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Legal Practice Management

Practice Innovations: Building a Professional Sales Team within Your Law Firm

Silvia Coulter  Partner / LawVision Group

· 10 minute read

Silvia Coulter  Partner / LawVision Group

· 10 minute read

Building a professional sales team is now becoming part of many firms’ reality and can greatly help alleviate the additional pressure on partners to sell

Programs on mindfulness, wellness, and drug and alcohol abuse are all helping partners to better cope with the never-ending demands placed on them within the law practice. Perhaps even more helpful than these often-successful programs are the new professionals joining firms today — sales professionals.

These sale professionals take some of the burden of sales away from the partners, and thus remove a great deal of anxiety and stress related to originating business. And yes, while the word “sales” is still dreaded by some partners, those who have experienced the value that true sales professionals can bring to a law firm, become cheerleaders for this role. There are, however, a few helpful things to know before hiring a sales professional.

      1. Strong leaders know building buy-in is key to helping support change — Since sales peoples’ performance and compensation is generally tied to revenue numbers, it should be easy to justify. Jennifer Keller, president and COO of Baker Donelson, agrees, adding that her firm has worked diligently to build support for the sales role. “Lawyers can be skeptical so, wins and successes build support,” she says. “And while this role will not fully alleviate the partners’ responsibilities, a sales pro will help save time — a partner’s most precious commodity.”
      2. Carefully consider the reporting structure — It is rare to have a professional sales person or team report to a marketing chief. The sales role is one that is highly interactive with partners and clients. Direct report to the managing partner or another key stakeholder partner who is well respected by the firm will be important.
      3. Compensation needs to align with expectations — Many sales professionals are driving $10 million to $20 million of new business each year for their firm. Base salary plus a bonus based on revenue expectations must be factored in. Successful sales professionals are used to doing well, competing at a high-stakes level, and earning compensation equal to some partners.
      4. Hiring the right person is critical — This individual must have a sales background, earned commission, and have strong contacts within his or her network and industry. Someone who has just been internally focused is not the same as someone who has had to meet revenue expectations. Just because someone has good contacts, does not mean they can sell, as we all know. This person must be also collaborative since dealing with the marketing, finance, and intelligence/research teams is a critical part of their role.
      5. Be patient! — It can take up to a year to align everyone’s expectations, for the sales pro to learn about the firm and the firm’s practices and get to know the clients and the partners. After that, great things will happen with the right people in place.

But the firm is only one part of the equation. We wanted to know how clients are receiving sales people from law firms.

Practice Innovations” is a quarterly, online newsletter that examines best practices and innovations in law firm information and knowledge management.

Peter Barr, general counsel at Rack Room Shoes believes law firm sales people add significant value to the relationship. “As a General Counsel and client, the sales/client relationship people often know me, my company, and our proclivities, and can assist in getting to their firm attorneys who are the right fit for our needs and corporate personality. Of course, we also have direct relationships with many attorneys, but the client relationship professionals are part of the team.

Vanja Lane, in-house counsel for a global manufacturing company states: “I am active in ACC [Association of Corporate Counsel] and it’s great to have the salesperson who can point me to the right lawyer in the firm. I can’t always talk to the sales person about the issue and get preliminary advice. The sales people know how to find me lawyers quickly. They are very dependable and know the firm and its services better in most cases than the lawyers know the firm. The lawyers need to focus on their practice and their clients.

In fact, hire someone who already has worked in a business like the businesses they are targeting,” Lane adds. “They know the issues, they know what’s changed.

Chris Javillonar, General Counsel at Permobil, supports the position. “I have gone to law firm sales professionals to ask for the best resource who does X in Y jurisdiction. It saves me time from scouring my contacts to try to locate the experts in certain fields. This relationship is built on trust. I have to trust that the sales professional will steer me in the right direction and be willing to tell me that they cannot help me on that particular matter. I was a partner in a national firm before becoming general counsel. I can’t imagine partners would not find this person of immense assistance. Plus, I’d rather deal with the best partner for the project rather than the partner who markets the best.

Womble Bond Dickinson Partner Melinda Davis Lux knows the value of having a professional sales team. Womble Bond has had a team in place for a number of years now. She discusses the significance of the role: “They generate leads for us and make introductions which is invaluable. Our salespeople are good at connecting the dots so will often serve as a database or central place about what efforts are being made to encourage clients to work with us. Our salespeople are a hub to make sure we are all coordinating. Also, they provide ideas, individual coaching, and how to best approach a sales opportunity.

Engineering, architectural, accounting and consulting firms rely on their sales people to retain and expand business as well as to find new leads for generating new business. Simply put, it can work. Now that this trend has started in law firms, we expect to see a sharp growth curve of sales people joining firms. We asked several people in these positions to provide some advice from their perspective, about what to be mindful of when building a sales team.

Collaboration Orientation“Be collaborative,” says Christian Berger, senior advisor for Strategic Business Development at McGuire Woods. “Usually within a few minutes of us finding a new lead, our research team is able to turn around contact info with email addresess, phone numbers, LinkedIn profiles, relationships that anybody at McGuireWoods may have with anybody at the prospective client company, client yes/no information, and previous collections. Without our research team, our sales team would be operating less efficiently.

Good Team Players Mike Duffy, former E&Y sales executive and now Director of Growth & Client Services at King & Spalding, has some advice for those successful sales people interested in the legal market. “Check your ego at the door,” Duffy says. “There is no room in a law firm for a big sales ego. For a seasoned sales pro coming into a law firm you must be prepared at all times. Law partners are some of the smartest people you’ll ever meet, and they will test you. When you walk into a meeting be well prepared across the topic, be concise, confident, and to the point. Over-prepare, ask good questions. It’s like a sales process — internally and externally. It’s essential to figure out what the lawyers do for a living — e.g., go sit in the due diligence room, watch them plan for a trial. You’ve got to earn credibility and trust with partners.”

Value Adding Focus Catherine Zinn, Chief Client Development Officer at Orrick, and McGuire Woods’ Berger both agree that a sales professional must focus on adding value to the client. In addition to connecting people I’m also part of the client team,” Zinn says. “In some cases, I’m the first call a GC may make. For example, a client who had some time in London trusts me that I would only introduce him to our partners in London who will spend the time wisely.”

Berger adds that “providing value to the client beyond just billing and good outcomes which is extremely important. Sometimes it’s bringing a client a deal and sometimes it’s introducing them to a bunch of new potential employers. It’s key to being successful in this position.”

Zinn and Berger both suggest using the partners’ time well. Both of their firms have a high degree of autonomy and independent judgment. To navigate the organization and get things done well, they have “had to earn [partners’] trust, so they know we won’t waste their time”.

All our sales professionals felt it will be more difficult for firms to compete successfully in the future without strong sales professionals. “It will be harder for them to compete,” Duffy suggests. “We have the time to help clients prepare, we help the partners prepare to win and we know sales strategy. We are here to win. The mutual respect and trust are key.

Adam Severson, Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer at Baker Donelson adds: “This is now an important position for firms to hire. The pedigree of the person, the experience, and the cultural fit with their firm is very important in the future success of their role if they are looking to build a sales team.

“For example, you can have someone who checks all the boxes, is well-connected, and all the attributes the firm seeks, but they need sales experience, pipeline management, working a pipeline, moving a target from one step to the next. Also knowing the industries and being well connected.

“Sales is a long-term game. Let’s say you come to the firm from an engineering firm and you may be a BD superstar, it would be rare for them to ‘ring the cash register’ in the first 6 to 12 months. They need to learn about the firm and the practices. They need to understand what they are selling and who (the personalities) they are selling. Allow them the time to get to know the firm.”

According to the most recent annual Thomson Reuters Marketing Partner Forum Survey, the last four years of data shows a 7% to 12% year-over-year increase in the number of firms hiring sales professionals and focusing more dollars on sales activities than on marketing activities.

There is much to gain for any firm in this competitive environment. Why not have every possible resource available to help retain and grow clients and win new business? Sales people will be some of the more valuable resources the firm will hire.

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