Should Lawyers Be Trained in Sales?

BY Brendan Conley



Many attorneys are uncomfortable with sales, perhaps wishing that the firm's marketing staff could bring in the business and let the lawyers practice law. However, maintaining effective client relationships is undoubtedly part of the profession, and client relationships begin with the first contact, when a prospective client has not yet committed to the firm.

Bringing a prospective client on board means selling the firm's services, and it involves the same skills that attorneys must use to maintain ongoing client relationships: practicing good communication, understanding the client's needs and building the client's confidence that the firm will meet those needs.

Every attorney in a firm should therefore recognize the importance of sales skills and be willing to develop them.

Even when firms understand the importance of attorneys' sales skills, they may not have a clear idea of how to improve them. In fact, sales skills can be taught in a structured, formal way, and can be learned by anyone. The key elements of building trust and rapport, understanding the client's decision-making and increasing client satisfaction are teachable skills, but the firm's rainmakers may not be the best people to teach them. Mentoring is often unstructured and idiosyncratic, and it is unlikely to be effective, especially if the attorneys being trained cannot adapt to the mentor's personality or presentation style. Many firms are beginning to recognize that outside sales and marketing professionals may be better equipped to train the firm's attorneys in the art of sales. While outside professional sales trainers will not have in-depth knowledge of the firm's clients and culture, they will understand business and marketing and have the teaching and course development skills to impart that knowledge to the firm's attorneys.

Some firms are hiring non-lawyer marketing professionals to direct their marketing efforts, and bringing in sales executives to sell the firm's services and train attorneys to do the same. These trends are particularly pronounced in large firms with corporate clients. As those clients have sought to bring legal work in house, unbundle legal services and demand flat fees, law firms have responded by reexamining their pricing and project management and emphasizing sales. Firms that want to move in this direction would do well to become aware of some common obstacles to creating a sales culture, and the pros and cons of different approaches to sales training for attorneys.

Overcoming obstacles to the creation of a sales culture

The biggest obstacle to an emphasis on sales may be the attorneys themselves. The firm's attorneys may perceive marketing as unprofessional or inappropriate for lawyers. “I didn't go to law school to become a salesperson” is a common refrain. Attorneys may have a preconceived notion of salespeople as unethical, manipulative or less intelligent than themselves. They may simply feel that marketing is beneath them. This attitude can be countered in several ways.

First, the firm's attorneys should recognize that marketing legal services is a sophisticated skill, developed by intelligent professionals whom attorneys can learn from. Lawyers may have unconsciously absorbed the same stereotypes that the general public holds about salespeople as unethical, flashy, fast-talking, hard-selling cheats. It is worth noting that many people apply the same stereotypical traits to lawyers as well. Professionals marketing legal services to discerning clients are diametrically opposed to an unethical, hard sell approach. Instead, attorneys marketing the firm's services are actually building on their legal skills. Attorneys are professional communicators, expert convincers and experienced problem solvers who are highly skilled in analyzing a situation to determine the best course of action to achieve a client's goals. Listening to a client's explanation of their legal problem, understanding their goals and communicating to the client how the firm can help them, are natural extensions of an attorney's professional skills.

Another factor in convincing the firm's attorneys of the necessity of a sales culture is understanding that it is necessary for competitive advantage. The legal profession has been transformed tremendously over the past few decades, with services that were once considered highly specialized increasingly viewed as commodities. Many individual changes have played a role in this transformation: the number of attorneys has multiplied, clients have become more sophisticated and cost-conscious and there has been a move away from hourly billing toward flat fees and unbundled services. The result is that marketing has become an economic necessity for firms. Attorneys do not have the luxury of waiting for clients to come to them. Instead, they must communicate their unique value to clients.

Sometimes an obstacle can be overcome by circumventing it. Effective communication starts at the top, and there is no sense using terminology that has a negative connotation for your audience. It may help to refer a sales training program as “business development” or “building client relationships” when attempting to convince lawyers to participate.

Pros and cons of different approaches

The temptation to commission the firm's rainmakers as its sales trainers may be a strong one. After all, who better to teach than one who excels? The rainmakers get results, they are intimately familiar with the firm's culture and clients, and they are already in contact with the firm's other attorneys. Why not have them mentor other attorneys or lead a sales training program? There are actually several reasons why the firm's top sellers may not be the best trainers. A “natural” salesperson who found success quickly may never have taken the time to analyze what works and what does not. Teaching someone how to sell is a different skill than selling itself. And mentoring may be worse than ineffective: it may cause resentment between colleagues.

Another tempting approach is to have the firm's in-house marketing directors and administrators train attorneys. While it may be true that these personnel understand very well what the firm's attorneys need to learn about marketing, the attorneys may not be able to hear it from them. Many of the drawbacks of rainmakers-as-trainers apply to marketing directors-as-trainers as well: they may not have teaching skills, and having colleagues instruct each other may cause unnecessary animosity.

With regard to outside companies offering sales training, the firm should select a program based on whether it can be expected to meet the firm's goals, and this will depend in large part on the personnel conducting the training. Trainers may be described as marketing professionals, marketing professors, professional trainers or law firm consultants. While marketing professionals understand the day-to-day realities of business and marketing, they may lack teaching skills. Professional trainers and marketing professors may have superior teaching skills and in-depth knowledge, but little practical experience. Law firm consultants are more likely to have knowledge and experience about attorneys and firms, but may have less experience with teaching and course development, and may seek to sell the firm other consulting services that are not needed. These professional categories represent a continuum of skills, and an ideal trainer will bring the right combination of capabilities to the task.

Another consideration is the level of involvement that the firm wants the sales training team to take on. The firm's attorneys may attend a single seminar or an ongoing series of courses, or there may be personalized, hands-on training with mock client presentations. A fully integrated sales training program may involve bringing in non-lawyer sales professionals as marketing directors, charged with directing both sales training for attorneys and more general marketing efforts.

“Sales” is not a popular word in most law firms, but the truth is that communicating the value of the firm's legal services to prospective clients is part of being a good lawyer, and in these changing times, it is a skill that firms cannot afford to ignore.

Brendan Conley

Brendan Conley is a staff contributor to Bigger Law Firm Magazine and legal content developer for law firms throughout the United States.


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