The Case for Cross-Selling in Law Firms

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One of the most cost effective and efficient ways to generate new business for law firms is to sell additional services to existing clients. If done right, not only can it generate increased revenue for a law firm, but it can also deepen relationships with clients by addressing more of their needs. It seems like an obvious and easy strategy to expand business, so why doesn’t cross-selling happen more often? 

If only it were that easy. The reality is that cross-selling is complex and has many pieces that must work together to make the process successful. And, law firms may give attorneys the tools they need, but that doesn’t mean they’ll use them. Many firms may feel like it’s a lost cause, but if they commit to educating attorneys on the benefits of cross-selling and be consist in reinforcing the behavior, you are likely to see the results.  

Below we examine why clients want to work with attorneys who collaborate (another important aspect of cross-selling), difficulties marketing and business development teams face when trying to get their lawyers to cross-sell and strategies to overcome these challenges. 

Why Law Firm Clients Care About Collaboration 

  • Clients are increasingly sophisticated and want access to the top experts and knowledge in a law firm. They want to know that the firm has a deep understanding of their business and sector, is able to service them at all levels and is looking out for their best interests. 
  • Clients hire specific firms because the attorneys have deep connections, and there is huge power in that. Attorneys need to get over the fear of “I don’t know everything” and introduce the client to additional resources that can solve their problems – both now and what client face in the future. Let’s be honest, we all know the power in identifying future problems and presenting future solutions to those problems (even if that means it’s not your area of expertise). You will create a life-long seat at the table when you can do that. 
  • Clients care about streamlining their vendor base. If they can turn to one firm for all legal needs, this creates operational simplicity and cost efficiency. Remember, even if you are introducing outside resources, if you are addressing their needs, you will be viewed as a forever resource (and undoubtedly, more work will come your way). 

Obstacles to Cross-Selling 

  • Fear of losing client/billable hours. The attorney with the relationship may be afraid to pass along their long-term client to another attorney within the firm because they don’t think their colleague will provide the same level of service. This situation can create friction with the originating attorney and potentially lose the client’s business altogether. On the flip side, the originating attorney may hold the client close to the vest in fear that the other attorney will win the business, and in turn win the originating attorney’s billable hours and compensation.  
  • Don’t want to over-leverage the client. Most attorneys don’t want to come across as selling to their clients. If they’re working on an intellectual property matter and the client could also benefit from talking with a tax lawyer in the firm, the attorney may shy away from the referral to avoid the client thinking they’re trying to squeeze more money out of them. 
  • Unaware of other attorneys’ expertise. This happens more often than you’d think, especially in larger firms. One practice area may never talk to another, so the attorneys aren’t familiar with the firm’s full capabilities. Or, attorneys in the New York office may not realize the Los Angeles office brought on a new attorney with a niche expertise. This issue is being compounded in a growing virtual world where attorneys are interacting less and less in person.   
  • Don’t hear the opportunity present itself. Historically, sales and business development hasn’t been taught in law school, so the art of sales may not come naturally to attorneys. This could be particularly true for older attorneys who have always done things a certain way and aren’t thinking about how to work with their colleagues. Also, many attorneys think the onus is on them to pitch additional services, when in reality, the trick is to ask clients what business challenges they’re experiencing and listen for an opportunity to provide a solution.  

Overcoming Barriers to Cross-Selling 

Firm management will need to strategically counter attorney objections and focus on firmwide goals rather than individual goals to successfully cross-sell. The following steps are critical to achieving this. 

  • Educate attorneys on the firm’s clients and cross-selling best practices. Firms may include cross-selling education as part of a new attorney’s onboarding process, which is great, but it won’t stay top of mind if there’s not consistency around these efforts. Create an ongoing education program that trains lawyers in basic sales concepts and allows practice groups to give presentations to the rest of the firm. This ensures everyone knows the firm’s capabilities and teaches them how to listen for client triggers that could open the door to more work. This should also help shift the attorneys’ mindset from “my clients” to the “firm’s clients.” 
  • Set up a fair compensation system. Compensation is typically the biggest challenge in law firms as most are structured to “eat what you kill.” Smart firms will address this issue from the outset and define a compensation system that benefits both attorneys, or create a sharing incentive. Some firms have scrapped the notion of origination credit altogether and evaluate their attorneys on a number of factors in addition to business development. Others let the originating attorney make the decision – I’m passing along work to Bonnie so I’ll give her a cut. However, this relies on the originating attorney being fair about what percentage they are willing to give up.  
  • Lean into technology and automate customer relationship management. If the firm doesn’t have an active CRM system, it means the attorneys and sales/business development professionals can’t access up-to-date insight on clients. This creates a roadblock to effective cross-selling. Moreover, having a CRM that the firm doesn’t use doesn’t help anyone. By automating CRM, this captures information in real time and in turn, meeting notes, client updates and other relevant activities are accessible by anyone in the firm. This relationship intelligence now allows attorneys to make knowledgeable decisions based on the client’s history with the firm. 

Don’t forget to leverage the firm’s competitive intelligence tools. Find out what challenges your clients are facing and then ask the marketing and business development department to compile research that can be used to further discussions. Attorneys are accustomed to using these subscriptions for case research, but not necessarily for prospecting, so it may feel daunting. This is where the marketing department can step in to assist.  

  • Empower attorneys to work together in other ways. This can include collaborating on CLE presentations and webinars, co-authoring articles or blogs and being pitched together in the media as experts on a particular topic. Establishing relationships in smaller ways first will give attorneys an opportunity to work together and learn about each other’s expertise. For more suggestions on how to implement cross-marketing via marketing and public relations campaigns to foster collaboration and diminish trust issues, click here 
  • Celebrate and reinforce positive behavior. Management should make examples of and highlight those that have done well with cross-selling. There should be regular, internal communications, such as a newsletter, that go out firmwide to recognize attorneys. Create a case study on the success and incorporate it into the next training meeting. Effective collaboration shouldn’t fly under the radar. The more it’s celebrated, the more attorneys will get excited about it and want to contribute. Separately, it should be part of performance reviews and again, compensation/bonus structures.  

As the legal industry evolves, attorneys and practice groups have become more siloed so law firms must be intentional about cross-selling. Leadership can’t assume attorneys will take the initiative without proper sales education and follow-up. But done the right way, cross-selling will become second nature to attorneys, deepen relationships with current clients and ultimately, unlock untapped revenue.  

Pro tip: Don’t use the word cross-selling when speaking to clients or your attorneys. Clients don’t want to be sold to, and attorneys generally have a negative reaction to the concept of sales. Focus on words such as collaboration, solving problems, etc.  

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