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December 27, 2006

Sales training: Is it worth your while? Part 2 of 4

Making sales training work

Whether it’s called “business development training,” “account management training,” “relationship training,” or something else, legal sales training often aims to increase success by improving client relations and service.

Before he went to Ropes & Gray, Jim Durham was one of the leading consultants in this area, and he believes that, “The most important qualities of successful lawyers are about service and attitude… The communication, relational, and attitudinal skills that are essential to being a great lawyer are just as important as being able to name the most relevant Supreme Court decisions.” His book The Essential Little Book of Great Lawyering explains how to do this and provides “a road map to success by articulating what a lawyer needs to do to have every client say: ‘My lawyer is the best lawyer with whom I have ever worked.’”

Training programs take a variety of different roads to this goal, and emphasize different skills. According to Dave Milberg, Director of Marketing and Communications at Schiff Hardin in Chicago, “The most critical skill in developing new business can be summed up in one word: listening.”

Jones at Akin Gump emphasizes teamwork: “Lawyers are taught from the beginning of their career to work and excel as individuals. It’s all very competitive and individualistic. Our sales training helps them to provide better service and become more inclusive by working on a team with partners, associates, and clients.”

At Fish & Richardson, Rene Kraus is managing a new program which increases buy-in by having each lawyer select a different focus. Each individual reviews a checklist to select the items that best fit their practice and personality. Then they work with a coach, to ensure efficient follow up. According to Kraus “Checklists and pointers are very effective because lawyers are so busy, and many are literal people who appreciate the specifics. Sometimes it’s just the obvious. It can be as simple as remembering to call the client once in a while, since one of the chief complaints of clients is that they never hear from their lawyers.”

Some law firms are combining these elements and others into comprehensive training programs. In May, Bingham McCutchen began rolling out a new training program for associates, which tailors its approach based on their experience (junior, mid-level and senior associates). Bingham will continue to offer breakfast and lunch meetings in each of its twelve offices over the next several months. Six one hour sessions cover such themes as “Transforming client contacts into client relationships” and “Leveraging organized events: Preplanning and follow-up.”

Sessions are led by attorney development managers and practice leaders who focus on concrete examples of what has worked in the past. According to Dan Jackson, Bingham’s Director of Attorney Development: “Everybody agrees that law school can teach you how to think like a lawyer. But the practice of law is learned by doing, not in the classroom. Business development is no exception.”

Barrett at Drinker Biddle agrees. When he started a new sales training program last March, he hand picked a group of 12 practice group leaders, rainmakers and senior managers to attend the first session. In class, each lawyer agreed to specific assignments, such as meeting with a particular client, arranging a social or educational event with client personnel, or working to enhance the relationship with a particular person. In the first two months after the class, these activities produced many major new engagements valued at six figures, including a class action defense in Alabama for a large cable telecommunications company, obtaining all the intellectual property work for one of the largest HMOs in America, and being selected to handle three huge healthcare joint ventures between two Fortune 50 companies.

Based on this success, the training participants became missionaries who spread the word throughout the firm. As Barrett explained: “You need management to take the first step and establish that business development must be the responsibility of every lawyer in the firm. After that, it’s all about what lawyers say to each other in the hallways.”

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). To see the abridged version that appeared in print, go to the free resources section of our web page.

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