LMA Annual Program Review: Unicorns No More – How Law Firm Sales Professionals are Game Changers in a Flat Market

For quite some time, there have been rumblings within the legal industry that a few select business professionals were presented with the opportunity to have client-facing roles. This concept was once unheard of in our sector for a litany of ethical and political reasons, and the move towards allowing more sales-focused positions to unfold within firms of all sizes is exciting to watch. The panel, “Unicorns No More – How Law Firm Sales Professionals are Game Changers in a Flat Market” at the 2018 LMA Annual Conference in New Orleans highlighted the fact that these positions are not only becoming more commonplace, but are demonstrating true added value, efficiency and effectiveness in utilizing business development professionals who have more time to commit to client relationship building, vetting, and top-notch listening skills than timekeepers may have.

This panel was moderated by Stephanie Hinrichs, Director of Client Services at Womble Bond Dickinson, and featured panelists Mary Hicks, Director of Client Development at Goodwin; Neel Lilani, Managing Director at Orrick; and Peter Barr, General Counsel of Rack Room Shoes USA. The four discussed the opportunities and challenges inherent in building and properly utilizing a sales or client-facing team of non-billing business professionals.

Peter kicked off the discussion with a bit of levity by highlighting that, in his experience, lawyers tend to bring the wrong group of people to pitches due to internal politics. He stated that bringing in a business professional focused on sales allows someone with a wide lens of the firm to help steer the relationship, which he sees as a benefit to both the client and the firm. He added that having a salesperson enhances the client experience, because that person can listen to what the client wants and help put together the right attorneys who speak well for a pitch, which can make the difference between landing, or losing, a new client. Peter mentioned anecdotally that he once called Stephanie directly for a referral to an internal lawyer within her firm in a new area of law for Rack Room, and trusted that she would match him up with someone who would fit both his legal needs and personality and communication styles. He reminded the audience that, in his opinion, “GC’s are the lawyer’s client, not the firm’s client.”

Mary, who referred to herself as a “professional matchmaker,” recalled a situation in which she had formed a relationship with a prospect, and, due to the time she had available to network with him and further build a trusted partnership, she received a call from the prospect when a new RFP was published with more detail on what they were looking for than anyone else received. This existing relationship allowed the firm to land the client, whereas the partners would likely not have had the conversation that she was able to have with the contact. She said that she is constantly connecting the dots between clients of the firm and those who can best help them within the firm.

Neel mentioned the internal politics that can exist when sourcing a brand new client for the firm. He noted that when he brings someone to the firm who has no previous connection to anyone there, he has more control over who ends up on the client team, which often results in a happier client. When he is brought in to help influence and further a client relationship after there is already a connection, he doesn’t have as much influence on identifying what he sees as the right team. He underscored how important assembling that “perfect” team can be for long term client engagement and return business.

Stephanie said that when met with any pushback from individual attorneys on how she chooses to build a client team for a new matter, she simply responds, “My client is the firm, and I have to do what is best for the firm.”

One of my favorite quotes from the panel came from Mary, who said, “Firms are like swim teams; the attorneys are all fantastic in their own lanes. They aren’t great at being a basketball team, because they don’t work as well as a team together.”

It is heartening to hear that sales professionals within law firms are beginning to not only make headway in bringing clients in the door, but also in defining their value, for both their internal and external clients. Utilizing skilled business development professionals in this way will not only raise our visibility within the legal industry, but also demonstrate true value when it comes to our firms’ bottom lines.

By Jenna Schiappacasse, Director of Marketing & Business Development, Rosenberg Martin Greenberg LLP, for the Second Quarter 2018 LMA Mid-Atlantic Region Newsletter

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