It’s time to stop pretending lawyers are salespeople

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As a long-time practitioner of law marketing, I’ve seen an unending series of workshops, training sessions, seminars and conferences to encourage lawyers to get more business. I’ve led some and spoke at others.

With help, training and coaching do enable some lawyers to get better at business development. But in my experience they were on the cusp anyway and simply needed the tools to start generating work. The sad but stark reality is that very few lawyers like doing business development and, frankly, even fewer of them are good at it no matter how much help they are given.

It is time to stop pretending lawyers can do sales.

Indeed, “rainmakers” are so rare that when a partner left one large New York law firm for another in January, American Lawyer headlined the lawyer’s knack for generating new files before mentioning where she was moving.

After all, the traits that drive someone to a sales career are very different from what makes somebody else want to be a lawyer. But beyond this, name another established business where the people responsible for production – crafting deals, drafting contracts, writing pleadings, arguing cases – also are in charge of finding new customers.

Firms need to abandon the myth that lawyers can snag new clients. Instead they should turn business development over to the marketing department which would start a formal sales function staffed with people who are very good at high level selling to executives and entrepreneurs. Not doing so simply perpetuates the fairy tale that a good lawyer can also be a good salesperson.

Rainmaking Myths

While every firm has at least one “rainmaker,” in nearly all of the 100+ firms I’ve helped over the years, fewer than 10 percent of the lawyers were either any good at generating new work or had a genuine interest in learning how to do so. Most often, the number was closer to 5 percent.

I see these numbers is in spite of helping lawyers write and work personal marketing plans, running lunch-‘n-learn workshops on how to get new clients, offering one-on-one coaching help, hiring outside coaches and trainers, sending lawyers off to seminars at snazzy resorts, distributing articles with rainmaking ideas and, when all else failed, cajoling, nudging and browbeating them into making an effort. Not even explaining how their pay would get a boost from bringing in new files made a real difference.

The usual bell curve doesn’t seem to apply to rainmaking. In business, 20 percent of sales people land 80 percent of the orders. At law firms, generally only about 5 percent of the lawyers bring in 95 percent of the work. Another five to ten percent could bring in some files if shown how.

One firm with 200 lawyers that retained me as its “CMO On Demand” wanted to boost the number of genuine rainmakers from 11. After interviewing all of the partners and many senior associates, I told the management committee it was a hopeless task, that it should stop wasting time and money trying. Instead I recommended a formal sales function be developed. Members of the committee broke out in a bad case of tremors as I spoke, with one committee member sniffing, “We don’t do sales.”

No, you don’t and that’s the point of this article.

Likewise, a much smaller firm with 21 lawyers retained me to bring business development to the outfit because only two partners generated new work and clients. Two of the other four partners wanted to get better, and we provided help from internal and external resources, but the other two had no interest. The 15 associates were given a series of workshops yet only three included any business development into their practice regularly. None of the lawyers – partners and associates – saw getting business as part of their job and several refused to have anything to do with finding new files.

I’ve found similar situations in almost every firm I’ve worked in or with. Clearly, a myth exists about rainmaking and how to create more rainmakers.

Building a Sales Staff

The sales function in the marketing department would be charged with uncovering, qualifying and developing new business leads, learning about the company so as to uncover hidden needs and finding shortcomings in a company’s relationship with its current lawyers.

Qualifying leads is a big part of sales yet I haven’t seen many examples of law firms doing this very well.

One firm I worked with had been chasing a large company for three years. The general counsel and her lawyers were taken to meals, sporting and cultural events, golf tournaments and charitable functions. But the firm couldn’t pry a single file from the business. When I became involved, I looked at the company website and discovered a senior partner at the current law firm was on the board of directors of this company – which the new business “team” never bothered checking or even asking about. They were crestfallen when I noted this because they realized they had wasted a lot of effort and money chasing a target that would never give them work.

Yet this would be the first thing a professional sales team would discover because they know better than to waste time on a target that wasn’t a qualified prospect.

No Barriers

I’ve heard two objections raised to launching a business development function, and both are dealt with easily. In fact, there are no serious barriers to starting such a process today.

One objection I’ve heard is that most bar associations and law society rules require lawyers to solicit work. Fair enough. But the sales person doesn’t need to solicit a file because once the prospect is starting to discuss specific legal issues a lawyer would be brought to a meeting. And the lawyer could be the one to say “We’d like to work with you on this, and I know we can help you.”

The other challenge I’ve heard is that lawyers are generally prohibited from paying commissions on fees, and sales people are accustomed to being paid partly on performance. But performance bonuses are allowed and fairly commonplace, being paid to staff regularly by many firms. In the case of a sales person at a law firm, a bonus structure could be built on a number of factors that have nothing to do with fee billings.

When law firms recognize that practicing law is one skill set and bringing in new business a totally different activity, the result will give firms more new files, more new clients and fewer lawyers feeling pressure to do something most of them hate.

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Jim Bliwas

Jim Bliwas

Jim Bliwas has been helping law firms with a range of marketing, business development and management challenges for most of his career