Recently, I visited a law firm partner whose firm has great ambitions for 2015. Namely, this prominent Legal 500 firm plans to turn all or most of their fee earners into sales force.
Naturally, this firm aims to continue to grow in the coming years. And I can also understand how the idea that each of 100+ fee earners gets new clients for the firm can seem compelling. Afterall, who would not like this business model?
Except that not all is that simple. I immediately voiced my doubts about such strategy with the partner. Some the problems I saw are the following:
Lawyers really can not sell (and they do not like it too much either)
Lets be honest right from the start – lawyers are not really keen on selling. There is a reason (most of the time) why they went to a law school in the first place. They like to consider themselves as highly focused specialists, not Jacks of all trades.
Now, this is not to say that no lawyers sell, ever. Yes, lawyers can be amazing in sales, and this is also why they are usually made into partners. Whether they climb up the intra-firm ladder, or decide to open up their own practice, only lawyers capable of selling are actually successful to drive sufficient business to their law firm.
That being said, more often than not, fee earners (especially if they are employees) just want to be left alone to do “their magic” – the craft of their choice. And that is ok as a career choice, however that also makes them unsuitable salesmen for your law firm.
Sales is a process, and it is a full-time job
Doing sales is much more than attending cocktail parties, or writing contributions to your professional magazines. It is also something that should be done with diligence, discipline and consistency, in a form of a well thought-through process.
While it can be relatively easy to nail down the process in general, we should mention that sales, like anything else, involves lots of “on-the-field” learning, trials-and-errors and pivoting. There are tons of online resources which can help a lot too.
Yes, sales is a craft as anything else, and at least on the equal footing as the craft of law. Therefore, to train a lawyer into a sales person will take considerable amount of time (other resources as well).
Hence, law firm partners should really ask themselves whether investing so heavily in their employees, who are already great fee earners, pays off. Are there any significant opportunity costs there? Shouldn’t the law firm be much better off if they continue to do what they are best at?
Sales force needs to project a monolith brand message
Needless to say, brand is important. Even more so in the service industry, where trust and reliance plays a crucial role. Hence, you have worked hard to build an image of the professional firm, and perhaps even hired an outside consultant to help you with positioning.
All great so far. But what happens when you confer communications about your law firm to hundred or more unqualified and untrained sales people?
“But our fee earners still have to communicate with clients, whether they have the sales role or not.”
True, I agree completely. However, there is a huge difference underneath – in one case your fee earners talk with clients (yes, this implies that you already you managed to convert them to customers). In a case when fee earners are still trying to get a client onboard, well, then you do not have a pre-established connection.
And the first impression matters.
So would you rather have a highly specialized sales team project a consistent image about your law firm, or would you rather lose control completely of how your law firm is being presented to new prospects?
Note: I had an interesting discussion with John Grimley about this question. John was so kind to provide his point of view on whether law firms should strive to train their entire fee-earner force into salesforce, or should they go for the specialized and agile sales/bizdev team. See John’s take here:
“Law firms would be wise to consider institutionalizing business development in order to optimize the time of practicing lawyers while generating sufficient revenue to keep those lawyers busy and then some. But these business development (or “sales” divisions) require highly sophisticated professionals.
Importantly, they institutionalize new client development to the benefit of the entire firm. They permit law firms to secure needle-in-the-haystack opportunities that were it not for the day-to-day activities that these divisions provide, would never have. They pay for themselves many times over with revenue generated far outpacing cost of the initiative.
Importantly, the day-to-day activities of these divisions also permit firms to grow in down economic times by focusing creatively and proactively on where new revenue will come from – and then securing it. At present, there are instant growth opportunities BigLaw is leaving on the table as a result of not maintaining sales divisions.
The skill sets necessary to establish and operate a law firm outbound business development initiative are:
- How to comprehensively understand the domestic and global commercial context in which law firms operate.
- How to identify saleable services from within often complex legal practice areas.
- How to carefully match and integrate closely – law firm services – with the commercial needs of prospective clients.
- How to identify where law firms will secure new revenue from advancing the commercial objectives of clients.
- How to perform sophisticated market research sufficient to generate a substantial pipeline of new clients in both domestic and international markets.
- How to most effectively initiate, manage and drive forward the entire business development process from the identification of ideal potential new clients to securing new client engagements.
- How to create legal transactions around those ideal commercial opportunities you’ve already identified while working in concert with subject matter practitioners and prospective clients.
- How to write semi-scholarly content on topics of highly specific relevance to ideal potential clients, for strategic dissemination on and off digital platforms.
- The ability to successfully identify and persuasively communicate vital messages to audiences ranging from CEO’s of global corporations to the heads of foreign sovereign governments.
The above is a template for a law firm sales division. This effort will permit practicing lawyers to practice law, and law firms sales divisions to identify, pursue and capture new business. These divisions not only help create new top-line revenue but take firms out of the business of having to seek lateral hires for new revenue. They also help inoculate the firm from rainmaking partner departures which takes clients away from the firm – by making clients belong to the firm institutionally versus belonging to a firm partner. The time has come for this initiative to be adopted industry wide.”