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The bold and the bountiful

Aparna Bundro, practice development director, Des Voeux Chambers, Hong Kong, on successful business development strategies during political and economic change

We certainly didn’t get the 2020 we had all hoped for this year. With geopolitical and economic tectonic plates shifting so extraordinarily in the wake of Covid-19, how do we in the business of law and marketing stay ahead of a possible tsunami of change?

Recalibrating our operating systems to account for what appears to be the end of the globalisation era is one suggestion. Whereas globalisation is often characterised by a connected world coming together to meet a common enemy, multiple rival ideologies have now come into play which will drive different ways of doing things and will likely forge a new world (dis)order. The result may be countries aligning themselves based on shared values as opposed to geographic proximity. Do we then target our practice development (PD) efforts depending on these shared values instead of for larger cookie-cutter legal audiences? 

Corporations have historically controlled media and advertising but with the advent of social media, this has changed stratospherically. A democratisation movement has led to the empowerment of consumers – a trend that has gone beyond branding – and has resounded globally on many different levels. With consumers taking charge and spearheading branding efforts rather than conglomerates, there has been a fundamental shift in the cultural zeitgeist resulting in brands being created by the people for the people.

So, how do we tie these strands together in devising practice development strategy for 2021 and beyond? How, more relevantly, do we do this in Hong Kong, noting that practice development within chambers is relatively nascent?

A blank canvas

In law firms, business development is a membrane over the company but this is not the case with barristers’ chambers. Before 2017, PD did not exist for Hong Kong sets. Parachuting in almost four years ago, at a time when there was no infrastructure on the ground, I viewed this as a refreshing challenge. It gave Des Voeux Chambers (DVC) a blank canvas to originate strategy, and formulate new initiatives. Given this was a pioneering role in Hong Kong, we had a unique opportunity to put the architecture in place and we secured first-mover advantage in this space.

Given the Bar Code of Conduct strictly regulates the parameters for practice promotion, we take a more restrained approach to marketing versus law firms. Barristers are, of course, independent and not siloed by practice areas, so there are no delineated sector groups – something you would commonly find in law firms.

There is also no ‘direct access’ so the Bar retains its role as a referral institution in Hong Kong. Clients’ access to a barrister usually requires a solicitor, the Director of Legal Aid, or the government. There are, however, some exceptions to the general rule and barristers may accept instructions directly from recognised institutions. They can also act, without the involvement of a solicitor, as third-party neutrals in alternative dispute resolution procedures e.g. as mediators, adjudicators, barristers, or umpires.

From a PD perspective, this means the solicitor or in-house/general counsel is the client. We, therefore, gear our PD around solicitors and not lay clients. Barristers are precluded from touting, meaning we cannot make pitches to clients; we need to think of creative initiatives that do not involve soliciting. We also shy away from hyperbole to describe members and refrain from using expressions like ‘best of breed’. The guiding principle is that statements made need to be ‘objectively verifiable’.

Recent achievements

This role has exploded the myths surrounding the difficulty formerly associated with a PD function in a Hong Kong set. In less than two years, we demonstrated that our PD efforts had an outsize impact and acted as a lever of change in chambers. One way we did this was by appearing in the Financial Times‘ innovation shortlist in the Business of Law: New Business Development & Service Delivery models category in 2019. We were the only set to be shortlisted from a wide range of candidates across Asia and Australia.

In Q1 2020, DVC was the first Hong Kong set to recognise that Covid-19 gave rise to a need for related commentary in various sectors. We also moved quickly to restructure from bricks-and-mortar presentations to digital marketing. We did this by being the first chambers to publish an announcement about how we were re-engineering our efforts around the pandemic and the measures we had taken; by slating numerous webinars and podcasts on a diverse range of topics; by being the first set to produce and animate sector booklets and our quarterly newsletter; and by piloting a corporate video in place of our annual cocktail. These initiatives demonstrated our agility and adaptability.

On the sustainability and social impact front, we are also the first chambers to spearhead CSR drives. We partnered with various local organisations to install new libraries for under-served children in the community and ran story-telling sessions in tandem, and sourced opportunities for our female members to join external mentorship programmes.

A combination of these drives have not only resulted in higher year-on-year ROIs and an increase in RFPs in 2019 and 2020, but they have also enabled our barristers to develop more T-shaped skills. These drives serve to strengthen our relationship with clients, reinforce our brand, and demonstrate a commitment to worthy causes.

Gratitude in 2021

As we wrap up a strangely dystopian year, we are all increasingly experiencing ‘analysis paralysis’ or ‘knowledge obesity’, a heightened phenomenon in 2020 as busy-ness has become a proxy for productivity. With the realisation we have become overwhelmed – amplifying our self-doubt – some employers have nixed this by setting up gratitude interventions. By authentically acknowledging and appreciating staff, people feel more valued, and with a year of mostly working from home around the world, expressing this on the phone, by email or other channels has become more important than ever.

Finally, for chambers to be bountiful in 2021 they need to be bold and adapt to the new way of thinking when it comes to practice development.

Aparna Bundro is the Director of Practice Development at Des Voeux Chambers, Hong Kong, and 1 of 30 people to watch in the Business of Law 2020