Attorneys increasingly serving as sales force for law firms
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Editor's note: This is part of series on how law firms adapted in the recession and where they're headed as the economy recovers.
General counsels' lunch calendars have become increasingly crowded.
It's one of many results from the shift in how law firms have conducted marketing and business development initiatives in the past two years. The shift that began before the recession -- and was exacerbated during it -- was the move from a branding and marketing focus within law firms to one much more intent on business development.
That has lawyers looking to get closer to their clients, to keep the work they already have and to find new sources of business.
Jim Hassett, founder of LegalBizDev, has been doing sales training for about 20 years and focused the last five years of that on attorneys.
The recession has resulted in three noticeable changes in marketing and business development:
First, value has become part of the selling process in a way it really hadn't been before. That is, in turn, driving the other two shifts, which are a focus on more defensive marketing to current clients and a continued move away from marketing and toward business development, Mr. Hassett said.
Unlike most other businesses, law firms traditionally had devoted more resources to marketing than business development or selling. That was mainly because lawyers didn't want to sell and decided to have others do it for them through a marketing department. But marketing and selling require two different mind-sets, often not found in the same person. Marketers are planners and thinkers and salespeople are doers, Mr. Hassett said.
"I think ... lawyers are coming around and understanding that [selling is] really something they have to do themselves," he said. "You can't hire somebody to do your pushups."
With billable hours not being as robust, giving lawyers more time on their hands, attorneys should be filling that gap with business development, Mr. Hassett said.
But that doesn't mean all attorneys need to be sellers. Mr. Hassett is admittedly biased toward sales, but said he didn't think law firms -- particularly large ones -- need to adopt a model based on the need of every partner to be a salesperson.
"If I were a chairman of a large law firm, I would want to create a structure in which some people could be highly rewarded without bringing in business," he said. "Not everyone is good at it."
Mr. Hassett said he worked with a rainmaker at a 500-lawyer firm recently who was very good at bringing in business and brought in even more after training. When Mr. Hassett asked the attorney why he couldn't just devote five or 10 more hours a week to business development, the attorney said his firm would frown upon him not billing a certain number of hours.
"He was doing less selling because they were forcing him to be a service partner, too."
More important than the shift to business development or even defensive marketing is the focus on value, Mr. Hassett said.
Most other industries have already gone through a shift from social-relationship selling, in which you befriend and entertain the client, to value-relationship selling, in which the client can explain to its board the value this vendor provides, Mr. Hassett said. But that is just now starting in the legal industry.
When asked what value really means, Mr. Hassett said it means a buyer has to feel that what he or she is being charged is worth it. Typically that is done through reducing prices, by rate reduction. If lawyers are willing to "make a sensible living," then price reduction might be the best way to provide value.
"The definition of how much you can make as a lawyer is going to change for a lot of people," he said.
In recognition of the emphasis now placed on value, Drinker Biddle & Reath created a chief value officer this year.
Drinker Biddle's chief marketing officer, John Byrne, said many of the changes being made in the business development area were really the process of law firms "slowly but surely coming into how our clients operate" through more sophisticated procurement proceeds and a focus on value-added services.
Drinker Biddle also has revamped how it handles requests for proposals, something firms are increasingly seeing more of, particularly from large clients with procurement functions already in place for other vendors. There is now a dedicated team to respond to RFPs and the firm looks to differentiate itself through the process by providing very customized responses, Mr. Byrne said.
The firm is also in the midst of hundreds of client interviews. The information gathered through that process will create client service standards.
"The days of just throwing a brochure at a potential client and saying, 'Hire us,' are long gone," Mr. Byrne said.
Duane Morris chief marketing officer Mark Messing said it was no secret there had been a "tidal change that has swept toward the business development side of the marketing/business development equation."
Resources aren't necessarily being moved from one side to another, he said, but to the extent that new initiatives are being developed, they are geared toward things that will put the attorneys in close proximity to clients.
"That's not to say that we don't still prize our thought leadership [such as client alerts] and outbound communications and the types of things we say about ourselves in public. But those components have been stable, and we've ramped up the business development side," Mr. Messing said.
The firm has tried to create more out of pre-existing groups of attorneys who already met in a regular way to discuss business opportunities. Each office, for example, would typically have such meetings, but no action plans were created out of them, he said.
Now those groups are getting market research to support business development initiatives. The meetings result in prospect lists around which action plans can be tailored, he said.
Mr. Messing said attorneys should be focusing on "complex solution selling," not continually talking about their own background and experience. A lawyer's credentials are simply a cost of entry, and once in the door, the attorney should learn about the client's problems and offer possible solutions, he said.
Mary Beth Pratt of MBPratt Consulting in Berwyn in southeastern Pennsylvania said attorneys had an advantage when it comes to maintaining and growing market share.
While there's no replacement for face time, Ms. Pratt said, attorneys can now easily follow that up by creating LinkedIn groups related to a certain subject or making sure their clients know they author a blog on a topic important to the client.
"In one way, the opportunity to deepen relationships is better than ever just because everybody walks around with their phones in their hand," she said.
She said training young attorneys on business development techniques was important, too.
First Published November 15, 2010 12:00 am