peloton classes. While there's not much communication during the class apart from the digital high-fives they send each other, it's a shared experience that they can talk about later, and helps offset the sedentary nature of life without a commute.
"It's something fresh, and something you're excited to wake up for," he said. "We have a group text list where the night before, we're like, 'Hey, we're gonna get on the bike at 9 a.m. tomorrow and we're gonna take this class with this instructor.'"
Holly Barocio, a law firm business development consultant at GrowthPlay, said clients were initially in crisis mode, seeking urgent advice on applying for funds from the Paycheck Protection Program and on protecting sensitive data in the transition to working from home. Now, she said, they need help dealing with the new normal. Some lawyers function as informal therapists, she said, while one law firm partner found that buying a bouncy castle on Amazon kept the kids entertained for 45 minutes a day — and immediately told all her contacts about it.
To be sure, no amount of virtual glad-handing is going to replace the need to do good work. Few businesses were ready for a pandemic, and they still have urgent problems to confront. "It really is all about reaching out to clients on a proactive basis and engaging them on solving a problem that needs to be solved," Barocio said.
For bankruptcy lawyers like Cohen, that can mean helping creditors get paid when retailers go bust, as JCPenney, J.Crew Group, and Modell's Sporting Goods recently have. Law firms with a major presence in the oil and gas industry are advising their clients on restructuring. In the private-equity space, Lee and his colleague Jae Woo Park said that even though buyouts have slowed, they can still help clients refinance their debt and navigate how new laws like the CARES Act might affect their specific businesses.
Read more: Pay rifts, a partner divide, and a threat at the Ritz Carlton: 50 insiders reveal all on a massive shakeup at elite law firm Boies Schiller
All law firm business doesn't simply boil down to relationships, though. Another key avenue of business can be requests for proposals, or RFPs. Prospective clients often issue them to lawyers in their network, and a typical midsize to large firm responds to several hundred a year.
Matthew Prin, a principal at RFP Advisory Group, said many big corporates have issued RFPs seeking short- and long-term advice for responding to the pandemic across the dozens of jurisdictions where they might do business. But he said the flow of requests for legal work unrelated to the pandemic has dropped off by perhaps half.
"From a business-development standpoint, now's not a bad time to be sharpening your sword, so to speak, and maybe planting seeds with people for the future, but I'm not seeing a ton of opportunities out there at the moment for lawyers to land new clients during COVID-19," he said in an email.
Others see openings in the legal marketplace. While some clients will want to stick with the lawyers who know them best, Farone said they won't hesitate to try someone new if they aren't getting the level of service they need.
"Clients will be loyal to firms that have served them well, but they're going to have — in many cases — new needs … or they're going to want to reach different markets that they had in the past," she said. "If that firm that they used for years doesn't have that capability, yes, they will be going outside the firm for that."
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