Warming Up to the ‘S’ Word
Sales Professionals Gain Acceptance as They Try to Make Rain for Law Firms
Posted Jan 1, 2004 12:27 AM CST
By Terry Carter
Remember all the griping when some partners in your law firm thought it unseemly to market legal services as if they were widgets? Remember what they had to say about advertising?
Well, get ready for the birth of a salesman in your law firm. There may not be many of them yet, but law firms are starting to bring in high-level salespeople, including nonlawyers, to go out and bring back paying work for the lawyers.
Marketing with its branding, brochures and advertising still seems quite new to many law firms, though it’s been around more than a decade. But it has morphed to include business development. The focus there is on one client at a time, from cross-selling to research. That includes going deep into the backgrounds of companies and their executives, as well as their relationships with other law firms involved in request-for-proposal beauty contests.
That evolution from marketing to business development might become a blur now that sales executives are coming in fast on the heels of business developers. The first law firm sales director started two years ago with the now 470-lawyer, North Carolina-based Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. Steven Bell, who had 15 years’ experience in sales of professional services for accounting firms, has a title that might be softened by other law firms as they try it out: director of sales.
Bell is based in the Washington, D.C., area, where the firm has been growing business recently, and has two regional sales directors working for him in North Carolina and Atlanta. He quickly acquired a cachet inside the firm by taking its lawyers to meet old clients from his accounting firm days, and getting new work.
When word got around about a salesman in a law firm, managing partner Pressly Millen began fielding the inevitable inquiries. He has been contacted by nearly a dozen lawyers at other firms somewhat like his, an old-line business law firm, and chatted up by others at various business and social gatherings.
“None of them have been at all critical of the concept, at least not to my face, but many told me that for various reasons it wouldn’t work in their firms,” says Millen. “Even if they like it themselves, they say they don’t think they could do it.”
Millen is driving back from a meeting with a client, the CEO of a $5 billion corporation. He had taken along with him three other lawyers and a salesman.
“When I introduced everybody all around and said, ‘This is our sales director,’ the CEO didn’t bat an eyelash,” Millen says. “A lot of lawyers are afraid that if you introduce a salesperson at a client meeting, the trapdoor will open and you fall into a fiery pit. It doesn’t happen. These guys have sales directors of their own.”
There are ethical minefields for direct solicitations by nonlawyers selling legal services. Most often, salespeople--especially nonlawyers--accompany lawyers to meetings with clients and potential clients.
The one jurisdiction where it’s easiest, Washington, D.C., even allows fee splitting with nonlawyers and solo visits by salespeople. The fee splitting is an important option in a line of work where incentive is paramount.
Washington, D.C.’s Shaw Pittman has a nonlawyer as its chief sales and marketing director, José E.V. Cunningham, who can get commissions on some of his work but salary and bonuses for the rest, depending on jurisdiction.
Cunningham, who has a purely sales background, oversees one sales executive and three business development managers. The firm’s general counsel monitors him closely, Cunningham says, especially for conflicts, client confidentiality and direct solicitations. For example, if Cun- ningham sends a letter to a lawyer in California to drum up business, the front of the envelope must bear the word “solicitation” in red ink and in a particular font.
Cunningham started with the firm’s information technology group, which includes consultants. His success at bringing in business prompted the firm to ask him to expand his work firmwide. He did so knowing that some lawyers would be reluctant to use his services.
“The whole firm doesn’t have to buy into it,” says Cunningham. “Let’s find those attorneys who aren’t threatened and are willing to embrace it. They’ll see the advantage of us helping not only with their individual business goals but also with a formal business plan. The others will start falling into line.”
Law firm marketers are watching all this and wondering where it will go. Last June, Cunningham told a gathering of marketers that those in sales have different DNA than marketers.
Two Boston law firm marketers, both with strong sales backgrounds, believe sales is the way of the future. For now, though, their interest is business development, which means research and coaching lawyers about sales, but not doing it directly themselves.
Beth Cuzzone and Catherine MacDonagh launched Legal Sales and Service Organization this past summer to help those who want to reach beyond marketing and into business development, especially solo and small-firm practitioners who don’t have the resources to hire specialists. The group’s Web site is www.legalsales.org.
“I think we’ll see more lawyers accompanied by sales teams, working in tandem, walking into prospective clients’ offices,” says Cuzzone. “There are ethical problems in selling legal services if you’re not a lawyer, but I think it’s going to get there as these various roles evolve.”
Accountants had the same concerns about ethics and image in the mid-1980s as nonaccountants joined their firms to sell professional services. Now, the Big Four accounting firms have sales forces in the hundreds.
“The CPAs were afraid the word ‘sales’ would reflect badly on them as professionals,” says Bell. “They learned over time that it’s a good way to generate business, and we’re at the beginning of that with law firms.”
The move to sales looks like just another part of a paradigm shift already under way in law firms in recent years, and more than just an extension of marketing. Many firms have been bringing in nonlawyer professionals for management and administrative positions, and sales professionals build on that framework.
Many lawyers went to law school because they didn’t want to be managers and administrators. And many of them didn’t want to be in sales. But some of them understand the new message.
“If you don’t bring in professionals to help increase the share of business you have with a client, you could potentially lose the business you already have with them,” says Cunningham. “But there’s a lot of work to be done internally, in the law firm culture, before you can be successful externally