When asked to describe the challenges and issues in conducting market research internationally, I thought about my own experience with cross-border research projects over the years, and several case studies came to mind:
- in-person and telephone interviews of risk managers at top companies in Europe, to help design features and pricing of an online service to be offered by a large insurance broker
- individual interviews with 11 U.K.-based senior corporate counsel of major international companies, gathering input for a major legal publisher's Web-based decision support services in development
- pre-launch testing of a private banking consultative sales process and the marketing materials accompanying it, through in-person interviews with private banking relationship managers in Hong Kong, Singapore, Geneva, Luxembourg, London, Miami (for Latin America), etc.
- a survey of direct response marketing of financial services products in the United Kingdom and Spain to determine feasibility of offering a range of credit products by mail
Although half of my international consulting practice is with law firms, I was unable to recall a single law firm that has conducted classic proprietary market research as part of its expansion into other jurisdictions around the world. I asked my colleagues in Europe, and their response was similar. Kate Thompson, principle of McCallum Layton in the United Kingdom, which serves many law firms in conjunction with Wheeler Associates, said, "In my experience, law firms are doing very little international research, certainly when compared to clients in other sectors. In fact, it is only relatively recently that U.K. law firms are realizing that market research can be one of the most valuable targets for marketing investment available to them."
Big Five Conduct International Research Routinely
Ben Kent, formerly a practicing lawyer and now a director of Lighthouse Research in London, told me, "I haven't experienced firms sophisticated enough to investigate a market through secondary and primary research." Kent commented on the marked contrast to the Big Five accounting firms, such as KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers. "Research is an integral part of their business strategy," he said. "If they're developing a new market or service or looking to expand into an international market, they will do research."
David Burton, research director of The BPI Group in London, concurred. Though he has conducted some cross-border research for international law firms, he said it is unusual. "Big Five accountancies and consulting firms often conduct qualitative and quantitative research across a number of countries," he said. BPI was recently involved in one such project, where the accounting firm was looking at its own image and position in various markets.
The lack of law firm investment in cross-border market research is surprising, but the situation will likely change. Increasingly the larger international firms are targeting an identifiable segment of global businesses, and the cost/benefit ratio of conducting research to support key business investment decisions will make it worthwhile. These firms will also simply need to better understand and measure their clients' perceptions and changing needs around the world and offer services that respond to those needs.
Secondary Research and Competitive Intelligence
Classic proprietary market research is not the only way a law firm can gather valuable market information across borders. Many law firms engage in competitive intelligence efforts in non-domestic markets and conduct research through secondary sources as a part of their international marketing efforts.
One such firm is White & Case. Nancy Lasersohn, director of marketing for this global firm with offices in nearly 40 countries, said that their firm usually conducts secondary research. In a given location or industry, the firm gathers data through a wealth of available sources and then merges it with what they already know, in an effort to make informed decisions. She stressed that law firms must clarify what decision they want to make and focus research efforts on finding the information that will help to make the decision. "Too often, firms collect data and conduct research, and all they have at the end of the process is data, but not necessarily what is needed to make the right decision."
Let's take a step back and explore the various ways research can assist law firm marketers with their firm's international objectives and then talk about the techniques and tools available.
Basic Requirements for Market Expansion
There are many reasons why a law firm might want to conduct market research across borders. Some respond to basic needs of firms planning expansion into new markets beyond domestic borders, which in this article we will call "Type A" research:
- to identify the companies active in a particular market that might be prospects for the firm's services
- to clarify differences in the way legal services are delivered in various jurisdictions, including bar rules and ethical regulations
- to better understand law firm competition in a given market - the capacity and capabilities of a range of providers
The more basic information needs that are labeled Type A can usually be satisfied with "desk research," or information gathering from published sources. In the end, this baseline information gives the law firm valuable information, albeit information that its competitors are likely to have as well. The value of desk research depends on the quality and integrity of the information gathered, how it is analyzed and how your firm uses it to formulate and execute its marketing strategy. This sort of research can be made more valuable when supplemented with "on location" informational interviews to gain important insights and nuances, particularly related to cultural differences.
Type A research can be accomplished with the support of a marketing professional experienced with international market dynamics. It typically costs little and does not require market research agency expertise.
Sophisticated Market Feedback
Other information that may be needed internationally requires more sophisticated research, which we will call "Type B" research:
- to gain a better understanding of the level and complexity of legal services needs of targeted buyers in a given nondomestic market
- to clarify how legal services buyers in a given market perceive the skills and abilities of a range of law firm providers, including your own firm
- to "measure" the appetite for legal services in a particular practice area in a range of jurisdictions
- to evaluate client satisfaction with your firm's services in a given market
Type B research is markedly different. In the best-case scenario, it involves retaining a market research firm to conduct proprietary research (e.g., information gathered expressly for your firm's particular needs) in one or more jurisdictions, with a closely targeted audience. In this scenario, your firm will specify what it wants to know, and the survey questionnaire and methodology will be designed specifically to respond to your questions.
With law firms, Type B international research is rarely proprietary. This is due to several factors: the relatively high cost, the habit of law firms to follow in their competitors' footsteps rather than make international expansion decisions on the basis of concrete business analysis, the complexity of the undertaking and the reality that for many firms, the marketing staff operating outside of the headquarters' offices have little experience with managing or evaluating research.
Thompson pointed out that a cross-border questionnaire should optimally be translated to the local language and administered by native speakers. As a result, a survey involving five jurisdictions and a sample of 100 in each jurisdiction is far more expensive than a survey in one jurisdiction with a sample of 500.
Cautions About Multiclient Studies
Type B research for law firms more commonly involves multiclient "packaged" research for a particular jurisdiction or practice area. This research will be conducted using broader parameters (typically your firm would not be able to include the particular questions it wants to ask or to design the parameters of the survey sample group) with the idea of appealing to the information needs of a range of law firms. Examples of multiclient research are:
- a survey of top corporate buyers of legal services in Italy, whereby the corporate buyers evaluate various firms from the perspective of quality, capacity, price, etc.
- a survey gauging the demand among investment bankers in a range of jurisdictions for legal support on various sophisticated finance transactions, including the particular skill attributes and qualities the bankers seek in their legal service provider
Several international marketers cautioned about multiclient studies being done by research firms. According to Lasersohn, these studies are often invalid and meaningless because they do not provide what we really need to know. Multiclient studies may interview primarily local companies in France, for example, whereas the U.S.-headquar-tered firm is targeting international companies or U.S. companies active in France. Secondly, as Lasersohn explained, "We have complex sales, and it's hard for this research to reflect the multiple decisionmakers involved and all of the factors that go into identification, assessment and selection of a firm." As a result, data collected for an amalgam of firms may end up providing information already known, without adding value.
Research Director Burton suggested that the law firm engaging in cross-border market research should focus on the following to ensure the project's success:
- Find out if the research company is capable and experienced in doing international research in professional services.
- Verify that the research company is reaching the right people with the right level of professionalism. This can be done by checking references, providing briefings to interviewers and listening in on calls.
- Set clear expectations; clarify the objectives of the research and the business decisions involved so that the research company can identify the appropriate audiences to research and design the right methodology.
Tools for Basic "Desk" Research Across Borders
Like the armchair traveler, the legal marketer can find basic information about the legal marketplace in many lands without leaving the comforts of the office. For top-line information on competitors and trends in key practice areas and within key industries, search the archive sections of international legal and business publications.
In Europe and internationally, many sites are of interest. Several that I use often are:
- www.practicallaw.com - Provided by the publishers of Global Counsel, GC 3000 and PLC Magazine. GC 3000 offers good summaries of the legal services industry and how services are delivered in a wide range of jurisdictions and has an excellent listing of corporate general counsels, with information on their legal departments. It offers a qualitative client-driven evaluation process that ranks law firms and lawyers in various practices and countries. Unfortunately, many law firms do not provide detailed info on this site; instead, go to sites such as Martindale-Hubbell, below.
- www.martindale.com - This site has a variety of useful features, and the Lawyer Locator service is convenient for international searches. It enables one to look into how firms in various countries express their capabilities.
- www.icclaw.com - Provided by the publishers of the "Legal 500" series of international directories, Legal Business and European Legal Business. Good basic introductions about legal practice in various jurisdictions and briefings on many firms, with rankings that seem somewhat influenced by the subjective judgment of the editors.
- www.legalweek.net - An excellent site by the publishers of the United Kingdom's Legal Week and Legal Director, with an archive feature allowing searches according to your own specifications.
- www.thelawyer.net - This site of The Lawyer, the U.K. weekly, has been revamped and is highly functional and informative with a good archive capability.
When researching particular expertise of firms in various markets and the marketing messages of their core practices, firm Web sites offer a wealth of helpful information. This is also useful in gaining a better understanding of tone and style, which is partly dependent on cultural mores and traditions and partly dependent on the firm's own style and culture.
E. Leigh Dance, president of ELD Project Marketing International, assists clients with market expansion strategy and execution. ELD has offices in New York, Rome and London. She can be reached at email@example.com, 631/726-5430.