An Inside View on Legal Sales: The Client-Facing BD Role in Law Firms [Q&A]

JD Supra Perspectives

“ through the finish line, not to the finish line.”

In anticipation of their upcoming legal sales discussion/forum at LMA Tech West (October 22 in San Francisco), we asked Dawn Sheiker, Jenna Schiappacasse, Mike Mellor, and John Witts to answer a broad range of questions on the emerging, client-facing business development role within law firms.

Offering advice and insights for colleagues who either want to transition into client-facing roles or are already well on their way, Dawn, Jenna, Mike, and John cover a lot of ground in their answers. From working with attorneys to closing deals, from communicating value to deploying the right technology, here's what the dynamic team had to say:

[Join us in San Francisco at LMA Tech West for the interactive forum discussion: Stacking up for Sales: Optimizing Law Firm MarTech to Support Emerging, Client-Facing BD Roles]

Q: Do you keep the lawyers involved in the prospecting process, or only bring them into the fold once the relationship has been solidified? Why or why not?

Jenna Schiappacasse: It’s heavily dependent on the practice area. In certain industries, I have my own network established and spend a lot of time researching where opportunities lie to expand that part of the business, using our internal competitive intelligence to make sure we aren’t duplicating efforts and exhibit a cohesive pipeline. In other areas, I work closely with the attorneys to help foster and maintain relationships that they have established which will benefit from my input.

Dawn Sheiker: Yes, I’m the first business developer to be hired by Morris James, so I have regular conversations with firm management and the partnership to ensure that my business development efforts are focused in the direction that we want to take the firm.

Q: Are you actually closing deals?

Mike Mellor: Yes, I am. I love the rush; but there is a great sense of ownership that comes with it because I feel responsible and am still navigating the balance of staying involved to show that I care and getting out of the way to let the relationship organically transition.’s important for the client to know and hire the lawyers who will be doing the work for them.

Dawn: Not without a lawyer at the helm. I focus my efforts on developing relationships and generating warm leads to bring back to my partners. I am an active participant in the closing pitch, but I think it’s important for the client to know and hire the lawyers who will be doing the work for them.

Q: What do you do when you introduce a warm lead to an attorney, and they drop the ball? How can you help prevent, or repair the damage from, a deal that didn’t close?

Jenna: Besides scream? Kidding. It is always a lesson learned when this happens; it takes time to examine where the error was made, and if it was in the transition, the impetus is on me to make sure that handoff isn’t mismanaged again.

The key is in consistent and transparent communications...

If it is later in the process, a difficult conversation must be had with the attorney to find out what could have been done differently, and how to avoid it in the future. The key is in consistent and transparent communications, and as my coaches used to tell me, “run through the finish line, not to the finish line.” There is more upkeep to be done in engaging a client that extends beyond the executed engagement letter.

Making sure to onboard a new client with care, personalization and temperature checks begets a lasting and loyal relationship with the firm.

Dawn: This is the question that I am most frequently asked by colleagues in legal marketing. Before serving in a client facing role, it was the number one question that I was asked by partners when I approached them with plans for introducing their partners to their clients. The answer is twofold.

...stay involved in the close as well as the delivery of service to the client

First, know your partners, their business, and their approach to matter management and client service so that you can make solid, well-founded introductions. Second, stay involved in the close as well as the delivery of service to the client to ensure that the client’s needs are met.

Q: How do I get started transitioning to a client-facing role, either within my firm or in making the leap to a new one?

Mike: I think the key is to work with coalitions of the willing; you've got to earn that seat at the table by showing a strategic process and the confidence and ability to swim upstream. You’re representing these partners, and they take that very seriously.

For me, it was a lot of earning trust to make sure my regular marketing, coaching and planning trains were running on time - and, even now, if those results waver, I’d be pulled off the front line. I don’t want to say it’s a reward, but it’s about demonstrating that you’ve got the rest under control. Even so, there are still partners who can’t wrap their heads around it - but that’s fine, because I have practice heads and folks on the EC who love that I am setting up meetings and connecting dots for them. After all, they are the ones who benefit most. Starting small was what worked for me.

Start small and work with eager partners.

Dawn: Build yourself into the business development strategy. Choose a lawyer or practice group to focus on and put yourself on the sales team for that effort to build. At a firm event, seek out a client to introduce to another partner at the firm and tee up a solid conversation for them. Identify an industry event that is ripe for lead generation, attend it and bring back introductions to the firm. Start small and work with eager partners.

Q: How are you getting buy-in at your firm for your role’s value?

Mike: Again, it’s around working with individual attorneys - it started with some referral projects where I reached out to folks in our networks, then moved to me reaching out to add value within my own networks, then moved to attending some client pitches and conferences and the like with select partners. It’s a chicken egg scenario (like most things in legal marketing) with needing to add value and show you can do it before actually getting the green light- so small wins and, as importantly, communicating those through the right channels is mission critical in pivoting your role.

Don’t wait around for people to notice that you are doing a good job - instead, make it impossible for them to ignore it.

Jenna: I have been at my firm for a long time, so I know our attorneys very well, which helps achieve buy-in; however, there are always those who are remiss to accept change and a new role like this one. Making sure to stay “close to the money” and illustrate both value added by efficiency (in putting some of the prospecting time on my nonbillable shoulders while the attorneys can bill more time) as well as revenue-influenced and anecdotal feedback from clients has been the most successful way I’ve gotten support and respect at my firm. Don’t wait around for people to notice that you are doing a good job - instead, make it impossible for them to ignore it.

Q: How can the small and growing group of client-facing legal marketing people help each other?

Mike: I have worked with some of my friends (who happen to be speaking with me on this topic!) to identify areas of strength and set up trusted referral networks - it’s obviously helpful when your referral sources sit in different geographies and specialize in different types of law.

For example, Dawn’s firm and mine have a great relationship where we help to steer each other work on the bankruptcy side. They only practice Delaware law, so there’s a significant opportunity there without any type of competition. We are also looking to identify other ways outside of that practice area where our NY, CA and FL folks are working with them on some DE-based issues and matters. It’s important to be clear and transparent because this world is all about relationships and building trust to create win-wins.

What’s even more telling are the times that we tried to make collaborations happen and they didn’t work- we respect that sometimes we are going after the same prom date and let things happen. By all measures, it works well for Pryor Cashman and Morris James to date.

Dawn: I’m in a unique position in that my firm’s niche practice in Delaware allows me to utilize my legal marketing network to collaborate on business development efforts like Mike mentioned. I’m having conversations with business developers all over the country about the ways that we can work together, so I’m in a fortunate position. That said, it’s important that all of us client-facing business developers stay in touch and discuss the ways in which we define this emerging niche of legal marketing. I’ve connected with a number of client-facing business developers via LinkedIn; most recently, one of the only execs in The Netherlands!

Q: What martech tools are you using to support your prospecting and client development efforts, and why? What is and is not working?

Mike: Obviously your CRM, financial reports, and research tools such as Bloomberg Law or MonitorSuite to help to understand the landscape, what firms you’re up against and the like.

I am also a huge fan of LinkedIn and its Sales Navigator tool to build lead and account lists for different areas. One way I keep adding value is to follow top clients and sources and if nothing else, feed that information to the relevant attorneys. Granted it’s easier in a mid-size or small firm but it shows that you are connecting dots and are in the know with client and industry issues which helps you to earn that coveted seat.

Jenna: I rely heavily on Practice Pipeline to track my prospects and key clients, Sales Navigator to stay on top of movement and to help find inroads to prospects I am targeting, JDSupra to gain knowledge to speak intelligibly to our clients’ industry trends and to utilize data to pitch the right type of work to the industry that is most interested in it. I’m hoping in the near future we will have a sophisticated solution to knowledge management, but for now, we use a homegrown solution as a small firm.

Dawn: Given my niche market, I rely on Lex Machina a lot. I’m able to drill into the clients and law firms that are hiring in Delaware.

John Witts: CRM and ERM solutions are likely highest on the list, as they allow us to see existing relationships with clients and prospects, or perhaps more importantly where we’re missing key relationships. They also provide insight into how we’re currently marketing to these contacts, what materials we’ve sent via email marketing, what events they’ve attended, etc.

To the extent we’re able, we also try to build in third-party data sources so that colleagues have a single view with relevant data specific to their needs. That said, the data integration piece likely causes the most headaches.

Q: What martech tools do you wish you had access to, or wish existed?

Mike: I think Foundation would be really helpful for internal cross-selling. Having access to their white space reports would be a key tool for me, but there's no perfect solution for all of this as of yet. Something that could aggregate that client view they have with a target/prospect view - perhaps that fed in from both CRM and MonitorSuite and got down to the individual level. For example, what percentage of our work comes from what people on the client-side? Should we be getting stickier with certain clients because all of the work comes from one subdivision of the company? What happens if a rainmaker retires suddenly or our single client decision-maker retires? If we were to consider a way into another firm that worked in an industry, what other firms possess those same characteristics and do we know anyone at those firms in our CRM?

I’d love the answers to those types of questions at my fingertips for sure - and they could be tracked much more effectively through AI or a dedicated data steward on the front end. I’d also love a more trusty industry research tool - BLAW and MonitorSuite are great and do different things though they aren’t perfect - if they were combined and ironclad and had some predictive capabilities that would be amazing.

Jenna: I wish a tool existed that allowed each of the disparate tools that exist to interface seamlessly with one another, and with a simple mobile interface.

For example, if I meet someone in the market who has an issue that I think we can handle and duck out quickly to “run to the restroom,” what I am probably actually doing is: running a high level conflicts check; looking to see what their LinkedIn profile can tell me about them and about their company; finding out who my common contacts are within LI and our CRM system; taking note of what the typical engagement of that sort runs us and how profitable it would be to engage the prospect; combing KM to find out what examples of similar work we have done to redact and reference to show our experience; checking on the capacity of the attorney I think would be most compatible with that person is at the moment; searching for trends or pertinent talking points within their industry to throw into the subsequent conversation; seeking to find out who is doing their work currently and whether or not we have a competitive edge… and lots more.

If there were an easy way to have these tools speak to one another so the information could be found in a few moments, it would be worth its weight in gold.

John: I think Mike and Jenna hit on a key requirement that many, myself included, struggle with - a single touch point to get a complete view of a client or opportunity.

Within a legal marketing department, there’s often many resources in a marketing technology stack but they don’t often integrate completely or efficiently with one another. And that doesn’t even take into account data required of systems from other administrative departments, e.g. finance, conflicts, HR. Establishing a single resource that can quickly and easily give these roles a means to slice and dice data on the go is the goal, I think.

Q: What is your thought process when courting a prospect? How does it differ from the process your attorneys tend to use?

Mike: I ask myself: how do we add value throughout the courting (and engagement) cycle and show these folks that working with us is different? What are the types of things that would resonate and how do we leverage our industry expertise and scale it in a way that shows we are different? How do we give and differentiate? These folks are too busy for free lunches - they want something that shifts their thinking and makes them wise about the forests that they live in.

...I am in tune with all of the lines of service the firm offers and know the capacity of my attorneys

Dawn: The winning approach to law firm business development centers on understanding the client’s business inside and out and articulating ways that your firm can help the client achieve their business goals and objectives. The advantage that I have over attorneys is that I am in tune with all of the lines of service the firm offers and know the capacity of my attorneys, so I am well-positioned to advocate for them in conversations with prospects.

John: I think attorneys have a natural inclination (and rightfully so) to focus on the legal aspects of an opportunity or contact relationship. They also tend to think of client relationships as one-to-one, when in fact it could be many-to-one or many-to many depending on the size of a practice or firm.

I think client-facing roles, by job responsibility, are in a position to see the bigger picture when it comes to growing a client relationship and can facilitate the appropriate touchpoints to advance a relationship. This isn’t to say there aren’t attorneys that are excellent at business development and client management. I think it just points to the importance of having a knowledgeable, experienced team in place to best serve clients.

...client-facing roles, by job responsibility, are in a position to see the bigger picture

Q: Where do you see the future of these roles within the industry, and why?

Jenna: These roles are gaining momentum because there is a need for them, and that need has been established by both client preferences and the efficiencies they add to a law firm business model. I think if there are less than 100 of these roles across the country right now, that number will triple in 5 years’ time.

Dawn: Every week brings about another firm investing in a client-facing executive. Some firms are calling it strategic account management while others are calling it sales. Fact is, these roles are growing for good reason. This isn’t a trend.

John: If you have an eye on the industry, it’s clear to see that many firms are investing in and putting faith in administrative peers to help advance and add to the bottom line. True business development and client-facing roles are definitely a part of this growth and I anticipate we’ll continue to see more of these roles established and more of the responsibility on client management shifted to these roles, freeing attorneys to focus on practicing law and trusting that these roles are best-served to suit the needs of existing and prospective clients.


Join Dawn, Jenna, Mike, and John on Tuesday, October 22nd at 2:45pm during LMA Tech West in San Francisco to learn more, and as importantly, lend your experiences, pain points, and success stories!

  • Mike Mellor, Director of Marketing & Business Development at Pryor Cashman LLP and LMA 2019 CMO SIG Co-Chair
  • Jenna Schiappacasse, Director of Client Development at Rosenberg Martin Greenberg LLP and LMA 2019 Mid-Atlantic Region President
  • Dawn Sheiker, Director of Client Relations at Morris James LLP and LMA 2019 Northeast Region President-Elect
  • John Witts, Senior Marketing Technology Manager at Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP and LMA 2019 Technology SIG Co-Chair

Feel free to reach out in advance of the conference with key questions, topics of interest, or perspectives, using the links above, to help shape the fishbowl conversation.

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