The future of law firm sales?

17 04 2011

Inspired by a recent dialogue on Twitter between Mike Ames (@Mike_Ames_Flair) and I (@intchallenge), I was struck by the similarity of some of our messages to law firms on the thorny subject of sales (talking about “client development” is much easier…). After posting some linked blog posts, we decided it was time to experiment with a social media-sales-mash-up.

James was not sure the practical sales training for lawyers was wholly relevant, but was willing to give it a try

Mike recently blogged about why lawyer’s don’t like the “S-word”, and I thought I’d add some of my thoughts to what I thought was a great post. It’s an interesting perspective, because while I’ve sold legal services, bought legal services and sold to law firms, I’m not an out and out sales person. Mike on the other hand has worked in business development for over 20 years, and has a history of both his own business development and coaching others to sell.

So, let’s mash (Italicised text is Mikes)!

Let me start by saying not all lawyers hate doing the “S” word. There are quite a few that I know who would prefer to do nothing but sales especially if meant getting away from all that tiresome law stuff and those impossibly demanding client-typesBut, whilst business development is an acceptable alternative phrase for sales (but not real work apparently) actually getting down to doing it is not top of the to-do list for most lawyers, but why?

Based upon my own coffee-house investigations (OK some of them weren’t carried out in coffee houses) these are my top 5:

  1. It takes too long – I just don’t have the time to fit it in. This is true, and the underlying cause is of course the tyranny of the chargeable hour. Maister talked years ago about the chargeable hour being today’s profit and the non-chargeable hour being tomorrow’s profit and nowhere is this truer than in the context of business development. How many other businesses would fail to recognise the importance of bringing work in to such a degree?
  2. It’s not my job – that’s what marketing are employed to do isn’t it? Sadly, the distinction between functions such as marketing communications, marketing strategy, pitch support and pure sales is often blurred in law firms, and thus the easy to understand link between sales and revenue often gets confused with other marketing-related activities that have much more difficult to calculate return on investment metrics.
  3. The law is more interesting – it’s what I was trained for and it’s what I want to do. This seems to me to be an entirely valid statement if you are working in a firm that can accommodate this approach. If not, then there may be a problem!
  4. I’m not sure what to do – I’ve had no real training or guidance. Definitely true at smaller and mid-sized firms. At the larger firms, I’d add a qualifier – the lawyers may well have had some training, but haven’t had the opportunity or encouragement to actually practice their skills and hone them. It might seem obvious, but selling is a skill – I remember first being taught Strategic Selling and SPIN selling as a circa 2 year qualified lawyer, but it wasn’t until I’d practiced them many times, often with an experienced business development professional at my side, that I began to internalise them and crucially, feel more comfortable using them.
  5. It’s just a bit grubby – I’m a professional not a used-car salesman. In my experience, while this attitude does exist, it’s dying out.

I’m not sure how close this to your own beliefs but they did crop up fairly consistently. By way of a response I would say: –

  • It is your job and is going to grow in importance. Accept it and move on. 
  • Sales is what makes the world go around – nothing happens until somebody sells something. If it helps consider yourself to be more of a facilitator. This is particularly true at the moment – you’ve cut costs, but revenues remain sluggish. Firms need revenue to grow. Of course it’s servicing the work that generates the revenue (and yes I know, managing WIP and aged debt are important too), but if you don’t sell effectively, the firm is unlikely to grow significantly – incremental growth of existing accounts in the current climate is unlikely to do the trick.
  • Like most things you can do it in a highly professional or decidedly sleazy way. You choose. This might seem like a no-brainer, but I’d go a step-further. If you are a lawyer with good client skills, the chances are you can be an excellent sales person. Professional, bright and good at asking questions, these are core selling competencies. Put some structure around them, season with a little theory, and then finish with a liberal serving of practice, and you’ve got yourself a rainmaker!
  • Once you have been trained it is easy and does not really take a lot of time. The sales cycle may vary depending on what you are selling, but importantly it will become a process that you can help shape, rather than just being on a treadmill of responding to client RFPs (requests for proposals).
  • It can actually be great fun, satisfying and very financially rewarding. Hell yeah. Closing a big piece of business can give a buzz that’s just as good as getting a deal signed, and you’re unlikely to have worked 48 hours straight to get it done!

I’m not a lawyer but I believe in the future the lawyers who get on most won’t necessarily be great at the law but they will be great at sales.

This I’d also agree with, but I’d also add some gloss. I think as more and more firms re-examine their business model, this will highlight the importance of the sales function. This may manifest as lawyers getting better at selling (more professional training, perhaps truly looking for sales skills and experience when recruiting), it may also result in the development of sales departments in law firms? Sounds a long way off? I’m not so sure. I’ve worked with firms who have business development managers who are very good sales people, and often accompany partners when they go out selling. This is a great model and it works very well. Where it falls short is of course scale, and for a large law firm (which is likely international), to have two or three really skilled sales people seems like an unnecessary restriction on revenue growth.

Now of course there are arguments that with professional services, clients are buying certain individuals, and to some degree I accept that. But even now there are challenges that can be made to that concept – when a partner pitches for work, will the client really be getting much of the partner’s time? The more efficient firms push work down to the minimum qualification level possible that will meet quality standards, and that will rarely be the partner. This of course helps keeps costs down, which translates into lower fees or higher profit margins, depending on the pricing structure.

In the IT industry, the concept of a pre-sales expert is common. This is someone with real technical knowledge who accompanies the sales force on prospect meetings to answer technical questions and demonstrate the company’s expertise. This model may need a bit of adapting for the legal profession, but I absolutely believe that the firms that invest in a highly skilled sales force, whether it’s lawyers, sales professionals or a mixture of the two, can really grow market share and win some serious business.

In that scenario, the losers? As Mike says, they’ll be those that turn their nose up at the S-word!

Mike’s website is here if you want to learn more about his approach to sales.





You do what?

14 09 2010

Reading another interesting discussion on the Interweb last week, which was urging lawyers to ask their clients the simple question “so what do you do?”. The basis of the article was that this would give a client or a prospect the opportunity to talk about their business, and thus provide a deeper level of insight that would allow the lawyer to provide a better service.

"tell me what you do?" asked the driver innocently. A question he would soon regret....

It was a good starting point and could lead into an examination of question-based sales techniques such as “S.P.I.N. Selling” by Neil Rackham (still one of my favourite sales books). However, I took the opportunity to flip the question, and asked how many lawyers could give a concise and compelling answer to the same question.

So, what do YOU do?

A refreshingly simple question, but a difficult one to answer well IMHO. Not least because in our society, your occupation is an important part of your identity. For me, after 10 years as a lawyer, answering that question suddenly became much more challenging. However, even when I was practising law, beyond the simple, one-word answer (be it lawyer, attorney, solicitor, barrister etc), the question is really what DO you do? How are you different from all the other lawyers? How do you help your clients, whether you are inhouse or in private practice.

I’ve tried to answer this question at various times in my career, and it’s not easy. At the heart of the problem is the need to differentiate yourself, either at an individual level, at a practice level, or at an organisation level. Do you feel more comfortable talking about yourself and your skills (creatively solving problems, aggressively defending my clients), your practice and work type (I draft contracts for….) or your firm (I work for a company that…..)?

Whatever the level you answer the question, once you have the descriptive answer, you can then challenge yourself to ask how many other people could have given the same answer. If the answer is “a lot”, then ask yourself what it is that you do that’s different.

It’s not an easy task; before you know it, you’ve run into your second paragraph, and the person you are talking too has glazed eyes and is desperately wishing they hadn’t asked the question.

Ultimately, I think to answer it well, you need an understanding of your personal value proposition: how do you create quantifiable value for your clients? What results do you create? An exploration of value propositions (a great subject for lawyers) is probably best saved for another time, but thinking about how you create value can give you another angle on how to answer the question about what you do.

Finally, if you think you’ve answered the question “so what do you do?”, it’s time for the ultimate test. Grab a taxi to somewhere more than 15 minutes away, chat to the driver and wait for the inevitable question. If you can answer it before the driver loses interest, starts a rant about how much he hates lawyers or talks in detail about their recent divorce/house move/tax investigation, you’ve done well!