Blog/Podcast: Why This Firm Hired a Full-Time Director of Client Relations (and What You Can Learn from Their Efforts)
As Managing Partner and Chairman of the Executive Committee at Morris James, Keith Donovan helped his firm take the progressive step of hiring a client-facing business development manager. While having a full-time salesperson is something increasingly seen at Am Law-size firms, Morris James is one of the few smaller firms to do so. Keith joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast to share the thought process behind this decision as well as his advice for firms who want to follow a similar path.
Why a Director of Client Service Is a Good Investment
Adding a position that doesn’t directly generate revenue can be a tough sell to partners, especially when there are ostensibly cheaper ways of gauging client satisfaction, such as client surveys. While that route might work for some firms, the Executive Committee at Morris James wanted to invest in someone who would become part of the fabric of the firm’s culture and client service. They recognized that adding a client relations position would add to their service, better them as lawyers and make the firm more competitive in the market in the long run, even if it meant spending resources up front.
Additionally, client-facing sales directors can help strengthen the resources that already exist in a firm. Although lawyers are capable of making good financial decisions on their own or within their practice area, those decisions are often not coordinated across the firm. With a client relations professional focusing on the firm as a whole, it helps ensure that every attorney and practice area is working in connection with each other—which helps streamline costs and strategic planning.
How Client-Facing Business Development Works with Marketing
If the concept of legal sales is new to you, you might be thinking, “Isn’t this what our marketing director does?” While some client-facing business development duties might fall to marketing staff in the absence of a dedicated salesperson, the truth is that these professionals serve different functions. Although they are complementary, they are fundamentally different roles.
At Morris James, they recognized that the marketing aspect of what they do is different from client services or business development. They decided the best way to reach their business goals was to create two leadership positions: one focusing primarily on marketing and another focusing exclusively on client relations. By separating the positions, it allowed the marketing director to dedicate time to initiatives such as events, branding and advertising, while the client relations director could take a deep dive into how Morris James delivers services to its clients.
Why This Strategy Works for Small and Regional Firms, Too
One of the common obstacles that stops small and regional firms from moving toward legal sales is the sense that it’s something only large firms do. Although large firms were the first to start hiring client-facing business development staff, that doesn’t mean small firms can’t get in on the action.
When starting this process, Keith intentionally avoided categorizing Morris James by its size. Instead, he looked closely at his firm, its culture, and its goals and objectives. Rather than deciding to hire a director based on whether or not similarly sized firms were doing the same, he and the Executive Committee took an honest look at whether adding the position would be beneficial to clients and the firm. They decided the answer, at least for their firm, was yes.
How to Overcome Partner Resistance
Initially, Keith was of the mindset that only lawyers could sell legal services. But the more he thought about it, the more he became convinced that having different types of professionals engaged in client service would make his firm more competitive. Although some partners took longer than others to agree with Keith’s point of view, he got everyone on board simply by asking them to give him the benefit of time and understand that it was a long-term investment. This strategy worked: even the biggest detractor came around in a few short months, after seeing what a positive addition the new director of client relations was.
Keith urges firms thinking about taking this step not to think too traditionally. There’s a tendency for law firms to focus only on generating direct revenue, which can prevent them from making smart investments that will be beneficial over time. No one wants to increase the expense side of the equation, but if you consider how a director of client relations will create long-term returns and improve client service, that’s just as important to the bottom line.
What to Look for in a Client Service Hire
Once you’ve decided to create a client-facing business development position, then the hard part comes: hiring the right person. If it’s your firm’s first foray into client-facing sales, Keith suggests looking for candidates who have at least some law firm experience. That way, you can be confident that your hire understands how law firms function. Beyond that, the right person must know how to engage with lawyers and clients. Ideally, they’ll have an outgoing personality and an ability to interact with many different types of people.
Above all else, however, the most important characteristic in a client-facing sales hire is that they’re laser-focused on figuring out how to better serve clients. The right hire will find new ways to keep existing and future clients happy, solidifying your firm’s place in the market for many years to come.
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