Successful Law Firm Business Development Training, Coaching and Sales Programs
By Julie Savarino, Business Development Inc.
Competition and the pace of change in the legal industry have never been greater, nor has the pressure on lawyers at all levels to develop new business. This is largely the result of various client pressures. Clients are much less loyal, much more cost/fee sensitive, increasingly un-bundling their legal work and using a plethora of alternatives other than hiring outside law firms/lawyers. In addition, in the wake of large business consolidations and mergers, most major law firms (let’s say the world’s top 500 law firms) are essentially competing for the same, finite market of outside legal work, where demand has been and will continue to remain relatively flat for several more years.
Increasing numbers of firms are responding by providing formal business development training, coaching, and “sales” programs for its attorneys. As Jody Maier, Chief Marketing Officer and Managing Director of Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, states: “Most lawyers come out of law school with little or no business development training. The demand for legal services has declined and even the most revered law firms are in competition with smaller and lesser-known firms that can charge lower fees for the same work. That’s why we offer a series of training [courses] for associates and junior partners on varying methods of business development and client service, as it is no longer good enough to just be a smart lawyer.”
Business development training budgets have tripled at many firms over the past 20 years. According to the 2011 Benchmarking Law Firm Marketing and Business Development survey conducted by the BTI Consulting Group, business development training was approximately 12.5 percent of a typical law firm’s marketing/business development budget in 2011. In 1992, the Law Firm Marketing Association (then NALFMA), found that business development training was approximately 4 percent of the total marketing budget for that year. While the overall percentage of budget invested in business development training has increased, so have total dollars, since law firm revenues themselves have grown since 1992.
Business development and client relations were named as the highest priority for law firm training and development programs in the 2012 survey conducted by The NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education (NALP), in which approximately 1,700 associates and law firm administrators participated. This is not surprising given the lengthened partnership track in the majority of law firms and the recent, new requirement to demonstrate an actual consistent stream of originated business in order to earn equity partner – or even income partner – status in most major law firms these days (unlike in past years, when simply showing thepotentialto develop business was enough to make partner). Given this current environment, this article strives to help law firms make their business development training dollars pay off for the firm and its owners.
Training Programs, Coaching and Sales Programs Distinguished
Typically, training programs consist of educational instruction on strategy and skills. The objective of training is to transfer a standard set of information, knowledge and/or approaches, to increase comfort levels and develop new mind sets. Most quality training programs also include an opportunity to practice the skills and steps learned during the training session. A few examples of training based on core competencies and skill sets are:
Core Competency – Client Service and Loyalty (internal and external)
Skill sets: Listening; Reading a balance sheet/income statement; How to bill your time; Project/task management; Firm and client expectations; How to stay abreast of client needs; Effective writing; Gaining feedback, etc.
Core Competency – Relationship Development and Maintenance
Skill sets: What organizations to join and ways to contribute to them; Learning to network in person and on social media; Advanced networking; Best practices regarding follow-up, negotiation, entertainment and other client interaction; The sales process for lawyers, etc.
Core Competency – Your Personal Profile and Branding
Skill sets: Presentation/public speaking; Media-press relations; Use of social media; Webinar presentations; Best practices for attending or speaking at a conference/seminar, etc.
Core Competency – Advanced Client Development
Skill sets: Cross-selling, winning pitches and RFPs; Creating and presenting Alternative Fee Arrangements (AFAs); Client team leadership; Practice group leadership, etc.
Quality coaching should deliver – on an individual and routine basis – structured and personalized counsel, guidance, suggestions and support to help each participant attain their own personal business and client development objectives. Whereas training consists of imparting knowledge and information, personalized coaching helps participants take the information/knowledge gained and practice by applying it to actual situations. Coaches can be in-house lawyers, other law firm professionals, outside consultants or a combination.
Internal coaching can include organized programs, as well as more informal and ad-hoc activities. Some examples include:
− Senior partners are assigned to mentor new, income, junior, struggling partners and/or associates.
− Managing partners coach and mentor practice group leaders.
− Marketing directors/managers coach practice group leaders and/or members.
− Marketing directors/managers coach teams of attorneys through an RFP/pitch.
− Diversity directors coach selected lawyers.
− Women partners coach younger female lawyers.
− Marketing directors/managers provide coaching assistance for lawyers developing annual performance plans.
− Ad-hoc coaching/mentoring (the most common form of coaching activity), in which lawyer A who faces situation X goes to lawyer B to ask for advice.
Coaching is a critical component of any professional development effort, particularly because not all lawyers have the same strengths. Kay Nash, Chief Professional Development and Attorney Recruiting Officer at Wiley Rein LLP states that: “Several years ago, coaching was seen as a remedial effort for someone who is under-performing. The professional development landscape has changed such that coaching is now a tool for enhancing performance, particularly for the firm’s high potential lawyers.”
According to Elizabeth Price, Professional Development Partner, Alston & Bird: “In past years, we relied more heavily on informal partner mentoring to support and guide the development of younger lawyers. But with relentless time pressures and the need for a consistent method, message and standards, we now offer more targeted business development skills and coaching programs for attorneys within certain years or tiers of practice and use a mix of internal resources and vetted outside vendors to help design and implement these programs.”
Another Am Law 100 firm (which asked to remain unidentified) had been hiring a “stable” of various external business development coaches, thinking that different personal coaching styles would fit better with certain lawyers. However, the firm eventually realized that having coaches with different styles and approaches resulted in a lot of unnecessary work, redundancy and miscommunication for the law firm’s marketing department. For example, one coach heavily pushed speaking and writing, another emphasized relationship building and referral source development and other coaches encouraged different standards of preparation and intelligence gathering. Recently, the firm hired two in-house coaches who tailored a sales approach and system for the firm as a whole. Now external coaches use this firm-specific approach to consistently coach all lawyer participants. Most importantly, this integrated and consistent sales approach will be supported internally going forward.
A “sales”/client development program within a law firm often combines training with coaching and may also include a reward, contest and/or challenge component. Sales programs that build in an appropriate challenge work well in law firms because they appeal to lawyers’ competitive instincts, involve camaraderie, motivation and some fun, and are most effective when embedded with follow-up, reporting, recognition and rewards.
Sales programs are often organized by industry group, practice group, office, client types, or by area of interest and are conducted internally and/or with external assistance. The objective of sales programs in most law firms is to drive measurable new business in the door using a structured approach and dedicated, consistent effort.
One example of a successful sales program was conducted by the law firm of Burns & Levinson. In this multi-step program entitled the “110% Business Development Challenge,” participants were provided a list of 110 pre-selected and focused business development activities that could earn them up to 110 points by completing. Examples of activities included internal cross-marketing/selling and follow-up. The program lasted for six months and generated strong results.
Other firms assign a dedicated business development partner to “work a list” of carefully pre-screened current and/or prospective clients to help “get the firm in the door” and/or expand the relationship. These programs are most successful when led by partners who have a proven track record of strong relationship-building both internally and externally. Other firms hire dedicated staff to handle a similar internal sales support function (some are lawyers and/or ex-salespeople from various professions), while some have outsourcing arrangements. Because most law firm sales programs need a long-term and relatively significant investment, the most successful of these programs require regularly delivering to firm management a quarterly pipeline report on efforts and results.
Defining “Success” for a Business Development Training, Coaching or Sales Program
Too many law firms fall short of attaining their business development training goals because they do not finalize written goals, objectives and definitions of “success” before they offer training. Firms may also make the common mistake of offering relatively random “point in time” programs, many with lackluster content or content inappropriate for lawyers (all of whom operate under the Rules of Professional Conduct) that participating lawyers dismiss as a big waste of time.Hopinga training/coaching program will yield results is not a metric or strategy, nor is it measurable. To offer a truly successful business development training and coaching program, “success” first needs to be defined in a measurable way.
—The Best Measure of a Successful Business Development Program Is Revenue
The most tangible measure of success is actual new cases, matters and revenue in the door resulting directly from efforts during or after the training/coaching program. Actual new revenues can be measured by participant and/or client hours billed, amounts collected and/or increases in client revenues year-over-year.
A few externally available training and coaching programs for lawyers guarantee measurable new revenues as a result of their programs. For example, in the early 1990s one company that provided client team training programs to many Am Law 200 law firms guaranteed a five-times return on investment (ROI) from its program. In this current, more competitive market, our company, Business Development Inc., currently guarantees three-times ROI from most of our programs.
It is more challenging for in-house marketing personnel to guarantee ROI from a training and coaching program conducted completely by internal resources simply because the demands on their time are so great. In fact, “lack of available staff time” for law firms’ in-house marketing personnel was ranked as the highest impediment to successful business development by a 2012 survey conducted by our firm (in which approximately 40 percent of NLJ 250 law firms participated).
—Non-revenue Measures of Success
Because the average sales cycle for outside legal services is long (two years or more), other more immediate measures of success are often employed for quality training and coaching programs. The most common measure of success for all law firm training programs (not just business development programs) is to have formal evaluations completed by participants at the end of the program or at the completion of certain stages of the training/coaching process. Evaluations measure reaction, satisfaction, reception and/or retention. For business development programs that are conducted over many months, separate evaluations should be used to evaluate the training segment versus the coaching segment.
A crucial, yet intangible measure of success is “hall talk.” If participating lawyers (especially highly skeptical ones) participated in a business development program and loved it, they tend to tell their colleagues about it. As word spreads, eventually interest and buy-in for these types of programs increase.
Other characteristics of successful business development training and coaching programs are described below.
Use Evidence of Demand to Create a Business Case and Get Support from Leadership
Without upfront buy-in and commitment from top management at the law firmandfrom partners (at least the primary participating partners), a sufficient budget, and available time, the success of any business development program may be doomed from the start.
Most lawyers are influenced by evidence, therefore it is best to first conduct an assessment of the needs and desires of the targeted group. Even though the vast majority of lawyers can benefit from quality business development training, coaching and/or sales program, many think they do not need or want it. The best results come from lawyer participants who want the program, whether they think they need it or not. A short survey or questionnaire can help demonstrate demand. Some firms also like the use of focus groups to help assess needs. For example, Kay Nash states, “At Wiley Rein, we held a focus group of our junior partners (led by one of the junior partners on our Partner Professional Development Committee), to determine the priorities for our professional development efforts.”
Studies show that only a very small percentage – usually a maximum of around five percent of lawyers overall (or within any individual law firm) – are natural rainmakers (defined as attorneys annually generating approximately $1 million-plus in new work from existing and/or new clients). Of the remaining 95 percent of lawyers, a large group – approximately 65 to 80 percent – are quite interested in developing more work personally and/or for the firm. They are often motivated to do so, and most have been building business development skills on their own, commonly using a trial-and-error process and/or with some limited mentoring. Many want more support and assistance. In my 25 years of experience, the most successful programs are attended mainly by lawyers who have the interest, willingness and desire to participate.
As explained by Elizabeth Price, Professional Development Partner at Alston & Bird: “For several years we became aware of a growing demand from up and coming partners to have access to experienced, structured and personalized business development coaching. So, our Partners’ Committee knew the need and desire was there. The next step was to collaborate with our firm’s Business Development Partner and Chief Marketing Officer and come up with an initial plan. Internal collaboration is critical to all the programs we offer on business development.”
Programs are most successful if a draft proposal is created by all affected constituencies within the firm, along with timing, deliverables and metrics, then presented as necessary to appropriate leaders (whether firm-wide, office, special or practice group leaders). This same plan can be used to report progress and results. Because the sales cycle for the purchase of outside legal services is lengthy, it is best to set realistic expectations up front by planning for any investment in a business development training, coaching or sales program to gradually pay off over time.
Create a Curriculum Customized to the Firm’s Culture and the Participating Attorneys
To be successful, no matter how simple the topic may seem, each business development training/coaching/sales program needs to be customized to respond and adapt to the law firm’s culture. For example, if a firm has an “eat-what-you-kill” or “one-touch/grandfathered” origination system and culture, a “required” group program designed to cross-sell to specific clients will likely face inherent resistance if origination splits are not accepted and/or made standard practice.
Tailoring should also include a mix of instruction methods because studies show that adults learn and retain best through an interactive interchange of information. Therefore, stand-alone lectures and canned programs are mainly passive learning and only achieve a certain level of results. While the 2012 NALP Foundation study found that online and web-based training programs will continue to dramatically rise in popularity, it is important to realize the limits of passive learning. Many law firms make the mistake of choosing only the least expensive training options but at a high long-term cost. Not only do cheap and ineffective training programs significantly reduce the opportunity for any tangible, measurable results from the program, they often yield weak retention and application by participants. This in turn dilutes the attorneys’ interest in any other similar training in the future.
For example, in 2011, Weil Gotshal & Manges implemented a ”Business Development 101” training program available to senior associates that is led by partners and other in-house professionals. “We have seen increased demand from our associates for business development training, including not only guidance on how to interact with clients, but also help developing their own brand through networking and thought leadership,” said David L. Yohai, chair of the Weil, Gotshal & Manges Professional Development Committee and co-head of Weil’s Complex Commercial Litigation practice. “Associates are more aware of how important business development is and are asking for opportunities to acquire and refine those skills in addition to their legal skills.” The program is in the process of being expanded and rolled out more broadly at the firm.
—Add a Practical Component and Consider Inviting Clients to Participate
Use and retention of information gained during training sessions is increased dramatically by adding actual practice into the program – either within the training sessions themselves or through personal coaching afterwards. As Jody Maier notes, “At Kramer Levin, we recruit bright, well-rounded and personable lawyers. To increase the likelihood of their success and to keep them engaged and progressing, we offer a variety of programs, including, biography writing, client service tips, networking tactics, relationship skills, and coaching which are then practiced in mock and real-life scenarios where they receive personalized tips and constructive feedback.”
Some law firms are taking interactive, skill-based practice up a notch by inviting actual clients and/or prospective clients to participate in the training/coaching sessions as appropriate. Providing the opportunity to practice on real-life scenarios with real clients leads to a dramatic increase in participating lawyers’ interest engagement, retention and use of information and skills covered.
In order to invite clients or prospective clients as commentators, co-instructors and/or “buyers” to any program hosted by a law firm, it is critical that the program is well organized and is verifiably credible. As Barbara Bryant, Chief Business Development and Marketing Officer of Alston & Bird says: “Involving clients as part of the training instruction process increases the credibility of business development training and at the same time enhances our firm’s relationship with the participating clients.”
In the past, many firms asked clients to participate in guest panels during retreats, but because those programs consisted mainly of facilitated panels or lectures, they were largely passive learning. Lately, more firms are asking clients/prospects to be actively involved by serving as commentators and co-instructors for reality-based RFP simulations. One Am Law 100 firm that offers a program for its partners, “Best Practices in Fee Negotiations, AFAs & Billing,” asks clients to serve as co-instructors where they assist participants to create and evaluate options in reality-based various situations.
Apart from learning outcomes, in-person training also has the benefit of building the firm’s culture and morale and enhancing knowledge and sharing. When a firm has multiple offices, bringing attorneys together from across offices builds knowledge of the firm’s capabilities in other practices and markets and leads to enhanced cross-selling.
In order for training to be truly useful, the content must be immediately applicable for participating attorneys, not next month or next year. Nothing is more natural to attorneys than to learn a procedure, adjust it and apply it to the set of facts before them immediately. Doing so in business development situations with actual buyers of legal services as instructors provides feedback equivalent to “being a fly on the wall in the jury room” after a case. The insights gained and levels of retention are priceless.
—Create Annual Curricula and Universities
Several major law firms have been providing business development training and coaching programs for over ten years and, as a result, have combined their annual programs into a “College” or “University.” Others realize it is more cost-effective to create structured, repeatable programs, instead of constantly holding various point-in-time programs.
For example, in 2000, the law firm of Miller Canfield created Miller Canfield University with one of its five colleges devoted to practice development. Some of the courses taught by Miller Canfield lawyers and marketing personnel cover such topics as giving in-house counsel what they really want, marketing in social media, and using community involvement to enhance leadership positions. For other topics the firm engages outside consultants. Representative topics facilitated by consultants are how clients buy legal services, effective public speaking, closing the sale, and client retention tips. Marjory Basile, Chancellor of Miller Canfield University for eight years, notes: “The number one request associates check on their annual self evaluation forms is more help in practice/client development skills. By designing a strategic combination of internal and external resources, we are able to provide our associates with the tools they need to build a practice. The strength (and financial viability) of our program is that we try to use internal resources where we can, but pop for the expensive outside professionals when we know we don’t have the knowledge and skills to cover those topics.”
Another law firm, Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, hired an experienced trainer, coach and law firm business developer as the firm’s Chief Business Development Officer. She created and launched an award-winning program for the firm entitled “Sutherland Business Development Curriculum,” designed to help all firm lawyers, groups and teams to successfully sustain, develop and generate productive client relationships. Felice Wagner, Chief Business Development Officer at Sutherland says, “Key to the success of this program was leadership support of and participation in the individual sessions. When we launched the curriculum, Practice Group leaders and members of our Executive Committee not only encouraged attendance but also enrolled in the sessions. It made a world of difference.”
Ideally, the business and professional development curriculum is tied to the firm’s competencies, begins with first-year associates and progresses as associates become more senior and eventually partners. “At Wiley Rein,” says Kay Nash, “Business and Professional Development is one of our six core competencies for associates. The competency provides a road map for each associate to develop what we call an ‘independent professional identity. The firm then provides training according to the skills expected and the associates’ seniority so that we can support the associates as they master each level of the competency.”
Most law firms that have these curricula use a mix of internal and external instructors for the courses and rely heavily on standardized, automated evaluations to insure all programs are well-received and stay fresh, interesting and useful. In addition, most record select programs and then offer them on the firm’s intranet.
Weigh the Advantages of Using an Internal Versus External Coach
There are advantages and disadvantages to using internal or external coaches, which should be weighed before deciding what is best for any particular lawyer or project. The advantages of in-house coaches who have at least several years with the firm are their experience and understanding of the firm, including its culture, politics, expectations, personalities, and structure. Conversely, disadvantages of in-house coaches can include the fact that, because they are firm employees (and report to firm management), some lawyers may be reluctant to share their perceived weaknesses, motivations, goals and or objectives as readily as they might with an outside coach. Similarly, if the participating lawyer has some personal issues which require frank advice, some in-house coaches may find it difficult to deliver sensitive messages that could jeopardize future relations.
Depending on their network and reputation, some coaches “matchmake” partners with prospective clients. If such introductions are desired from a coach, it is important to discuss and plan for that specifically before implementing the program. In the past, many lawyers were under the misconception that making introductions was the marketing director’s job, when in fact that is not how the role evolved in most firms. In addition, non-lawyer solicitation is not permissible in any American jurisdiction under the Rules of Professional Conduct.
If the firm considers using a “stable” of outside coaches, to maximize cost-effectiveness and efficiencies, it is important that all coaches use a common sales approach and processes that work best for that particular law firm. This article earlier discussed an Am Law 100 firm that trained all coaches (both internal and external) and all members of the firm’s business development department first, before launching the business development coaching program. In my professional opinion, this firm now has one of the best business development programs in the world.
Finally, due to the fact that anyone can hang up their shingle and say they are a law firm/lawyer business development trainer or coach, beware of those who are not experienced or do not follow-up, stay on time and/or keep their appointments. If firms use such coaches, it may tarnish the participating lawyers’ perceptions against all future coaches.
In the most successful programs, in-house staff and trainers/coaches work closely together. In addition to the firm’s business development/marketing staff, a business development training team may include members from the firm’s library, finance department, technical support team, etc. Timothy Pakenham, Business Development Partner of Alston & Bird states: “One of our firm’s greatest strengths is our culture and camaraderie, which extends top-down and bottom-up in our firm. We all work hard and together in a collegial, productive manner to support participants’ efforts during our business development programs.”
Some firms make the mistake of setting up a coaching program that operates without any coordination of efforts. This is often done because of political reasons or due to the firm’s compensation structure which rewards individual origination over teamwork. A coaching program that operates completely independently can result in redundant efforts and communications which are not in the best interests of the firm as a whole. In one such instance, a General Counsel of a Fortune 100 company mentioned in public “Don’t the partners of X law firm realize that five to ten of them call me the same week, asking me for business? Don’t they communicate internally?” No firm’s reputation is enhanced by such remarks.
Another mistake is using a trainer/coach with such a large ego that he/she somehow thinks they are “better than” the law firm’s staff members. This typically creates the inability to establish a productive internal working relationship between coach and staff, which is another recipe for failure.
Repetition and Reinforcement
No lawyer is ever “perfect” at business/sales/client development. Even the greatest rainmakers lose clients periodically (for reasons both within and outside of their control). To efficiently maximize each lawyer’s potential contribution and sustain success, it is critical that law firms provide successful business and client development training, coaching and support on an ongoing basis.
Julie Savarino is an attorney and managing partner of Business Development Inc., www.BusDevInc.com. For over 20 years she has successfully assisted lawyers and law firms to develop business. She has helped develop numerous law firm business development training and coaching programs and has worked with thousands of lawyers and hundreds of law firms, helping generate millions of dollars in new business – as a trainer, coach, professional business developer, program developer and strategist. Julie@BusDevInc.com
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