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Slow and Steady “Sales” Slips into the Law Firm Lexicon

Slow and Steady “Sales” Slips into the Law Firm Lexicon-head

Law firms are warming up to the idea of the bona fide sales professional, according to a new survey of 53 law firms conducted by the Legal Marketing Association (LMA) conducted in conjunction with ALM.

In a Strategies Magazine article published online, authors Greg Fleischmann, Kevin Iredell and Kevin McMurdo say the survey supports “the emergence of sales as a delegated professional function.”

“It’s not a new topic, conceptually, but there’s a bit of a crescendo on the topic in legal right now,” explained Mr. Fleischmann in an interview with Bloomberg’s Big Law Business about the survey. Mr. Fleischmann, the global marketing director for Baker & McKenzie, elaborated:

“This means partners must move past the misconceptions that ‘the image of a salesperson conjures up,’ he said. The point touches on a source of tension between lawyers and their non-legal sales staff who, in an increasingly competitive legal environment, are paid to market their services and help them find new business opportunities.”

According to a data chart included in the LMA publication, about one-third of respondents (31%) said their law firm anticipates hiring “non-lawyer client-facing potions in the next two years.  However, there is a disparity among firms based on attorney headcount. For example, just 21% of law firms with between 100 and 300 attorneys have such plans.  The percentage jumps to 38% among larger firms – with 301+ attorneys.

There are other indications of a trend towards sales professionals in law firms as well. Some respondents (42%) indicated their law firm had already hired “staff with primarily market-facing responsibilities.”  In addition, 93% said they provide “some form” of business development (BD) training or coaching.

Slow and Steady “Sales” Slips into the Law Firm Lexicon

Graphic credit: LMA International, “Sales Professionals in the Law Firm: Are We Finally Ready?”

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Law Firm Culture Still a Big Hurdle for Sales

Adversity to sales isn’t new or even exclusive to legal circles. At the 2015 LMA conference, key note speaker Dan Pink said the word “sales” is often associated with adjectives like “sleazy” or “yuck” or “pushy.”

To that end, there are considerable challenges to the notion of a professional salesforce in law firms.  The authors suggest these are deeply rooted in law firm culture, and perhaps tradition:

“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. 

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.”

Some 64% of those who had not “hired sales professionals cited ‘a culture adverse to change’ and ‘partner objections’ as the primary barriers.  In addition, 28% of respondents cited “lack of knowledge of the formal sales process.”

Sales Imperative: Process and Collaboration   

“Law firms are a unique category of business in that the lawyers are both the product and the sales force,” according to our own Matt Thompson in a post for LawMarketing.com titled 6 Tips for Aspiring Rainmakers to Sell the Invisible.

“This means traditional sales techniques designed for organizations that sell a tangible products through a dedicated sales force, don’t translate well.  Lawyers are in essence, selling the invisible, as Henry Beckwith wrote.”

Mr. Thompson writes that law firms sometimes trip over tactical concerns in establishing a sales pipeline. “Success is driven less by the specific method chosen and more about coming up with a simple process that is followed consistently,” he said. “Define a few opportunity stages and create a simple process for tracking deals through the pipeline.”

Process generally requires at least some component of collaboration, and usually quite a bit.  Messrs. Fleischmann, Iredell and McMurdo conclude the LMA piece with a strong emphasis in those areas:

“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.”

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Photo credit:  Flickr, Peter McConnochie, New York Skyline (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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About Frank Strong

Frank Strong
Frank Strong is the communications director for the LexisNexis software division located on NC State’s Centennial Campus in Raleigh. In this capacity, he leads communications efforts in support of software products for law practice and law department management and also litigation tools – across large law, small law and corporate counsel segments. With more than 15 years of experience in the high-tech sector, Strong previously served as director of public relations for Vocus, which developed marketing, PR and media monitoring software. He has held multiple roles both in-house with corporations, ranging from startups to global organizations, and has also endured the rigors of billable hours, having completed gigs at PR firms including the top 10 global firm Hill & Knowlton. A veteran of two year-long deployments, Strong has concurrently served in uniform in reserve components of the military for more than 20 years, initially as an enlisted Marine and later as an infantry officer in the Army National Guard. Strong holds a BA in Film and TV production from Worcester State University, an M.A. in Public Communication from American University, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University. He is a PADI-certified Master Scuba Diver and holds a USPA "B" skydiving license.
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