Law Firm Alchemy – Transforming Lawyers Into Salespeople

As we enter 2019, are there lawyers who still don’t know that you can’t build a sustainable career simply by being a great lawyer and delivering outstanding client service? Whether they embrace it or not, virtually all lawyers now recognize they are responsible for selling legal services and thus expanding their piece of the pie. However, the gap between knowing this imperative and doing something about it continues to be substantial.

To address this gap, more and more law firms are hiring client-facing business professionals without law licenses to sell services, but for the foreseeable future, law firm sales departments (or business development, client service or revenue departments, as they sometimes are known) will be small in headcount relative to lawyer populations. The inescapable conclusion is that if law firms and legal careers are to blossom, lawyers must become much better at selling the services they and their colleagues provide.

How to accomplish this objective was the topic of a November 1 presentation at the LMA Mid-Atlantic Region Conference in Washington, D.C. Titled “Law Firm Alchemy: Transforming Lawyers into Salespeople,” the session featured three professionals with long law firm careers and robust credentials: Steve Bell, Chief Marketing & Client Service Officer at Womble Bond Dickinson (US); Melissa Croteau, Chief Business Development Officer at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney; and Paul Mickey, currently an employment lawyer and legal marketing consultant and previously Marketing Partner and CMO at Steptoe & Johnson.

This trio covered four primary topics:

  • What it’s really like at the point of sale, and how buyers make buying decisions
  • Creating a firm-wide sales process and vocabulary
  • The importance of a differentiated client-centric value proposition
  • Tactics for keeping lawyers on task for sales

In this article, each of the presenters provides his or her top takeaway for each of these topics.

What it’s really like at the point of sale, and how buyers make buying decisions:

Paul: In the aftermath of the 2008 recession, the criteria by which large clients select law firms for significant engagements changed. Until then, the touchstone was successfully handling similar matters for similar clients – followed by relationships (or its proxy, reputation), with price as a factor but more often a tie-breaker. With tightened legal budgets, the rise of the procurement class, and the emergence of Chiefs of Legal Operations (check out CLOC and the use of reverse auctions), cost became the key criterion. Clients recognized that multiple firms could meet their needs; that an affordable B+ job might be preferable to an expensive A+ job; and that they held the power to drive legal spend lower. In this environment, the role of sales and marketing professionals has become critically important, so much so that law firm partners are increasingly willing to share client-facing opportunities with non-lawyer colleagues who possess three key attributes: (1) they speak the language of competitive procurement and alternative pricing, (2) they know to spend time asking good questions about client needs, not telling war stories, and (3) they can shape a value proposition that will appeal to a given client’s situation, thus setting the law firm apart from the competition. Legal marketers will find that if they demonstrate they have those capabilities, they’ll have a seat at the sales table.

Melissa: In the early 2000’s, we saw the beginnings of the shift of buying power from law firm to client. Clients simply stopped accepting annual fee increases and started to whittle down the number of firms they engage. Today’s GC is focused on top line revenue growth and helps to shape company strategy. In turn, they are asking the same of their outside counsel. As some legal services become commoditized, the definition of value is changing. Outside counsel must be conversant on the client’s industry and business issues, and must be a trusted advisor beyond the law. They need to offer resources and input that is helpful to advancing their client’s business. Legal business development and marketing professionals play a role in providing information and intelligence to lawyers, so they can meet this value definition while doing excellent legal work and providing superior client service.

Steve: In order for law firm staff professionals to provide optimum sales support for their lawyers, it’s important for them to be at the point of sale themselves as often as possible. Law firm sales professionals are of the most value to their firms when they can handle sales tasks that don’t require legal acumen, and, among these tasks are initiating meetings with buyers and ensuring great follow-up. Most often, these meetings with buyers – at least in the early stages of relationship-building – are not complex, technical discussions of the law, but rather business discussions of the type that bright, articulate staff professionals are completely capable of handling. In my experience, the buyers of legal services really appreciate having staff business professionals at meetings, because the staff professional views the conversation through a different lens than does the lawyer. While the lawyer sees and addresses the legal angles, the business professional understands the necessity of asking great questions and listening closely to the answers for clues about the needs and wants of the buyer and his or her company. And, because the staff professional has been at the meeting, it is completely natural and appropriate for him or her to actively participate in follow up. The next step in the evolution of legal sales and marketing is for more and more LMA members to be at the point of sale with buyers.

Creating a firm-wide sales process and vocabulary:

Melissa: It goes without saying that Sales 101 is not part of any law school curriculum. To bridge the gap between business plan development and sales execution, it is helpful to educate lawyers at all stages of their careers on basic selling techniques and concepts. Successful sales organizations know the importance of maintaining a pipeline of opportunities, nurturing one’s network, having a client-centric orientation and asking for the work. They think of their opportunities in terms of sales stage and position in a sales funnel – and they employ tactics specifically intended to advance a target through the pipeline. When lawyers are systematically oriented to the sales process, and provided techniques to cultivate relationships or close sales, their revenue generation increases.

Paul: Sales training and coaching pays rich dividends. Few lawyers are natural salespersons, but most can be taught to be more effective (and to avoid cardinal sins). Putting all lawyers through basic sales training, and giving an AP course to those who are more motivated, or who have valuable opportunities to sell, can make a difference, as well as encouraging all lawyers to read a good volume or two. (One of my favorites is Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling.)

Steve: Law firms standardize all types of activities from contract clauses, litigation processes, conflict checking and securing waivers, to client memoranda. It only makes sense for them to do so on the sales front as well. When an entire organization – lawyers and staff professionals – embraces a standardized sales process and vocabulary, it becomes a branding activity. Law firms can and do develop reputations anchored in how they go to market and the sales language they employ. Over time, it becomes the “Womble Way,” or the “Buchanan Way” or the “Steptoe Way.” It is recognizable, and it generates brand equity.

The importance of a differentiated, client-centric value proposition:

Melissa: Perhaps the greatest opportunity to advance the sales performance of one’s firm is to focus everyone on articulating the value proposition – what are you selling, and why buy from you? Both questions often are lost in a sea of prose contained in a pitch or RFP response. “What are you selling?” is not a description of a practice area. It’s an articulation of a solution one brings to a specific problem, stated in the context of the client’s world. Do I provide employment counsel, or do I help keep your workforce productive? And of all the lawyers and law firms in the world, how are you different from the others? If you can’t discern your differentiating value, you can’t expect your buyers will.

Steve: Despite our best attempts, too many lawyers still go to meetings to “show up and throw up.” General counsel are very weary of this ancient approach to sales meetings. They really appreciate it when lawyers and business professionals have done their homework and exhibit the effort to understand the client’s or prospective client’s business. It starts with great, informed questions and authentic listening. But, sometimes the best answer to a client’s question is not an answer at all; it’s another question to probe into why the client asked the question in the first place.

Tactics for keeping lawyers on task for sales:

Steve: We all have seen tons of methodologies and processes for sales and sales follow-up. Most of them are very good and tend to center around some sort of sales funnel. While it’s not important which methodology a law firm chooses, it is important to choose just one and go deep, rather than picking and choosing different pieces from different providers. In the end, the best methodologies are ones that focus like a laser on two items: what’s the last thing that happened, and what’s the next thing that must happen, by when and who is responsible for it. In the end, keeping lawyers on task is the métier of sales and marketing professionals. No one in a law firm is better prepared to keep track of this type of information, and it doesn’t really matter what the receptacle is – the most-expensive pipeline technology, a simple spreadsheet or a “Big Chief tablet.” Gathering the information that goes into a tracking system is hand-to-hand combat with lawyers, but the most successful sales and marketing professionals are those who can get in front of lawyers and ferret out the sales details that are necessary to keep the pipeline moving. That’s value!

Melissa: It’s about targets and accountability. What solutions do we offer, and what targets are the best fit with our value proposition? Pick the targets, pursue them, and set specific tactics and next steps to be accomplished in short timeframes. Too many firms craft business plans that are “plans to make a plan” – lots of initiatives, research and navel gazing. Delete all of that from your business plan, and narrow it down to a target list. Establish a top-down system of progress reporting on pursuits, and if you hit a dead end, launch a different pursuit.

Paul: When law firms focus on establishing incentives for effective team-oriented sales, they often get bogged down in debate about the compensation system. No comp system is perfect; most are misunderstood by at least some portion of the partnership, and making changes in comp systems is hard work with uncertain reward. A comp system that undermines firm goals should be changed, but focusing on other incentives may be more useful (and may involve important roles for Marketing Department professionals). Just as soldiers fight wars for medals and not for pay, lawyers may be encouraged to work hard for firm BD successes by the promise of recognition and praise. Lawyers tend to value being honored by their peers (and recoil at the possibility of being embarrassed). Many devices can be created by Marketing to celebrate success, such as a weekly newsletter; a regular alumni report; prominent posting on the firm’s intranet; BD contests; and shout-outs at firm or partner lunches. These and other devices may work well on a firm-wide basis and even better on an office or practice group basis, where team spirit may run high and lawyers may be particularly motivated to do their bit.

By Steven Bell, Chief Marketing & Client Service Officer, Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP; Melissa Croteau, Chief Business Development Officer, Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC; and Paul Mickey, Paul Mickey PLLC, for the Fourth Quarter 2018 LMA Mid-Atlantic Region Newsletter

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