The Most Uncertain Season Of All: Budget Planning for 2021

By Gina Eliadis, director of marketing & business development at Goodell DeVries

Another uncertainty wrought by the coronavirus pandemic is now upon us. After law firms spent most of 2020 shifting their marketing tactics in response to the pandemic, it is now time to look toward 2021 and mull significant changes in how they budget for those efforts.

While budget season can be challenging even under normal circumstances, law firm marketing and business development teams could, until now, make reasonably accurate projections of the investments needed for the coming year. This year, however, every budget line item will require renewed scrutiny. And more fundamentally, teams may need to alter how they approach their budgeting decisions. 2020 has brought unique challenges, to be sure, but also new opportunities. The unusual circumstances of this budget season should encourage marketing teams to more closely align their projected expenses with 2021 priorities, and perhaps empower them to push back on wasteful spending.

Here are some considerations for planning for 2021.

Focus on what worked from March 2020 onward. With COVID-19 cases continuing to surge, it is unlikely that in-person meetings and events will resume any time soon. Assume that marketing and business development efforts will continue to be largely virtual throughout most, if not all, of 2021. Forget January and February 2020. Which efforts were most successful for your firm after the lockdowns began in March? For example, many firms invested heavily in producing webinars, online CLE programs, videos, and podcasts, as well as PR, social media, and written content. Identify which of these initiatives provided the best value for your firm and make sure they are adequately supported or expanded in your budget for 2021.

Invest in strengthening your brand online. Since marketing efforts will continue to be largely virtual for the foreseeable future, it's more important than ever to enhance your firm's online presence. Consider speaking with a digital marketing agency to gain fresh ideas for social media campaigns and to understand the costs associated with paid advertising. Virtual events hosted by professional associations and nonprofits typically offer sponsorship opportunities. Look at those offerings carefully and consider investing in those that will provide significant online visibility for your brand. Explore new distribution channels, such as syndication services or news outlets, for your firm's content, and consider paid LinkedIn training for your lawyers.

Invest in understanding clients' evolving needs during the pandemic. The ground is shifting for all of us, including our firms' clients. What tools will you need to gather intelligence on how clients' organizations, in-house legal teams, and industries are affected? This may mean investing in a client interview program via a paid consultant or purchasing a robust business and legal monitoring platform.

Prepare your arguments to eliminate unnecessary expenditures. In times of economic uncertainty, it's more important than ever to budget wisely. Are there legacy expenditures that no longer make sense to continue funding? For example, some sponsorships or directory listings and profiles can be costly, but are consistently supported by firm leadership, even when the ROI is a mystery. If you can identify potentially wasteful line items that should be eliminated, gather data to support your recommendations and prepare talking points on why those items should be cut.

Have a contingency plan should 2021 require budget modifications. At the beginning of the pandemic, many firms directed their lawyers and administrators to cut expenses and revise their budgets. We hope the coming year doesn't bring a repeat of this exercise, but we cannot rule it out. Look at your marketing and business development strategic plan for 2021 and identify the must-have line items needed to execute your top priorities. Be prepared to have conversations with firm leadership about why those items should continue to be funded at the budgeted figure. Likewise, identify any low-priority line items that could be reduced or eliminated later if necessary.

One glaring takeaway from 2020 is that we must be prepared for anything. However, while so much has changed, one thing has not – your marketing and business development budget should reflect your strategic plan and priorities. The uncertainty of the pandemic will push us to adhere more closely to that principle than ever before.

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