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Sales Professionals Find New Opportunities in the Legal Industry

Research over the past four years is showing a slow-moving upward trend with law firms hiring professional sales people. This trend spans all sizes of firms from small to global. The backgrounds of these professionals varies, but primarily they come to firms from a solid background of success in the sales world, many having worked against assigned quotas and on partial commission. While some firms’ leaders believe no one can do this job except a partner, the firms taking the lead on hiring these professionals are realizing the benefits. Most of the time these professionals are very successful since they are generating revenue and know how to do this well. Some may earn more than partners as is the case in a few firms and that may cause some uneasiness among the partner ranks. They key is to help qualified sales professionals to be successful at your firm.

Mike Duffy, Director of Growth & Client Services, King & Spalding’s sales expert add, “I think it will be harder to compete if you don’t bring a business lens. At the end of the day, at least hire a senior sales professional to help go and coach partners to win business. A sales professional can help to create a meeting environment where the other people in the room feel like it’s different, they are getting value from the meeting--They can walk away and have three things they had not thought of. How do you dig your well before you are thirsty? Anticipating clients’ needs and taking a proactive approach is the best sales approach a firm can take. We did four DOJ investigations in the last four years. We prepare clients before the DOJ knocks on the door.”

Is your firm sales ready?

It is important to distinguish between a sales person and a business development person. Often the titles are interchanged. A sales person is someone who is client facing and out in the “field” meeting new contacts and developing contacts for the firm. Their goal, and what is behind their motivation, is to win and drive new business and therefore new revenue. They generally measure themselves in terms of revenue volume they have produced or helped to produce. A business development professional is someone who helps partners with business generation and is more internally focused on business development coaching and assisting with revenue development. It’s a fine line between both positions. To keep it simple, sales people focus mostly externally and BD people focus mostly internally. Last, marketing professionals oversee all the support areas to sales. These include client relationship management (“CRM”) databases, web sites, press relations and other media and marketing communications, marketing technology, and other important services to support client retention, client acquisition, and client growth activities.

There are some benefits and potential obstacles to hiring sales pros. We believe the benefits outweigh the obstacles. Namely:


  • Knows how to sell. A solid sales track record; preferably an individual who worked on a base plus commission (in a law firm it would be base plus bonus based on specific revenue targets).

  • An individual who is not afraid of a multi-million-dollar revenue target that includes client expansion and new client development.

  • Extrovert who likes networking; Extraordinarily focused on hitting revenue targets and is self-motivated to “win.”

  • Does not get caught up in the details of the practices; knows when to bring in an expert.

  • Has the time to stay connected to firm clients and relationships during “down/no matters” periods.

  • Brings industry experience to the firm. Specialization and industry knowledge, coupled with sales skills far outweighs law firm experience—they can learn about the firm quickly.

  • Clients like dealing with sales people and prefer their lawyers to focus on the legal work.

Potential obstacles to success in law firms:

  • Successful sales professionals often need recognition of their success which doesn’t come easily in a law firm environment—check to make sure the individual you are hiring understands this and is self-motivated.

  • May not understand the nuances of the legal practices—often seen as a disadvantage by firm partners more so than by firm clients and prospects. We don’t see this as a such a disadvantage since it is critical to know sales first, target industry second, and practice/services third. All skills and areas of practice are critical to have by month 6 at a firm.

  • Firm partners may have difficulty letting go of client relationships for selling purposes to anyone never mind someone who does not have a JD.

  • Sales people are fairly independent. It is unlikely they will report to anyone but a senior leader in the firm who is highly respected. Generally speaking, a successful sales person is highly unlikely to report to a marketing officer or director and last long term unless that officer or director has had direct sales experience and understands how to manage a sales team, or is an amazing manager of people. Like lawyers, salespeople tend not to do well under someone who is trying to “manage” them. Give them their goals and they will be off and running with the partners.

  • Partners think they can “outsource” the sales responsibility to the sales team. This is not the case by any means. Partners are a key part of closing new work when an opportunity arises, and they need to stay engaged in the process.

Adam Severson, Chief Business Development Officer at Baker Donelson, offers some insights on his role and on making this position successful: “I work with lawyers to help guide their approach to individual client opportunities. Having been on 100s of client meetings, it's important to tailor your approach to a given client. I believe one size fits one when it comes to client relationships. I help them see their client visits on a means to solidify their relationships and learn more about their company, its goals and challenges. Inevitably something will present itself where we can add more value.

Additionally, I conduct pitch workshops that focus on various pitch scenarios using inquisitive selling; a question-based approach to understand needs. This prioritizes the pitch to client needs versus what we assume or think they need.

I specifically aim to be helpful and resourceful to my client contacts and that can mean a number of different things including industry survey data, case studies on legal operations, compensation benchmark reports, recruiters, and hopefully more services from my firm. One primary goal of nearly every general counsel is to reduce their outside legal spend. We’ve successfully partnered with clients to help them achieve this goal through the use of legal project management tools, implementation of AI tools for M&A due diligence, and a host of alternative fee options. If you approach clients by trying to be helpful, they see you as a representative and champion of the firm working to help them accomplish their goals.”

It is key to build support at the firm so the sales professionals can not only do their job, but also be recognized as a key “partner” with the partners to develop and grow client relationships. Without the support of top leadership and key stakeholders, the sales professional may be left on his/her own to build credibility. In turn, the firm loses valuable time in the client acquisition process.

Jennifer Keller, president and COO of Baker Donelson, agrees, adding that her firm has worked diligently to build support for the sales role. “Lawyers can be skeptical so wins and successes build support.” Keller notes that “creating a role for a sales and business development professional has been extremely valuable for the firm in at least two ways: First, the sales leader has fostered relationships by promoting the firm’s breadth of resources; and second, he has been an integral part of the teams pitching business – leading those teams, preparing attorneys for client meetings, challenging the involved attorneys on issues that are common to clients and helping to actually drive deals to closure.”

McGuire Woods’ Senior Advisor, Strategic Business Development, Christian Berger provides the following added insight: “The point is to provide value to the client beyond just billing and good outcomes (which are extremely important). But the law firms that have sales people who are good salespeople are able to provide value above and beyond doing good work. It’s real value. e.g., my top client, I brought them a proprietary deal. How many firms are introducing a carve out from a public company that actually closes.

Similarly, the prospective client confides in you that they are sick of their job. Now instead of me having to find a deal for them, I can introduce them to a bunch of new potential employers. The real value of a sales program at a law firm is client care—client retention. It’s extremely difficult since every prospect has relations with a law firm already so my focus is to take some of that burden off the partners and spend time developing these strong relationships with clients and the partners.”

One AmLaw 50 partner provided his input: “When we first hired our sales guy, most of the partners were aghast. But then he started winning new business and helping them win new business and all of a sudden everyone wanted a piece of him. Working with a real sales professional is exciting. Lawyers are quick learners and some of us who team up with these sales pros realize the nuances of selling and learn some new methods for staying focused on the opportunity from the client perspective. It’s really helpful. Our firm is winning new business all the time and I have to admit our sales pros are a big part of those wins.”

A question that often arises, should the sales professional have a J.D.? In our opinion, definitely not necessary. Sales experience is the number 1 criterion. Having a JD may give some lawyers comfort but a JD doesn’t guarantee sales experience nor does it guarantee knowledge about industry or all the practices. A sales person who has a JD is a fit, but a JD who wants to be a sales person may not always be the right model, and clients don’t care; they want someone who will pay attention to their account.


About the Author

Silvia L. Coulter is a co-founding Principal of LawVision Group. A sought-after speaker and recognized leader in law firm business strategy, Silvia assists firms with strategic business planning, key client retention and growth strategies, client service strategies, and leadership and organizational culture. She is an Adjunct Faculty member at George Washington University where she teaches in the Masters in Law Firm Management program. Silvia is the co-author of The Woman Lawyer’s Rainmaking Game, published by West, and co-author of Rainmaking Advantage, and From Key Clients to Strategic Accounts, both due out in Fall 2019. She is a co-founder and active board member of the Legal Sales and Service Organization. In 2001 she was elected President of the Legal Marketing Association and was elected to the Legal Marketing Association Hall of Fame in 2010 and is an elected Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management

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