Despite Resistance, Law Firms Invest in Sales Staff: Survey

Photo by John Taggart/Bloomberg

Law firms are warming up slowly to the idea of hiring non-lawyer sales professionals, although many partners remain reluctant, according to a recent report published by the Legal Marketing Association.

The report “Sales Professionals in the Law Firm: Are We Finally Ready?” states that “42 percent of [survey] respondents indicated that they had hired staff with primarily market-facing responsibilities,” citing a survey conducted by the research division of American Lawyer Media.

The idea still faces a good deal of resistance, though, as law firms are accustomed to letting their “rainmaker” lawyers serve as the sales professionals while closely guarding their client relationships, according to the report.

Fifty-three large- to mid-sized law firms participated in the survey, and 31 percent said they expected to hire “non-lawyer client-facing positions” within the next two years. On the other hand, 93 percent of respondents said they provide business development or sales training to their lawyers.

As law firms look to thrive in a consolidating industry and face competition from new kinds of legal services providers, they would do well to embrace the true value of in-house sales professionals, said Greg Fleischmann, global marketing director for Baker & McKenzie and a co-author of the report.

“It’s not a new topic, conceptually, but there’s a bit of a crescendo on the topic in legal right now,” he told Big Law Business.

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.

Good salespeople in the legal profession shouldn’t be there to drive quick, one-time sales or make cold calls, Fleischmann argued. Instead, he said, they can add value for clients at large, multi-practice firms where the IP lawyers, for example, might not be well-versed in the firm’s transactional or other expertise. A client’s needs in any given situation might stretch beyond one practice area, he said.

“If you have business development people dedicated to knowing the full depth and breadth of the firm’s capabilities, that’s absolutely one area where we can drive value to the client,” Fleischmann said.

The survey asked law firms what obstacles the firm faces in hiring a non-lawyer for a client-facing lead generation position. Partner objections and the firm’s general aversion to change ranked highly among the responses, as did a firm’s lack of knowledge of formal sales processes.

Kevin McMurdo, principal at McMurdo Consulting, and Kevin Iredell, research director at Greentarget, co-authored the report with Fleischmann.