Who Will Sell a Law Firm’s Services?

Editor’s Note: The author is the former editor in chief of The American Lawyer, is a partner at a law firm consulting group.

By Aric Press, PP&C Consulting 

Is it time for law firms to deploy sales teams? Once this was a question only for bored legal ethicists and lawyers waking from Mametesque fever dreams.

No more.

Now with PwC and its vast sales force opening a law office in Washington, large clients appointing legal operations chiefs, and a ferocious market segmentation splintering the law firm landscape, the question of how law firms relate and appeal to their clients has once again moved to the top of Executive Committee agendas. And sales, at least at some law firms, has become a useful term to trigger debates about the future of client relationships and who controls them.

Those were some of the key discussion points at the latest session of the Somerville Forum, a thrice-yearly meeting of clients, partners, and administrators organized by PP&C Consulting. Each forum focuses on a single business-of-law issue and features experts from outside the law firm world. This session included talks by senior sales executives at Ernst & Young and Pricewaterhouse Coopers, as well as a panel of marketing directors from law firms. The meeting was conducted under Chatham House rules—no statements directly attributed to participants—to promote candid exchanges.

The daylong discussions made clear that an effective sales process tends to be a long-term effort and one that in concept at least is not entirely foreign to the ways in which law firms operate. At a professional services organization, sales executives don’t hand out coupons or offer just-for-you-30%-off midnight specials. Instead they try to broaden their contacts within a client’s organization and deepen their understanding of the business issues the client faces. To put it differently, they’re doing what a talented law firm rainmaker or relationship partner is supposed to be doing, if only they had the time.

Independent sales teams remain rare within law firms. By now everyone has heard about Womble Carlyle’s efforts to build a sustained sales force. But less attention has focused on the firms that have embraced a kindred notion, adding Client Relationship Executives (CREs) to their existing client teams. The CREs may or may not be lawyers. And they aren’t sales people. They are relationship builders, seeking leads and teeing-up business. In theory at least they work closely with the law firm’s relationship partners. Sometimes, though, they maneuver around resisting partners, trying to create opportunities for their lawyers to harvest.

Is there a natural tension between the partners and the CREs? Yes.

And the best way to resolve those tensions is? Develop new business.

While the big accounting firms now use non-partner, non-accountant sales executives, not so long ago they suffered through many of the same debates that have roiled law firms. The arguments are familiar:

• Partners saw the very idea of sales as unprofessional, even smarmy.
• Through their audit work, the accountants earned the trust of their clients who would “always” come back for more.
• Salesmen interfered with the sacrosanct partner-client relationships that had been carefully developed over time.

Those attitudes changed after the Big 4/5 spun off their consulting groups. When they left, the consultants took their existing sales teams with them and the remaining auditors had to build their own. There was some cultural resistance but it proved futile in the face of the proverbial hard-charging sales executives recruited from corporate America. The firms developed new compensation plans. And the Big 4’s partners learned about the pleasures of leveraging contacts and filling pipelines. “We had to change the partnership culture. It was just different and eye-opening,” said one Big 4 veteran. “The question wasn’t: Who was going to deliver the work? With the new sales people, the question was: Who can I call today?”

This only sounds easy. Selling professional services is not simply a matter of reaping the benefits of non-stop entertainment. Tables at Le Bernardin or a box at Wrigley Field have their place. But for the most part clients aren’t looking for a new best friend or a free night out. They want to buy answers to their problems. “We try not to meet to meet,” said one Big 4 sales executive. “Our meetings are less about social interaction and more about the substance of what our firm has to say. We’re trying not to be technicians. We want to be business advisors.”

My bet is that law firms will continue to resist establishing full sales teams. They are expensive and by all accounts culturally challenging. But if they won’t hire sales executives, the ablest firms will embrace the lessons of selling professional services. They are not acts of magic: Understand your clients and their pressure points; persist in your pursuit, ask for business, and don’t faint in the face of the inevitable rejections. This is what the times and the market demand. Firms can either follow that path—or admit that sales are too important to be left to their partners.