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December 20, 2006

Sales training: Is it worth your while? Part 1 of 4

This four part series is an expanded version of an article that I wrote for the most recent issue of Law Firm Inc (Nov/Dec 2006, p. 30).

For most lawyers, sales is a dirty word. But if you think that relatively few law firms have tried sales training, think again. In a survey published by ALM Research and The Brand Research Company, a majority of the 157 firms who responded had implemented some type of sales training.

The larger the firm, the more likely it was to have tried sales training. 69% of the “Tier 1” firms in the survey (with an average of 489 lawyers) had trained some of their lawyers vs. 46% of the “Tier 2” firms (with an average of 118 lawyers).

When Sue Stock Allison of the Brand Research Company and Katherine Daisley, Marketing Manager for ALM Research, presented these findings in June at the Legal Sales and Service Organization’s RainDance Conference, the fact that captured the headlines was not the number trained, but perceptions of the results. When the marketing professionals in the survey were asked to rate eight factors that contributed to revenue growth, sales training came in dead last.

When strategic marketing consultant Larry Bodine, founder of the Law Marketing Portal, described the audience reaction to these findings in his blog, the title of his post read “Shock and Awe at LSSO: Sales Training Doesn't Work.”

Jim Durham, Chief Marketing Officer at Ropes & Gray, says that one reason that the results of sales training are controversial is that “The term ‘sales’ should always be in quotes because it means so many different things to people.” Some programs specialize in large account management training, others in how to win new business, or in how to get referrals, or in how to network. Success varies based both on the type of training, and on the audience.

To understand what works, it makes sense to start with the most basic question: Why are so many law firms trying sales training?

The competitive environment

“It’s ridiculously more competitive out there, and lawyers simply must start selling to survive,” says Steve Barrett, Chief Marketing Officer at Philadelphia’s Drinker Biddle. “Major clients are reorganizing the way they buy legal services. A tectonic shift to buyer power is underway, similar to what happened in the 1980s when HMOs and third party payers started taking over the healthcare industry. ”

It all started with DuPont. The Dupont Legal Model “helps law firms and corporate law departments improve the quality, cost and efficiency of legal services.” One way it does this is by systematically cutting back on the number of law firms that large corporations use. Their web page describes how Dupont itself used the model to reduce an “unwieldy assortment… of more than 350 law firms and scores of service providers and consultants” to 42 primary law firms and a handful of others. Since then, many other firms have applied this “convergence process” to cut costs. In one notable example, Tyco reduced the number of law firms it uses in product liability cases from 167 down to one.

Some law firms are trying to survive this cut-throat process by reducing price. Others aim to succeed by improving service and strengthening relationships. As Rene Kraus, Director of Marketing and Business Development of the Patent Group at Fish & Richardson, put it: “When companies divide the work among fewer firms, relationships can be critical. It’s really easy to cut somebody from the list if you haven’t talked to them in a while.”

Many firms are also organizing lawyers into groups to improve quality through client service teams. Client Services Advisor Iris Jones manages this process for one of the leaders in the movement, Washington D.C. firm Akin Gump. She explains: “One thing that’s different these days is that clients demand to be much more involved in decision making. There was a time when clients expected lawyers to handle matters for them, and were not as involved in the details. The client’s role was simply to pay the bills. Now clients are looking for efficiency, cost savings, and value added. This is a cultural shift which requires lawyers to be more open and to collaborate in teams. Success is no longer just about talent, now it is about responsiveness, rapport, trust, and service.”

Sales training is one of the ways many firms are responding to these changes in the competitive environment, and in the very definition of a successful lawyer. Mind you, there is still a great deal of resistance. None of the people interviewed for this article claimed that lawyers are lining up in the halls asking for sales training. As Dan Jackson, Director of Attorney Development at Boston’s Bingham McCutchen noted “The concept of selling is foreign to many lawyers. The law is a proud profession. In the past, prior work was often enough to produce continuing business.” But lawyers are starting to recognize the need for change, and their firms are experimenting with a variety of approaches to sales training.

To see the abridged version of this article as it appeared in Law Firm Inc., go to the free resources section of our web page.


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