Many law firms are realizing the benefits of having a dedicated sales function, but before they can reap those benefits, there are potential challenges that firms need to take into consideration first.

Steve Bell, “the Neil Armstrong of law firm sales,” is familiar with these challenges, having been one of the first-ever law firm sales executives. He joined Womble Carlyle as national director of sales in 2001 and continues to lead the charge now that the firm has merged with Bond Dickinson to create Womble, Bond, Dickinson. Steve joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast and shared what law firms need to know about the sales function.

Think it through before you make your first hire.

Sales is an emerging discipline within law firms and most would benefit from having some sort of sales executive or department. That doesn’t mean, however, that firms should dive head-first into sales—at least not without thinking it through carefully. Long before launching the hiring process, firms need to have the “sales debate”—is the firm ready for a sales department? how will it function?, etc.

When the time comes to hire sales staff, law firms need to be in a position where they can welcome a sales function with open arms. It’s unfair to force a sales executive to justify their position after they’ve been hired. Get partners on board before bringing new staff into the mix.

Your first salesperson is the most important hire you’ll ever make.

The selection of the first sales hire is critical and will spell out whether your program will be successful or whether it’s going to fail. The character and skill of the first individual are of the utmost importance because he or she will set the stage for the future development of your sales program.

That said, a salesperson isn’t a magic wand. A single person, or even a team of people, is not going to move the revenue needle in a significant way, especially in the first year or two. They can bring best practices and lead the charge, but they can’t do it alone. If a “sale” is going to happen, at some point the lawyer needs to step in. The salesperson can’t deliver the service themselves and clients want to meet who they’ll be working with. Lawyers are not absolved from participating in the sales process just because salespeople have joined the firm.

A good salesperson has hard and soft skills.

The most important trait a potential sales hire can have is experience selling intangibles. That doesn’t necessarily mean selling legal services; a good legal salesperson can come from a background in finance, accounting or another field. Experience dealing with intangible services is what’s important, along with the requisite sales skills.

A good salesperson will also be an independent self-starter who doesn’t need coddling. Emotional intelligence is vital. And, of course, anyone who works at a law firm must have the highest level of integrity. They must be ethical and take responsibility for their own mistakes.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that a legal salesperson is making two sales: one to potential clients and one to firm partnership. Sales staff need to sell leadership on the importance of sales and get them motivated to participate. Both inside and outside sales skills are key.

It doesn’t matter how sales and marketing interact, as long as they work together.

If your firm has decided to create a sales department, the next question becomes: does sales report to marketing or vice versa? Ultimately, it’s not a momentous decision. The way the firm is structured is simply a function of the firm’s culture and operating principles. The most important thing is that everybody in sales and marketing understands that they’re on the same team.

The purpose of marketing is to generate new revenue. That’s the exact same responsibility of someone who’s wearing the sales hat. Marketing is on one end of the spectrum and sales is on the other, but the objective is the same. The two can work together just fine so long as business is handed off smoothly.

Marketing and sales are key during a merger.

Steve played a significant role in the merger between Womble Carlyle and Bond Dickinson. A year before the merger officially happened, the two firms were working under a “transatlantic alliance,” where they referred business to one another and included both brands on marketing collateral. This allowed for a smoother transition for both attorneys and sales staff.

Steve notes that international mergers have unique challenges. One interesting exercise was reconciling differences in language. Steve and his team now have to consider how words are spelled and how things are phrased to minimize differences between U.S. English and U.K. English in marketing materials.

In the future, artificial intelligence will play an even bigger role in legal sales.

Steve believes the next step in legal sales and service is law firm products—but he doesn’t mean tangible things like books or software. He’s talking about solutions that solve specific legal problems. So, when a client approaches your firm with a legal matter, whether it’s transactional, litigation or regulatory, you’ll have a tried-and-true process for solving it. Bell’s vision is that firms will codify solutions that have been put in place for one client and sell them to other clients with similar situations.

He also thinks there’s great promise for artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. This technology is starting to become mainstream in the practice of law, but not so much in the realm of legal sales and marketing. In other industries, AI marketing is the norm—anyone who’s ever shopped on Amazon has experienced it. Law firm marketers and sales staff can learn a lot by watching powerful commercial organizations to see how they’re using these technologies.

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