While utilization of sales and business development teams has become common at law firms, the level of involvement such teams have in client relationships varies from firm to firm. And how integral they are to the process of retaining and maintaining work is all over the map.

By Patrick Smith, Journalist, American Lawyer

While utilization of sales and business development teams has become common at law firms, the level of involvement such teams have in client relationships varies from firm to firm. And how integral they are to the process of retaining and maintaining work is all over the map.

“I think it is a rising trend,” said Silvia Coulter, principal at consultancy LawVision Group in Boston, about the use of sales and business development personnel.

“But it’s taken awhile in part because the attorneys can’t imagine anyone else having a relationship with their client.”

Therein lies one of the trickier elements to navigate, according to Coulter. But ultimately lawyers benefit from giving up some control, she said. By offloading portions of the client experience, attorneys free themselves of some of the stressors that accompany relationship management—such as the day-to-day communication with the client, anticipating needs, and client-satisfaction activities. Use of sales and business development teams not only frees lawyers to practice law, but it also could have positive effects on job satisfaction and mental health, Coulter said.

Nancey Watson of NL Watson Consulting Inc. agreed with Coulter that business professionals with sales backgrounds tend to have more training in client management, more experience in developing a cadence to attract new clients and broader knowledge about the skill involved in cross-selling into different practice areas. The result is a presumed better experience not only for the client, but for the firm, Watson said.

And sometimes there’s a balance to be struck, Beth Cuzzone, chief business growth officer at midsize Goulston & Storrs, pointed out.

“The attorney is going to put the needs of the client first,” but someone needs to put the needs of the firm first, Cuzzone said. That balance is where the sales professionals can act as a counterweight, she said.

Despite the positives, there is still some resistance from attorneys to meaningfully hand over the client reins to someone else—and it isn’t all about controlling the relationship with the client.

While some firms have an entrenched senior partnership that can bring in plenty of business thanks to reputation, referrals and word of mouth, that isn’t a luxury that all firms enjoy, so control isn’t necessarily the issue. And brands can be powerful but also can’t be relied upon.

“We are not competing on ‘mindshare,’” said Cuzzone, referring to name recognition in the market. “Clients aren’t coming to us because of our brand,” she added—business must be actively developed.

The idea of appearing too “salesy” is sometimes a deterrent for some firms.

“The attorneys recognize this is both a business and a profession,” said Trish Lilley, chief marketing and business development officer at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan in New York. Lilley previously has experience at midsize firms, and also spent a decade at Fox Rothschild, before landing at Stroock. But, she said, the idea of having a “sales culture” may be off-putting for them because they feel it might negatively impact the client.

She said this sort of setup can lead to a structure that doesn’t necessarily see the value in investing resources and headcount in a sales arm within the firm.

‘A better position to innovate’

For firms that do buy in, the approach of making real use of sales personnel can lead to the harnessing of business that perhaps a traditional show-and-tell of practice strategies would miss.

Andrea Maciejewski, chief marketing and engagement officer at Levenfeld Pearlstein, a midsize law firm in Chicago, told a story of her firm winning business that could be traced directly to sales efforts. A wealthy family with multiple business holdings was shopping for some estate planning work and put an RFP out to nine different firms, most of which were larger than Levenfeld.

“We filled out the RFP, but we also made a video version of the answers and posted it on a microsite,” Maciejewski said. This allowed Levenfeld to stick out from the pack as well as introduce various members of their team, she said.

She said by the time they got to the pitch phase of the process, the travel team that went to St. Louis to meet with the client had five professionals on it, all of whom had contributed to the process.

Unlike midsize firms with more constrained budgets, some larger firms have large teams of business development professionals handling a variety of duties to assist in client satisfaction and maximizing firm usage.

For example, Blank Rome CMO Jim Stapleton said his team of close to 30 does a variety of tasks for the Philadelphia-based firm: “market research and industry intelligence (alerts and briefings) analysis; client feedback interviews, wins analysis and postmortems; attorney coaching and training; events ranging from sponsorships to ‘lunch and learns,’ breakfast briefings, webinars and podcasts, CLE classes, and client presentations.”

Regardless of whether midsize firms are using sales and business development professionals in a fully built-out vehicle like what Maciejewski and Cuzzone describe, or are just beginning to utilize them, everyone interviewed agreed that the role that sales and business development professionals play in law firms should continue to grow as clients demand more of their legal counsel.

Maciewjewski believes this change in client behavior provides a lot of opportunity for midsize firms.

“Large firms seem very concerned with what everyone else is doing,” she said. “We are in a better position to innovate.”

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AuthorJohn Murray