Taking Law Firm Business Development to the Next Level

JD Supra Perspectives

Recently, many law firms have hired or are in the process of hiring new, in-house chief marketing/business development/sales/client service officers (CMBDSCSOs) or other new, in-house marketing, business development, sales and/or client service support staff.

Many firms mistakenly think that hiring a new CMBDSCSO will solve all their current marketing and business development related challenges and issues.

Yet, too often, new internal law firm marketing staff are still expected to do it all, from soup to nuts – i.e., support, create and deliver everything related to marketing, business development and sales. This, in turn, often results in staff being overloaded, spending most of their time reacting to a wide range of requests, and achieving mainly “mile wide, inch deep” outcomes that can dilute quality, and leave little time to track and report results (a contributing factor of expensive turnover/burnout).

Formally organized marketing programs and departments in most major law firms have now been in place for about 30+ years. Many of these organized marketing programs are successfully enhancing the firm’s reputation, establishing and communicating the firm’s brand, and a few are providing value-added services to existing clients.

...the missing link in most firms is a formal client development or “sales” process

However, the missing link in most firms is a formal client development or “sales” process to support and drive the most profitable, organic growth. The fact is that without an organized client development program that includes well-planned and coordinated, direct, personal or face-to-face communication with clients, prospects and referral sources, the chances of generating measurable new business from any pure marketing tool (conversion rate) are not great.

The Business Development Process for Law Firms, Defined

Just like the practice of law, which has multiple specialty areas such as litigation, transactions, intellectual property, labor and employment among many others, marketing, sales and client service is each a separate, distinct and intense discipline within the overall business development process (see image below), each of which requires considerable knowledge, experience, skill and investments of time and money over time to generate consistent and measurable results.

All lawyers do not necessarily know or understand that each is a separate, distinct and intense discipline, nor do all firm leaders and lawyers agree upon the practical meanings of each of these disciplines. As a result, new CMBDSCSOs are often set up to fail or to deliver less than what was expected, simply because there are not agreed-upon meanings and understandings of these key disciplines and what it takes to get them done and reported on over time, another contributing factor of CMBDSCSO turnover.

Within most law firms, the actual and agreed-upon meanings or definitions of the words/phrases marketing, business development, client development, practice development, sales and related terms are often used interchangeably and each person’s understanding of these terms often varies considerably, especially what each term means on a practical, grass-roots level.

The difference between marketing and sales is a lot like the difference between being a general practitioner and an intellectual property litigator – those are two very different practices and require vastly differing (yet related) bodies of knowledge and capability.

Sure, general practitioners can say they can handle patent litigation, but do they have the necessary specialized knowledge and ability? The same contrast applies to years of experience – a patent litigator with five years of experience likely does not have the capabilities of one with 25 years of experience.

It’s a question of semantics. For example, when one says “marketing” to an individual lawyer, depending upon his or her mindset and knowledge, that person may define marketing narrowly in his or her mind, thinking that media exposure, seminars, blogs or a combination are what marketing means. Other attorneys may use the phrase “business development” to convey an understanding of what the word marketing means to them. Not only do the same words have different meanings within a firm, but most lawyers also think of marketing as commonsense, haphazard and unpredictable, when, in fact, just like civil procedure, marketing and sales each is a process that is part science, and they do deliver somewhat linear and predictable results when well executed.

These varying differences in the meaning and understanding of business development, marketing and sales create a host of issues and challenges within most law firms, especially relating to exactly what firm leaders expect from their in-house marketing/business development staff before and after hiring them.

Definition of Marketing in the Law Firm Environment

Marketing is often broadly defined (and should be), as marketing touches every aspect of the practice of law. This is very true, since without a client and a client’s matter or problem to handle, there is no law to practice.

So, the first thing to do for effective marketing is to precisely identify the desired target market or clientele along with the problem the attorney can help resolve. No law firm can be all things to all people, and trying to do so often results in unproductive, unfocused marketing investments. Target clients should be precisely identified by location, geography, industry, type of problem/matter or case, size and other relevant qualifying factors which vary for each firm, practice, office and lawyer.

...create awareness of the firm and its capabilities in the minds of decision-makers within the relevant target market

The primary objective of a marketing tool is to create awareness of the firm and its capabilities in the minds of decision-makers within the relevant target market - usually by deploying commonly used marketing tools such as websites, newsletters, public relations/media coverage, articles, seminars and speeches.

Most of these marketing tools are noncontact in nature; when seeing/hearing/or otherwise being exposed to the tool, the decision-maker does not necessarily have direct, in-person contact with a member of the firm – particularly with the partner/attorney capable of handling his or her types of matters. However, to be effective and measurable, all noncontact marketing tools should be designed to lead to a direct, personal contact (a.k.a. a qualified lead) with a firm lawyer or representative who knows how to engage in the client-relationship development process.

The ultimate goal of any and all marketing tools, then, is and should be to produce a qualified lead via direct, personal contact – either by telephone, e-mail or face-to-face with an attorney. So the definition of marketing is deploying tools designed to create awareness about the firm and its capabilities in the minds of target market decision-makers in order to generate a personal contact by one or more of them as appropriate over time. Ask yourself how effective your firm’s selected mix of marketing tools is in attaining these objectives.

Definition of Client Development/Sales in Law Firms

Instead of using the word “sales” in the legal marketing environment (because it conveys an impression of solicitation, which is unethical, unprofessional and distasteful in all jurisdictions), I prefer to refer to sales in the law firm environment as client development.

Why? Because consistently developing quality new business in a law firm is a process, one that takes considerable time, focus, patience, skill, persistence, systems, processes and procedures to implement successfully and cost-effectively. This sales or client development process begins and ends with in-person, face-to-face contacts with one individual or a small group of individuals (i.e., decision-makers and influencers).

...consistently developing quality new business in a law firm is a process

In fact, studies show that 98% of all new legal business is awarded during or shortly after face-to-face meetings with one person or a small group of people. How many times has a prospective new client hired a lawyer without actually meeting him or her, either in person or by phone? When it happens, it is the rare exception and is usually based upon very strong referrals and reputations.

The fact remains that most new matters/cases (especially complex and/or expensive ones) are awarded to a lawyer only after in-person, eyeball-to-eyeball contact with the prospective client has been made. Why? Because clients hire lawyers in whom they have a sense of trust and confidence, those who have credibility and show interest and concern in their legal problems and have the expertise to help them solve them. These characteristics are not easily assessed or measured by telephone or on the internet.

Unfortunately, too many lawyers still use a hit-or-miss approach to marketing and client development. How? Often, they may utilize one marketing tool, such as a seminar, which may or may not generate personal contacts. Then they will say, “Marketing doesn’t work.” Alternatively, when attorneys actually do make a personal contact, they do not necessarily recognize it as a client development opportunity and have no system or procedure of approach and follow-up. Again they will say, “Marketing doesn’t work.”

...the client development process – like the marketing process – is part art, part science.

The reality is that the client development process – like the marketing process – is part art, part science. The key to success in either discipline is understanding the process from both the attorney’s and the client’s perspective. Over the course of my career, I have created what I refer to is the client development “playing field” – it’s a step-by-step template of the most common and predictable stages that any client or new matter progresses through in order for the attorney/firm to get the new matter in the door.

Contrary to popular opinion, once a prospective client contacts a lawyer, the lawyer’s task is not to “ask for the sale!” Rather, it is to step back, knowing that the initial contact is but the first step in a time-honored process that must be applied and finessed for each different situation.

In American football, the long-bomb, Hail Mary pass into the end zone for a touchdown is the exception rather than the rule. Most points in football are put up on the board using a series and combination of fundamental running and shorter passing plays. Similarly, it is rare for lawyers to get a major new matter or case from one, single communication or contact alone.

In fact, for lawyers to earn new work, studies show that on average it takes six to 12 appropriate personal contacts over time to get new business in the door (from either a current or a brand-new client). So, the key is consistent effort and outreach over time. As a result, simply attending or speaking at one seminar alone is simply not enough to develop new clients; more plays must be planned and executed and more time taken to plan to stay in touch and follow-up.

studies show that on average it takes six to 12 appropriate personal contacts over time to get new business in the door

Even if your firm markets itself very well and has a well-honed client development process in place, it is still not enough to build an excellent reputation and new-business generation “machine.” What is required once the matter is won (i.e., business is brought in the door) is to effectively service the matter, which requires a combination of results and delivery tools. The client service process is also somewhat predictable, linear and systematic, but is a deep and rich topic, best left for a future article.

Instead, numerous studies show that most leads and then measurable new work coming from marketing activities such as seminars, speeches and newsletters are generated only when combined with a series of appropriate personal, one-to-one, direct contacts.

The lessons for law firms and lawyers are numerous. Some suggestions:

  • Before simply hiring a new CMBDSCSO, assess how the firm defines the business development process and each related discipline as described in this article;
  • Analyze where most business originates (apart from simply the firm’s current, best rainmakers);
  • Identify which marketing and sales tools and investments are generating the best leads;
  • Review current marketing staff positions, roles and results to determine where enhancements might generate more return on investment (ROI); and
  • Assess and consider upgrades to the firm’s processes, technologies and procedures to capture and track all key clients, new leads, requests for proposals (RFPs), etc.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to correlate 100% of all business development/marketing and sales efforts and investments with actual new revenue, but it is possible for law firms to improve their ROI by utilizing greater discipline in their current practices, as described in this article.


Julie Savarino holds an MBA, a JD, and is a licensed attorney. Over her 30+ year career, she has built a reputation as a leading international, award-winning business and client development coach and strategist for lawyers, law firms, and other professional services providers and firms. She has successfully served in-house in client and business development positions for the law firms of Dickinson Wright and Butzel Long and for the accounting firm Grant Thornton. Julie@BusDevInc.com

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