What Does the New Normal of Selling Legal Services Look Like?

Traci Stuart, Blattel Communications

The Legal Marketing Association – Bay Area Chapter, at a November educational program, examined “Empowered Buyers: The ‘New Normal’ of Selling Legal Services.”

On the panel were Rob Kahn, Chief Marketing Officer for Fenwick & West; Maggie Watkins, most recently Chief Marketing & Business Development officer for Best Best & Krieger and soon-to-be Chief Business Development and Marketing Officer for Bradley Arant Boult & Cummings; and Catherine Zinn, Client Development Executive for DLA Piper. Carla Cogan, Director of Business Development at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, moderated the information-packed session.

The panelists kicked off the discussion with review of a few of the business realities at play in the “new normal” and given an empowered buyer, including the need for a clear understanding of a firm’s commoditized v. customized legal services; the “disaggregation or unbundling of particular service lines for cost efficiencies (e.g., document review); increased competition from firms of all sizes; the advent of contract and temporary lawyer services and consultants; the growing number of proposals or pitches made to procurement departments and professionals; and the requirement that firms be flexible enough to work with the specific demands of their clients.

“Law firms must give up their pride, ego and reliance on precedent and be empathetic about client needs and open-minded about what they are delivering,” urged Kahn. He noted that this approach – which, in his example, involved collaborating with a particular type of client – led to innovation for Fenwick and an “I’ll-help-you-and-be-your-first-customer” reaction from the business community targeted.

Zinn noted that it’s a big mistake to think of empowered buyers, or general counsel, as “squeezing” their law firms. “We can fight over billing or view it as ‘we’re in this together,’” she said. “We cannot serve large clients well without being thoughtful about ways to collaborate.”

Watkins addressed cost pressures by suggesting that clients are really just asking their firms to “put skin in the game and share some of the risk. And even the less sophisticated clients are aware of alternative fee arrangements and are asking about them.”

“It’s really a business opportunity,” suggested Watkins. “Have a discussion: ‘Are you really trying to reduce costs or do you have another goal?’”

“Price doesn’t tell the whole story,” added Zinn. “You’ve got to get to what the client really wants.”

The panelists noted the explosion in requests for proposals or RFPs in the face of convergence trends, increased competition and dedicated purchasing or procurement functions. But all cautioned against just reacting to an RFP and noted the early opportunity to start forming a partnership.

“The first question in proposal building should always be ‘What do we know about this potential client company?’” said Kahn.

All spoke to the need to ask good questions in advance of the individual requesting the proposal and the importance of assembling the right team for pitching the business. Further, the panel emphasized the value of the information that can be extracted by following up with the requesting party to determine why your firm did not land the client.

Finally, the panel closed out the session with a frank discussion of “sales” in the law firm context. Zinn cautioned lawyers and firms: “In today’s market, it’s not about you.” Noting that “sales” is largely about psychology and the ability to determine “how the individual you’re working with is motivated.”

About the author:

traci-stuartTraci Stuart is president of Blattel Communications and chair of the LMA – Bay Area Chapter’s communications committee. She can be reached at traci@blattel.com.