Law firms should embrace sales approach

Existing relationships between lawyers and their most profitable clients can be one of the best ways of bringing new business to a law firm — even if law firms may view sales as a “dirty word,” said business development executives at major Canadian firms.

Law firms should embrace sales approach
(left to right) Debbie Stojanovic, Nicolas Rubbo, Bryan Frantz and Heather Suttie spoke on a panel March 19 at an event in Toronto hosted by the Legal Marketing Association Eastern Canada Region.

Existing relationships between lawyers and their most profitable clients can be one of the best ways of bringing new business to a law firm — even if law firms may view sales as a “dirty word,” said business development executives at major Canadian firms.

“If you’re asking a client about a problem they have, and you’re making a reference to someone that can help them with that, that’s sales. I think there are a lot of sales that go on every day in a law firm,” said Bryan Frantz, client programs director at Norton Rose Fulbright Canada LLP, who spoke on a panel at a March 19 event in Toronto hosted by the Legal Marketing Association Eastern Canada Region. “It’s the dirty word that no one wants to talk about. You can call it business development; you can call it any number of things. To me, it’s a matter of having a relatively consistent strategy about how you’re doing that.”

While it can be tough to give every team the resources they want on a limited budget, it's less expensive to approach sales by using existing client work as a referral source, said Frantz. It’s also easier to get a larger share of existing clients than a new client because it reduces the chances of a business or legal conflict, said Nicolas Rubbo, senior national director of clients, markets and strategic planning at McCarthy Tétrault LLP.

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“Sales is really establishing one on one and nurturing that to lead to business. I think lawyers do that every day. I don’t think they do it in a systematic approach. That’s our job — to leverage the successful ones and communicate that to the firm,” Rubbo said.

Debbie Stojanovic, director of business development at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, said sales isn’t in everyone’s DNA. But some of the most successful campaigns she has seen focus on the top 10 or 15 clients at the firm, Stojanovic said.

“I certainly don’t coach my partners to be salespeople or even business developers,” Stojanovic said. “Essentially, my approach is, ‘I want to talk to you about your key clients — which ones you want to focus on. Let’s focus on the top five this year and really make a difference in terms of what their needs are.’ At the end of the day, all companies and all individuals are much more sophisticated  . . . They know when they are being sold to.”

Heather Suttie, who does legal marketing and business development at Heather Suttie & Associates, said she doesn’t think there will be real innovation in the legal industry until there are salespeople in law firms.

“That takes the pressure off lawyers; they can actually do legal work and do great legal work that’s brought in by salespeople. That’s the contrarian view,” said Suttie. “Yet, there’s a real expectation that lawyers need to bring in revenue. It’s a real challenge.”

Frantz said it’s important for business development teams to cater to the different strengths of the firm’s lawyers; otherwise, a business development strategy could get “crushed” by forcing people to do something with which they aren’t comfortable or that’s not who they are.

“Everyone has their different ways of doing things. I’ve seen lawyers who are great minders of relationships and they have built a huge practice because they are so good at it and they’re always thinking about it,” said Frantz.

“Very often, they do it altruistically because they just like people. You want to approach that person differently than someone who says, ‘I want to change the world’ or ‘I’m a champion for getting this place going’ or ‘We aren’t doing enough of X,Y and Z.’ Those are the people you focus on opportunities out there that you haven’t done before. You have to have a quiver of tactics and tools that allow those people to be successful in their efforts . . . based on different behaviours and people.”

Technology has been one way to aid sales in firms such as McCarthy Tétrault, which has developed Customer Relationship Management software that’s based on products such as Salesforce but specific to the firm’s needs, said Rubbo.

Moving in that direction makes sense in an age where iPhones and Samsung phones are the conduits for sharing information in the industry, Frantz said.

Rubbo said the process of implementing the software — which included an executive sponsor, a steering committee and a pilot — showed the importance of the existing culture in the firm. He said the lawyers in the pilot showed the CRM team that they were using the sales technology in unexpected ways.

“We had a ‘less is more’ at the beginning of really focusing on the things we thought were valuable for partners, knowing we would add more features later,” said Rubbo. “We had developed great processes for all our business planning, our partner planning, our industry planning — all in Word — but the process was tight. To integrate into the new CRM was quite simple because the planning cycle was very well defined, the lawyers knew about it, it wasn’t a real change in culture. We were just moving it to a platform that was a lot easier to look at, to integrate and to collaborate.”

Events can drive business if lawyers are equipped with a list of targets in actually pursuing a lead at an event, as opposed to chit-chat, said Rubbo.

“Marry up each client with one or two people they can talk to. Its awkward to be at an art gallery and say, ‘Can we have your labour employment work?’” said Frantz.

Nonetheless, Stojanovic said she keeps the focus on the clients.

 “Things are changing. The accounting and consulting firms are eating our lunch. How do we combat that? How I’ve approached it is focusing on the high-return investments. Every day we can be doing golf sponsorships and buying tables at fundraisers, but the best thing is to focus on your key clients,” said Stojanovic.

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