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October 31, 2007

The fine art of bird-dogging

This week’s post reproduces my column “On Business Development” from the October 2007 issue of Law Firm, Inc.

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Business development is about listening to a potential client’s needs, says Joe Melnick, one of the most seasoned marketing executives in the legal business.

At Butzel Long, a 225-lawyer firm based in Detroit, Joseph Melnick describes a big part of his job as chief marketing officer and director of strategic planning as “a combination of lead bird-dog and matchmaker.” Melnick figures he spends up to 30 percent of his time developing contacts in the local business community and in targeted associations. He thinks others should follow suit. “Marketing professionals need to spend more time in the business community, developing relationships and representing the firm,” he says.

But getting out and about, he goes on, is just the beginning. To be effective, a CMO also has to make new business contacts the right way. “It’s all about listening,” he says, “not about explaining your capabilities.”

A quietly attentive CMO who doesn’t try to market his firm’s talents may sound like a perverse sort of role reversal, but Melnick believes in letting his attorneys do the actual selling. He sees his job as understanding the potential client’s needs and then matching those needs with the appropriate Butzel Long attorney.

Once he provides an introduction, Melnick gives the lawyer insights into what should happen next, based not just on the business needs, but on the people involved. “I set up the first date, and the lawyer takes it from there,” he says. This makes it possible for the lawyer to go into that first meeting with a clear idea of what needs to be done, and focus on providing legal advice and services.

For example, for more than a decade Melnick has been active in Automation Alley, a business alliance to attract high technology firms to southern Michigan. Finally, at one Automation Alley reception, Melnick got his chance: A senior county official described a challenge he faced involving the performance of a technology vendor, and asked for ideas on how to address several complex issues. As chance would have it, a Butzel Long lawyer with significant experience in this area was at the same reception. Melnick introduced the two, and Butzel Long was later hired to handle a significant litigation, which led to follow-on referrals. When Automation Alley got a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce to help small businesses boost their exports, Melnick also helped plan the organization’s first trade mission to China and arranged for two of the firm’s lawyers to travel as part of the mission.

Melnick is quick to point out that the introductions he offers are only a gambit. “There is no substitute for the strong relationships that develop between lawyers and their clients,” he says. “At the end of the day, clients want and need to build personal relationships with the lawyers who provide their key services.”

Bird-dogging evidently pays off. Melnick has headed Butzel Long’s marketing effort for more than 15 years, no small achievement in legal marketing. He says he’s “going for the record” for the longest marketing tenure at a single firm, and he just might get there.

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» Getting clients: bird-dogs and matchmakers. from What About Clients?
See "The Fine Art of Bird-Dogging" up at Jim Hassett's Legal Business Development. It's from his column last month at Law Firm, Inc.... [Read More]

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