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Discussions about cross-selling in law firms remind me of the well-publicized discussions some years ago in the scientific world about cold fusion. Both represent their respective professions’ Holy Grail, but no one in either profession has made meaningful progress toward this elusive chimera, in part because of some very real and persistent barriers. 

Lawyers' cross-selling problems are self-created

By associating their value to clients exclusively with their practice specialty, lawyers create and perpetuate a product-centric focus that is the root of the cross-selling problem. 

If your nanotechnology client perceives you as an IP expert, what would make them think of you in relation to tax issues, or employment problems? 

On the other hand, if, as a result of your industry-focused conversations, they saw your primary value being your relevance to, understanding of, and useful thinking about, the emerging nanotechnology space, then all of the problems inherent in building a nanotech company become natural subjects for discussion with you. What would be odd about talking to a lawyer who understands the industry and the business about capitalization challenges, competing for scarce talent, protecting the technology itself, creating distribution alliances, financing and building a factory, etc.? Don’t all legal services derive from these underlying business considerations?

How to overcome the BD barriers we create

A commitment to changing our future focus away from our legal specialties toward our clients’ business challenges will eliminate the cross-selling problem permanently, but that’s in the future. Meanwhile, we still have to deal with the existing reality.  

Many lawyers tell me that a major barrier to cross-selling is their limited knowledge of other lawyers' practice specialties, at least compared to their knowledge of their own. They feel that they don't know enough to suggest other lawyers' services. 

Product-centric pitching

The unsupportable assumption embedded within this concern is that knowing about and describing a legal service “product” is a desirable sales behavior. Product-centric pitching is counterproductive, as illustrated by the difficulty lawyers experience with it, and clients' expressed distaste for it.

Don't waste time trying to know enough about your colleagues' services to pitch them. There's no need. Instead, all you have to do is learn your colleagues' Door-Openers, i.e., the underlying objective business problems or situations that open conversational doors to you, and trigger demand for each practice type's most strategically important services. Make sure that the door-opening problem is tangible, immediate and personal.  

How do you learn your colleagues’ Door-Openers?  Consider this quote from author Samuel Johnson:

"Knowledge is of two kinds.  We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it." 

Cross-selling requires the second definition of knowledge, and it simplifies solving your problem. You already have close relationships with a number of sources of door-opening, demand-triggering information: your colleagues.  


If you have an investment banker client for whom you now structure cross-border deals, you might ask a colleague specializing in employment law, “How would an objective observer, not knowledgeable about employment law, recognize that an investment banking firm is at risk of some type of workplace action or claim?” 

Ideally, you’ll approach an employment specialist who has worked with investment firms or analogous business cultures. She might say, “There seems to be a bit of a ‘Masters of the Universe,’ locker-room mentality among salespeople who do huge deals like that. It’s often manifest in language and behaviors that had previously been ignored as the boys-will-be-boys behavior of sales stars, but which are now the basis of sexual harassment claims.”

Don't try to explain your colleague’s practice or expertise to your client

Instead, simply test for the client’s recognition of, and willingness to acknowledge, the demand-triggering condition. Then, ask questions that enable your client to reveal why your colleague’s knowledge or expertise would be important or valuable to have available. This is “proving the need” rather than making quality claims. Until they know they need it, they don’t care how good it is.

Why should your client want or need your partners' knowledge? What would she do with it? What effect does she envision from its use? What economic impact would she attribute to that effect? Now you know not only why your client would benefit from your colleagues' knowledge, but also why your colleague would benefit from having this potential client. Remember that knowledge, no matter how voluminous, has no inherent value, only applied value.

This is how a willing lawyer can get her client to welcome meeting her colleague, perhaps even thank her for the connection, rather than merely tolerating a meeting simply because she was asked.

We’ve now addressed one part of the cross-selling problem. But, what about the reverse situation, when you want a colleague to introduce you into his client?  How do you overcome your colleague's reluctance to do so?

Cross-selling is "selling squared" 

First you must sell the relationship-controlling lawyer, which reminds us that the most important question in cross-selling – “What's in it for me?” – is the same as in any other sale. This is the question on the mind of your colleague, who controls access to the client.  

Client trust is an asset whose value every lawyer recognizes and protects. They're especially vigilant when protecting their asset against potential sales clumsiness by well-meaning colleagues. In cross-selling, your colleague will act much like any corporate gatekeeper, for the same reasons of self-interest. 

"If I permit access to my client, three things can happen:

  1. the client loves you and is grateful for my introduction;

  2. the client is unmoved either way; or

  3. the client reacts negatively.

Two of these are bad for me." 

Unless you first help the colleague recognize how introducing you supports his–and the client’s–self-interest, you're likely to get lots of smiling, head nodding and creative excuses, but little action ("I've left messages, but nothing yet." "His calendar is really a killer right now.")  

Of the two human motivators—opportunity for gain and fear of loss—fear is stronger

You must help the controlling lawyer recognize how the client's business situation likely contains a threat-based need that your service will satisfy. Therefore, the larger threat to the colleague's relationship is not the minor risk of negative reaction to your cross-sale approach, but the client discovering that the colleague failed to help the client pursue a solution to an important problem. 

You've properly shifted your colleague’s focus away from your interests and toward his obligations to his client. Now you have to back it up with a professional sales investigation, not some tiresome "let's tell you all about us" pitching approach.

The final barrier to cross-selling is law firms' reward systems

Again, everyone talks about the importance of cross-selling, but where are the specific rewards for it? Sure, if my M&A client begins buying employment services from my partner or colleague, I may benefit in some abstract way at some unknown future time. But what will encourage me to make it a point to approach my colleagues now with ways to sell my services into their clients? If my hours are down, I'm motivated to make the sale if I'll be the one to perform the billable work, but otherwise, the primary credit goes to the other lawyer. In either case, the time gap between behaviors and reward negates motivation to change.

What gets rewarded gets done

If firms are serious about cross-selling, they'll have to create direct incentives to encourage the specific actions sought. By “incentives” I’m referring not merely to direct economic participation—although that must be a component—but also to the broader concept of reward, which includes other values such as recognition, flexibility, etc.  

"What will I get as a result of succeeding at cross-selling" is too diffuse, and implies an inappropriate focus on achieving the ultimate economic outcome, over which lawyers have limited control. 

If you change behavior, outcome will follow. To change behavior, you must define what specific behaviors you wish to discourage and which you wish to encourage. This changes the self-interested question to, "What will I get for undertaking this specific [cross-selling] action or behavior?"  

Once the firm succeeds in establishing the desired selling behavior, its goal shifts to increasing its frequencyeffectiveness and cost-efficiency. Only then does it make sense to modify the economic incentive further to reward specific sales outcomes and results.

The common factor throughout is self-interest

Overcome cross-selling barriers by using the questioning and listening skills that make you a successful lawyer to learn all other parties’ self-interest and show how your mutual interests align. To eliminate the cross-selling problem forever, avoid product-centric pitching in favor of a sustainable, business-centric conversation that positions you as a relevant person with whom prospects and clients choose to discuss the challenges of the day.

Mike O'Horo

To make sure you're as relevant as possible, review and apply the Door-Opener lessons in the Getting Found section, and the Networking Event simulation to see it put into practice.

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