Teach your lawyers to fish

fishingThere seems to be some debate at the moment as to the best model for business development in a corporate law firm. The two different models can be neatly summed up by the ancient quote from the philosopher Maimonides: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

In those law firms which feed their lawyers fish, the business development (BD) team (usually made up of non-lawyers) acts as a sales function, ringing up targets and trying to set up meetings for their lawyers. If successful, the BD staff will often attend these meetings to facilitate the dialogue between their lawyers and the prospective client’s decision-makers. Although not terribly common in the legal sector, this model (or variants of it) does exist in a few firms and has usually been implemented by someone who has moved across from a Big 4 accountancy or consulting firm where they have operated or seen this model in action.

But just because something has worked in another professional services sector, there is no guarantee that it is right for the legal sector and, personally, I have grave reservations about this model. All the conversations that I have ever had with users of legal services leads me to conclude that the vast majority want to deal with those who will end up doing the work and that they often get irritated by BD staff who try to muscle in on the sales process. This was confirmed by a poll conducted by Legal Week and published in November, 2012 which showed that most GCs interviewed felt that BD departments had a role to play but would prefer them to be operating in the background whilst the lawyers (usually partners) who would lead on the work instigated and managed the relationships with clients.

This model also creates a dependency among the lawyers, who come to expect BD to provide them with a source of sales leads rather than being encouraged to get out and find these for themselves. In other words, if the BD department stops throwing fish to the lawyers, they starve.

The other model, which not surprisingly I favour, involves teaching the lawyers to fish, i.e. helping them to acquire the BD skills necessary to bring in new work. Once they have mastered these, they can then feed themselves for a lifetime. In my consulting and coaching practice, I rarely come across lawyers who aren’t capable of becoming good at business development. Making contact with a prospective client to organise a meeting; analysing a prospective client’s business to identify issues they may need help with; asking the right questions in the meeting to qualify the opportunity; listening to responses to build insight; and, knowing at what stage of the relationship to ask for the business – these are all skills that can be developed in most lawyers with effective training and coaching. The BD department has a role to play in this process but it is predominantly not client-facing. Providing lawyers with research on targets; coaching them on the best approach to take; making sure systems are in place to monitor and coordinate BD effort across the firm; and, measuring results to ensure that individual lawyers and the firm as a whole are continually improving their BD effectiveness – this is what the BD department should be doing.

So, if you are a BD professional tempted to throw your lawyers some fish, perhaps to prove your own worth to the firm, stop and teach them to fish instead.

Filed Under: Legal Services

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