In 2019, Legal Mosaic’s Mark A. Cohen predicted that the “next recession will be a reckoning for most large law firms, especially those that have kicked the existential ‘who are we?’ can down the road … They continue to pursue a short-term strategy focused on preserving Profits Per Partner at all costs and have yet to pay the price for it.”
But the piper is demanding payment now. For more than a decade, alternative service providers (ALSPs) have been gradually encroaching on law firms’ client base. The Covid-19 recession will accelerate this trend as clients look to cut costs. For anything other than the exceptional “bet the company” cases, clients will inevitably be looking to find the cheapest providers, consequently shifting more work from firms to more cost effective ALSPs.
ALSPs rely on sales teams who craft a framework for their clients to evaluate their services. Their framework favors the ALSP’s services and pricing model—making the ALSP’s appear as the most attractive choice.
In contrast, most law firms lack the in-house expertise to establish a market-differentiating message and create a favorable framework for clients to evaluate their products. Many fail to proactively inform clients of new product offerings, innovative services, or the benefits of a traditional firm over an alternative provider. These firms will find themselves the victim of their clients’ budget cuts.
But those firms prepared to set the terms for how clients select the winning pitch will tap into an opportunity for outsized returns. Reaping these potential rewards will require an innovative, well-designed, and fully-supported sales strategy. In short, firms will have to go on the offensive with a plan designed to enable sales, either by standing up sales teams or expanding the scope of the business development team’s responsibilities.
Sales Is a Dirty Word in the Legal Industry
Many in the legal industry recoil at the concept of sales. These naysayers see “sales” as an undignified (and unnecessary) middleman between the partner and the client. Additional factors contribute to a negative perception of legal sales: financial near-termism, unwillingness on the part of partners to relinquish any level of control over contact with potential and current clients (despite the inability of most attorneys to make “sales” due to a lack of sales expertise), and the sense that law firms are different from the industries that rely on sales. In this latter regard, law firms see themselves as set apart by their ethical requirements and the uniqueness of their product.
These perceptions about the mis-fit between sales and law derive largely from a lack of understanding about what business to business (B2B) sales teams in elite industries do and how they work. The truth is, lessons learned from B2B sales can be adopted and adapted to fit the legal industry. The firms that succeed in learning these lessons will be able to accelerate coming out of the economic downturn.
A handful of firms have already identified and embraced these lessons. These firms have drawn from the “sales enablement” model. This model creates the conditions necessary to sell efficiently and effectively.
One Am Law 50 firm takes the classic “sales” model, a gifted, well connected sales person to pair prospective clients and firm attorneys. Another uses its sales team as key client managers, building deeper relationships with top clients, flagging their key initiatives and coaching attorneys through the sales process to clients.
Still another has a well-established sales team that serves as a hub for new work from existing or new clients. Another has an experienced in-house sales expert who runs attorney trainings and coaches attorneys for specific deals.
Sales Innovations Benefit Legal Environment
The broader B2B sales profession has many other innovations that export well to the law firm environment, including professional sales appointment setters, techniques to better explain the benefits of firm services, and tools to simplify the complexity clients experience when buying services. The key is to have in-house experts working as sales coaches, sales trainers, client managers, appointment setters, CRM administrators, RFP desk supervisors or any number of unique hybrids specific to a firm’s particular needs.
Instead of adopting these approaches, most law firms rely exclusively on a revenue function commonly referred to as “legal marketing” or “business development” (BD). Most BD teams are well-qualified and bring tremendous value to their firms. But they typically focus on marketing, and thus lack the sales expertise of a B2B sales team. Additionally, most are not supported by a broader sales enablement effort that allows the team to directly engage with existing or potential firm clients.
The legal industry has come to realize that it lags other industries in go-to-market sophistication, but is still hesitant to adopt and adapt lessons learned from the role of sales in other B2B industries. With so many well-known disruptors in the legal market, this economic crisis cries out for a change in how law firms approach and engage their clients.
As the aftermath of the Great Recession demonstrates, corporate buying patterns will change. The firms that come out on top will be the ones who bring sales expertise in-house to set the standard for how legal services are evaluated and how winning pitches are chosen. In other words, the winners will be the ones who set the terms of success.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
David B. Hirsch is a sales consultant with 20 years of experience in leading B2B sales teams targeting sophisticated clients in elite industries.