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Sales Professionals in the Law Firm: Are We Finally Ready?

Posted by LMA International on Sep 9, 2015 11:15:02 AM

By Greg Fleischmann, Kevin Iredell and Kevin McMurdo

We started with a simple question: “Are traditional law firms resistant to hiring client-facing business development (i.e. “sales”) staff at a time when competition for and delivery of legal work continues to intensify?” And, “If so, why?” Based on our own experience and anecdotal feedback from many in the legal marketing community, our view is that firms remain resistant to using sales professionals for largely predictable but unconvincing reasons. We decided to test our hypothesis.

Combining interviews of a small group of opinion leaders with an online survey conducted by the research arm of American Lawyer Media, we attempted to better understand the extent to which professional staff are being hired and deployed by law firms expressly to be out in the market and directly developing business. We do not suggest our findings set an industry benchmark, nor do they reflect research into newer organizations such as Axiom. Rather, we view our effort as a “finger in the wind” that offers some insight into where the profession stands and where it may be headed.

Moving Toward Sales … But Slowly
Over the past few decades, law firms have delegated various administrative and management responsibilities — formerly handled by the managing partner — to professional staff. Liam Brown, founder and chairman of Elevate, a service provider to both corporate legal departments and law firms, referred to this as an “unbundling of responsibilities,” noting recent additions to the list of delegated functions included pricing, project management and process improvement.

Brown is not surprised to see the emergence of sales as a delegated professional function as well, and his “unbundling” theory is supported by results from the ALM survey. An impressive 42 percent of respondents indicated that they had hired staff with primarily market-facing responsibilities. In addition, 93 percent of all respondents claimed to provide some form of business development training and/or coaching. Some industries and professions use sales teams to develop and maintain a pipeline of work. But lawyers view client relationships as both personal and proprietary, and delegating even part of the sales function to others can be viewed as a threat to a lawyer’s standing in the firm. “That change will come slowly,” Brown predicted.

The ALM study indicated two barriers to the successful introduction of sales professionals into law firms: (1) partner objections reflecting a culture adverse to change, and (2) a lack of understanding of the sales process itself and the role of the sales professional in that process.

Hint: Rainmakers Are Sales Professionals
The responsibility for law firm sales falls most often to the rainmakers. These individuals enjoy preeminence in the firm and in the marketplace. They possess strong client relationships and well-developed books of business. How does a sales professional fit into the rainmakers’ environment and culture? The key is to carefully define the role of that professional at the outset, as a lack of clarity could create unintended competition and cause some rainmakers not to cooperate.

Indeed, 64 percent of survey respondents who hadn’t hired sales professionals cited “a culture adverse to change” and “partner objections” as obstacles to hiring lead-generation/sales professionals.

“The lawyer rainmakers are the real sales force in any firm,” noted Steve Bell, chief sales and marketing officer at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice for the past 14 years. Bell, who oversees a sales team of six including himself, emphasized role clarity as the best way to introduce sales into any firm. “Frankly, most lawyers aren’t good at initiating meetings or doing the follow up. Sales professionals can bring discipline and support to the relationship development and sales process.”

Twenty-eight percent of respondents to the ALM survey identified a “lack of knowledge of the formal sales process” as an obstacle to developing a stronger sales culture. Scott Staff, Perkins Coie, agrees with Bell.

He said that the primary advantages of a senior sales professional include:

  • Leverage and efficiency: Sales professionals can identify and research initial opportunities, bringing the lawyer into the process later.
  • Reach: Sales professionals often know more about a firm’s overall capabilities than most individual partners.
  • Mentorship: The right sales professional can act as a good model for lawyers to observe and emulate.

Is the Rule Prohibiting Fee Sharing an Obstacle?
Rule 5.4 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct states: “A lawyer or law firm shall not share legal fees with a nonlawyer.” We expected this rule would be cited in our survey as a primary deterrent to hiring sales professionals who are not attorneys. Such was not the case, however, both among those we interviewed and those who completed the survey. Only two survey respondents from firms of 300-plus identified “potential violation of the rules” as a factor in the decision to hire sales professionals.

Jennifer Keller, president and COO at Baker Donelson, supports the rule as one way to “guard the reputation” of the profession. But she also thinks there are many ways to compensate sales professionals without “crossing the line.” Keller would like to see the rule “tweaked” to recognize the important difference between hiring a third-party vendor to generate leads and a firm employee who is subject to greater firm oversight.

Hans Haglund, chief business development and marketing officer at Blank Rome, agrees. Haglund works with two sales professionals, whose bonuses are based on a subjective review by a team of partners. He notes that “experienced sales professionals, who are more comfortable working on straight commission may not be a good fit in a law firm.”

Hire Right
What characteristics are the best “fit” for a successful sales professional in a law firm? “They must have empathy — an ability to put themselves in the shoes of the client,” says Brown, who heads a global team of sales professionals at Elevate. “We look for team players because many of our clients have decision makers in multiple locations, and we need to approach them in a coordinated fashion.”

Bell believes the keys to success include intelligence, a “willingness to work as hard as the partners they serve” and a solid sense of focus. Haglund looks for four qualities in lead generation candidates:

  • Prior success as a sales professional
  • Leadership responsibilities, including as a coach and trainer
  • Temperament and emotional intelligence
  • Deep industry knowledge

Looking Ahead
Firms that have a strong culture of collaboration across siloes may be best positioned to effectively deploy sales professionals if they heed the following advice: (1) focus on the sales process, (2) clearly define and communicate the role of the sales professional in the process, (3) focus compensation on team success and sales management skills, and (4) hire those who reflect the same character and qualities a firm would expect from its lawyers.

All of our thought leaders predicted slow but steady growth in the number of sale professionals working in law firms in the years to come. Keller, for example, sees many benefits, but is “not ready to embrace” an entire sales team. With revenue growth such a huge component to law firm success, however, professional sales teams — similar to those operating under newer business models — may soon become an imperative. Firms should no longer rely on the “luck of the referral,” Brown notes. “Hope is not a strategy.”

Kevin McMurdo is principal of McMurdo Consulting, which provides training and coaching services to professional services firms. He has worked in law firm marketing and business development for 25-plus years.

Kevin Iredell is director of research at Greentarget.

Greg Fleischmann is the global marketing director for Baker & McKenzie LLP.


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