April 2003  Volume 29, Issue 3
April 2003 Issue
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NEW! Trends Report

Sales: The "S" Word Hits Law Firms

by Robert W. Denney
This is the first of my new columns on trends in the legal market. I'll be addressing not only marketing, but a broad range of subjects, from firm and financial management, to recruiting and associate development-any areas where there are new happenings in the profession. This column is a work in progress. I welcome your input on trends you have detected or even initiated in your firms. So let me hear from you!

It has taken law firms in the United States 20 years to accept, in varying degrees, the need for marketing-and the importance of having a professionally managed and implemented marketing program. But the concept has finally settled in. As a result, marketing, or as some prefer to call it, "practice development," is no longer a trend. It is a basic part of operations in many law firms today.

Now, growing out of the marketing function is a new trend, sales-also called "business development" by firms that still abhor the "s" word. This isn't about such typical marketing activities as branding, advertising, Web sites, seminars or even client service. It's about sales, pure and simple: the one-on-one activity in which an individual (or a team) in the law firm contacts a key person in the client's or prospect's organization with the expressed purpose of getting new business.

Is this new to professional firms? Even for the staunchest advocates of law firm marketing, this is a huge step. Yet it's not new in professional services firms. Architectural firms were probably the first to commit to a sales function as part of, or in addition to, the marketing function. Management consulting firms were not far behind. Then, about 25 years ago, accounting firms started to experiment with having someone, usually not a partner or even an accountant in the firm, identify prospective clients and actually make sales calls on them.

Has this been successful? Definitely so in architecture and management consulting. In public accounting, the results have been mixed. However, there are many firms-local and regional as well as the current Big Four-that have generated substantial new business as a result.

There are varied forms. So how are law firms approaching the sales or business development function? Cautiously in some cases, boldly in others. The cautious approach involves providing sales training for the lawyers. The bold approach involves actually having a full-time director of sales. And there are variations in between.
The organizational structure varies as well. In some cases, the sales function is under the direction of the chief marketing officer. In others, it is the responsibility of the business development partner, regardless of whether there is a CMO.
Will this work in the legal profession? Stay tuned.

Key Client Planning
The objective of the Key Client Planning initiative at Boston's Hale and Dorr is to identify key clients and prospective clients and develop strong relationships that lead to client loyalty (and, of course, increased business). The program began with the identification of 10 central clients. Client team leaders meet quarterly with marketing director Silvia Coulter (and, when their schedules permit, with the firm's marketing partner and CFO) to discuss the status of the client and the firm's relationship. All key client team leaders have been through the firm's sales training program.

The results? Increased focus on key clients, broader use of the firm's lawyers in working with those clients and increased client loyalty. Coulter reports that, far from resisting these "sales" efforts, "Clients love being considered a key client." This year the firm is adding 30 to 40 additional clients to the mix.

Across the board.
About three years ago, Washington, D.C.'s Patton Boggs brought in Marc Cowan to serve as, essentially, the firm's full-time business development partner. He personally conducts regular training workshops called the "Selling Skills Seminar" (which he developed himself, long before he joined the firm). But Cowan does much more. In fact, he ranges across the entire sales process. He also helps identify growth areas for the firm, coaches the lawyers on ways to obtain new business, prepares them for sales calls and presentations, participates in many of those and assists in negotiating with and obtaining the client.

Nothing but sales.
Pressly Millen, chair of the client development committee at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has taken a different approach. Responsible for overseeing the entire marketing function, he also convinced the firm to hire a full-time director of sales. According to Millen, this director, Steve Bell, doesn't develop or conduct training programs for the lawyers, he just sells. Bell contacts and meets with clients himself. As Millen puts it, "He comes to work every day thinking about only one thing: 'How to sell Womble Carlyle.'"

London bridges rising up.
The largest London-based firms (usually referred to as the "Magic Circle" firms) not only have much larger marketing departments than U.S. firms, but have also been concentrating on the sales function for years. Sometimes sales calls are made by the lawyers, other times by a member of the marketing department. In either case, the approach is very proactive. They research a particular company or read about it in the press, develop ideas on what the company's problems or needs are and what the firm could do for that company, then make what is essentially a "cold call" on a senior executive. The "sales person" carries the contact forward, often prepares the proposal, makes the presentation and personally lands the client.

Bob Denney ( bob@robertdenney.com) is President of Robert Denney Associates, Inc., providing strategic management and marketing consulting to law firms. He can be reached at (610) 964-1938.