Law Firm Marketers: "What Would You Say ... You Do Here?"

by JD Supra Perspectives

Office Space is a great flick. In one of my favorite scenes, Tom, a programmer at an IT firm, is being interviewed by “the Bobs,” two purported efficiency and process management experts attempting to cut dead weight:

Bob Slydell: What would you say… ya' do here?

Tom Smykowski: Well, look, I already told you! I deal with the goddamn customers so the engineers don't have to! I have people skills! I am good at dealing with people! Can't you understand that? What the hell is wrong with you people?!

The reasons I love this quote are threefold:

  1. Tom’s delivery is honest, pithy and spot-on. The scene is almost as angst-filled as when they move Milton’s desk down to Storage B and misplace his red stapler. 
  2. Tom’s sentiment embodies a lot of what we, as legal marketing and business development professionals, bring to the table ourselves, in client-facing roles, or strive to impart unto our attorneys.
  3. Tom is asked to describe his value-add to the company, a task which those of us in non-billable roles within a law firm often struggle with accurately describing or proving.

Let’s just get the term out there so we can shun it together: “non-lawyer.” Shudder. I hate it just as much as you do. You would never hear a medical professional referred to as a “non-doctor,” and every patient knows that a hospital could not run without everyone working as a team, regardless of how they are compensated. 

As time goes by and the structure of law firms evolves, the line between staff and timekeepers continues to blur, but let’s face it: those of us who do not bill time feel a constant need to substantiate our existence and the value we bring to the bottom line. The legal arena is a unique industry: in traditional corporate structures, a team member whose focus is to ultimately bring business to the door typically exists towards the top of the food chain. Unfortunately, that is often not an accurate depiction of our world.

...those of us who do not bill time feel a constant need to substantiate our existence and the value we bring to the bottom line.

Perhaps it stems from the fact that traditional “salespeople” are not typically owners in the company as our attorneys are in our firms. That, in and of itself, begets a shift in power and perception of value. Our attorneys are interfacing with clients every day. Behind the scenes (except for the very few of us in client-facing roles), the marketing and business development teams put in countless hours strategizing, coaching, researching, analyzing, and acting on what they deem to be the most effective way to help the firm’s attorneys keep their current clients happy and attract the best new prospects to become clients of the firm. 

The ways in which this is handled vary from firm-to-firm, from department-to-department, but the end goal remains the same. We should be setting metrics and measuring what we can, even if it is loosely, to show the tangible value of those efforts. We should always do more than is asked of us.

This, again, brings us to the constant evolution of the law firm model: gone are the days of law firms of any size being able to avoid actively branding themselves in increasingly saturated markets, or to dodge developing business goals and strategies on an ongoing basis. Just as Tom alluded to in Office Space, every business is, at its root, a people game. 

Our value within our firm should be multifaceted, yet relatively easy to define: we are business professionals who are attempting to equip those within the firm who can bring in the business with the right tools to bring in more of it. More from current clients, more from new clients, more from future clients. 

Regardless of the job description ... we add significant value to the firms we work for, based solely on our common goal of doing our parts in running a law firm as a business.

Depending on the size of the firm, we may wear many hats, or have a more narrow focus. Regardless of the job description, we bring real value to the firm. We are charged with ensuring that the needs of the clients are paramount. Whether that role is defined as elevating the firm’s overarching brand through PR or communications; coordinating a bespoke event that results in current clients mingling with top prospects; helping attorneys to stay accountable and suggesting ways in which they can further their core client relationships; working until the wee hours of the morning on an RFP and then coaching the pitch team in order to impress the right CEO which results in a new engagement; or suggesting a new niche or approach to developing business for an attorney that pans out: we add significant value to the firms we work for, based solely on our common goal of doing our parts in running a law firm as a business. 

Because, it is just that. A business. Which leads to a second point Tom's Office Space quote brings to mind for me: the complex balance of skill sets and personalities necessary to construct the most profitable and self-sustaining firm environment.

As a trusted marketing and business development advisor to lawyers, I cannot emphasize this enough: each individual attorney’s strategy for building a book of business in private practice must be unique. If there were a cookie-cutter solution to building a practice, we would be out of a job. 

The Attorney Personality Paradigm

A few years ago at the Legal Marketing Association’s annual conference, Felice Wagner led a fantastic session during which she opened my eyes to the four types of attorney personalities.

The concept was originally developed by Tim Leishman, and you can (and should) read all about it here. It revolutionized the way I approached coaching my attorneys. I realized that those who truly enjoy meeting prospects and cultivating client relationships are wired differently from those who thrive on speaking engagements, publishing content and pursuing public accolades for their legal prowess. Still different are those who shy away from face-to-face interaction, yet always seem to have an answer to the really complex question that inevitably arises at a critical time during the life of a matter, and manage to save the day. 

...the firm can continue to prosper without forcing too many square pegs into round holes.

We are often charged with bringing these attorneys “out of their shells” or forcing them to “get out there and bring in some clients,” but frankly I’m not convinced that this is always the right approach. Each of these varied personalities play an important part in keeping a firm up and running. As long as everyone understands the role they are expected (and thusly incentivized) to play, the firm can continue to prosper without forcing too many square pegs into round holes.

In-house legal marketing and business development professionals have the opportunity to add an immense amount of value to firms by helping to draw out an individual attorneys’ strengths and coach them to build on their weaknesses while still staying within the realm of their innate personalities.

If one attorney wants to be a rainmaker and pursue a partner track, advise her to go out and build a book of business that will continue to grow as she advances; if another lawyer desperately wants to stay in his office and bill hours until the sun comes up, but clients love his work product and the exigency with which he handles his matters, I say: go forth and prosper. 

The Problem with “This is How We Have Always Done It”

When an attorney at a firm with a traditional business model wants to pursue a partner track, he or she is usually incentivized by originating a certain amount of revenue. 

If it were possible for a firm to be constructed entirely of rainmakers, wouldn’t someone have already done it?

With this in mind, how do firms keep those smart attorneys who frankly don’t have the people skills onboard? Don’t we end up losing some introverted, yet creative gems who would have been so valuable in the 11th hour to answer the hard questions, simply because they hate small talk at networking events? Of course, we can coach them to be more comfortable in those situations, but we can’t force a wallflower to become a social butterfly. If it were possible for a firm to be constructed entirely of rainmakers, wouldn’t someone have already done it? And if every attorney could be a rainmaker, wouldn’t they all want to hang out a shingle and take all the profits? Isn’t the point of a firm to work as a team to pull off each other’s strengths for the greater good?

If a firm were to treat each attorney, from 1 to 1000, as a unique asset to the firm’s overarching goal, each attorney’s value could be determined based on the inherent capabilities he or she brought to the table. I acknowledge that the gray area for defining that value is vast and will likely cause a lot of conflict; however, by utilizing profitability models and defining an individual’s strengths, coupled with the continual, slow drift away from a strictly billable hour-driven model, I can only hope that our industry is moving towards effectively incentivizing the behaviors we ask our attorneys to exhibit in order to best benefit the firm.

The sum of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.


[Jenna Schiappacasse is director of marketing and business development at Baltimore-based law firm Rosenberg Martin Greenberg. Connect with Jenna on LinkedIn and follow her additional writings on JD Supra.]

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