Law firms can be stressful places to work. Firm billing pressures, client deadline demands, management and leadership committee participation commitments, and business development responsibilities all lead to what many lawyers believe is an unhappy and unhealthy way to live each day.
However, what if one of those big demands — business development — was less of a burden? Suddenly a new world opens up where a lawyer’s value could be based on his or her legal contributions and brilliance, rather than on landing a hefty book of new business each year.
Professional salespeople could make that new world a reality for many law firms. While many lawyers may shudder at the mere thought of a “nonlawyer” selling legal services, the practice has already begun and is having great success in firms so far.
How can sales professionals within law firms possibly work? There are several key components that need to be addressed.
First, building support within the firm for the sales role is a critical task for firm leaders. Melinda Davis Lux, a partner at Womble Bond Dickinson, calls this “probably the most challenging” part of the process. While sales professionals are often very excited about what they do, the firm’s key stakeholders must champion this new role, she says. “Firm leaders must be very vocal and spread the word about successes.”
Jennifer Keller, president and COO of Baker Donelson, agrees, adding that her firm has worked diligently to build support for the sales role. “Lawyers can be skeptical so wins and successes build support.” Keller notes that creating a role for a sales and business development professional has been extremely valuable for the firm in at least two ways: First, the sales leader has fostered relationships by promoting the firm’s breadth of resources; and second, the sales leader has been an integral part of the teams pitching business — leading those teams, preparing attorneys for client meetings, challenging the involved attorneys on issues that are common to clients and helping to actually drive deals to closure.
In fact, the daily work of these sales professionals is pretty similar, it turns out, to the work done by the firm’s rainmaking lawyers.
Mike Duffy, director of Growth & Client Services at King & Spalding, says that like a lawyer, being hands-on in the sales role is important. “If we are in the middle of a big pitch, I run those strategy sessions,” Duffy explains. “I also work with the clients to help our partners understand how to win the business. Most of the partners value someone taking the bull by the horns and helping them to look good and feel better prepared.”
Stephanie Hinrichs, director of Client Service from Womble Bond, says she believes “continuing to develop a relationship with clients and then introducing those people to our lawyers” is a key part of what her sales team does. It’s also critical for a sales professional to be able to identify which lawyers and partners will be a “good teammate” to help secure new work from clients, Hinrichs explains.
A firm’s sales professional certainly can play a valuable intermediary role between the firm and the client.
Indeed, law firms’ clients are in favor of this role as well. Chris Javillonar, general counsel at Permobil, says that from a client’s perspective it’s definitely helpful to have a sales professional interacting with his legal department. “It does not necessarily translate that a skilled lawyer would also be a skilled business generator,” Javillonar says. “With the constant cost pressure, we face as an organization, it is sometimes helpful to talk to a businessperson who might think of more creative solutions to price the services we need in a competitive way.”
Vanja Lane, an in-house counsel for a global manufacturing company, also sees the role of a law firm’s sales professional as a benefit to her company. “I can focus on issues – for example, we had a billing issue and I was able to contact the salesperson and get feedback from the firm, and it did not negatively affect my relationship with our lawyer,” Lane says, adding that it’s important to be able to talk with someone about certain issues who is not the same lawyer doing the work. “From the in-house side, it’s nice to have a salesperson to bounce things off of.”
A firm’s sales professional certainly can play a valuable intermediary role between the firm and the client, agrees Catherine Zinn, Chief Client Development Officer at Orrick. “I sometimes troubleshoot if a client has a problem,” she says. “I believe they feel more comfortable discussing issues with us rather than with the partner who does their work.”
Peter Barr, general counsel of Rack Room Shoes, likens a law firm’s sales professional to the person at a party making the introductions. The sales pro can often make the necessary contacts with in-house lawyers that lead to additional business, rather than just discussing the current matter. “It is an art at which many lawyers are not proficient or lack the time to concentrate on,” says Barr. “The salespeople know how to reach these in-house contacts, and that is critical to the long-term economic success of the firm.”
What should law firms look for in creating a business development role for a sales professional? We spoke to several sales professionals within law firms, and their suggestions include:
- Hire strategic sales professionals, not business developers who may be important add-ons to a firm, but who may not have the right background for driving high volumes of revenue.
- Build buy-in for this person before they walk in the door. Hiring a seasoned sales professional and asking him or her to do nothing but coach lawyers about business development will be unsuccessful in the long run.
- Remember that lawyers still have to participate in the sales process. A firm can’t simply outsource this important function – lawyers have to be involved.
- Compensate a sales professional fairly. Depending on the firm and on the person, a mid-six-figure annual salary for a senior, strategic sales professional is the industry norm.
- Prepare to provide the right resources to these individuals. Marketing is a support function to sales, and sales professionals should be treated like partners. They require the same prep for prospective meetings as a partner would require.
- Don’t expand too quickly with this role. There is the tendency sometimes to add quickly; however, that can lead to hiring weaker people.
How the role is structured within a firm and how it collaborates with firm partners is essential to its success, says Christian Berger, senior advisor for Strategic Business Development at McGuireWoods. “The lawyers see me as a key member of the relationship during the prospecting phase or sales process — as does the client,” Berger says, adding that his focus is on continuously adding value and helping the partners to add value. “We are doing incredibly well in some of the newer markets for us. We go into clients and ask for business, and we are getting it.”
Experts caution that law firms that wait too long to hire sales professionals may find themselves at a competitive disadvantage. “Having someone focus on selling frees the partners to concentrate on the practice of law,” says Permobil’s Javillonar. “I would rather my legal services be handled by the best attorney and not the attorney who can market the best.”