In the International Business Development group on LinkedIn, John Grimley responded to our blog post about mega-firm mergers by asking me about my sense of the future of law firms accepting sales divisions.
I see only one credible structural solution to the "sales problem."
Law firms should emulate their corporate clients and hire experienced full-time professional salespersons and team them up with content-expert partners in a fashion similar to what the enterprise software industry has been doing since its inception, i.e., the salesperson serves as the decision-process expert, vetting opportunities and keeping things moving toward a decision, and the law partner serves as the content expert for the eventual solution. The sales pro keeps the discussion focused on the business problem and its consequences, avoiding premature discussion of solution options, and only brings the partner into the discussion after the client has acknowledged that the Cost of Doing Nothing (as we call it) is specified, quantified, and deemed unacceptable by the clients' stakeholders.
This sales model has performed very well in other knowledge-based industries, where domain experts aren't salespeople.
The alternative, which is grossly inefficient, is to train a sufficient number of lawyers to have the necessary sales skills, and devote the necessary time and sustained effort to finance a large law firm. I don't see that happening for two reasons: 1) few lawyers really want that role, and 2) even if you could find a large enough contingent of motivated lawyers, it would take too long and cost too much even if it somehow worked.
By contrast, when teamed with a sales pro, lawyers would need a much smaller skill set, only enough sales training to avoid messing things up out of ignorance. They'd need to understand what the pro is doing, how she's managing the sale and, generally, what not to do. The natural alignment here is that this is probably most lawyers' preferred degree of involvement and sales knowledge. This would be the promised land: they'd get to indulge the intellectual engagement of conceptual learning, which they love, but wouldn't have to do any actual selling. Instead, at the right time, as the content expert they'd get to present their solution, which is the part they like doing.
Fly in the ointment: The barrier to this model is that nothing would do more to institutionalize clients, which would seriously compromise partners' ability to take them to another firm. That might prove an unacceptable threat to certain partners' power and financial security. It will be a bold executive committee who manages to get this out of committee to a partnership vote. Rank-and-file partners' opportunity to shrink rainmakers' power and distorted compensation would likely give that leadership a lot of "yea" votes.
Until your firm embraces teaming lawyers with a sales pro, you'll need certain skills to succeed. You don't need to go through a long program designed to make you a rainmaker someday. You only need the specific skill required to succeed at the immediate tactical challenge you face right now.
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