Guest: Neel Lilani, Managing Director, Global Corporate Development at Orrick
Episode 59: Client-Facing Business Development Benefits for Clients & Lawyers
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast. Today, my guest is Neel Lilani, Managing Director of Orrick’s global corporate development efforts for technology companies. He consults with tech companies on financing and business strategy and manages Orrick’s venture capital relationships. He is a pioneer in client-facing business development in law firms. Today, he’ll tell us about his work and give us his perspective on trends in the legal field. Neel, thanks so much for being here.
Neel: Sharon, thank you for having me.
Sharon: So glad to have you. I know you’ve been globetrotting; so glad we could catch up with you. So Neel, you have extensive client relationship and business development experience, can you tell us about your career path and how you came to law firms, and did you intend to practice law?
Neel: After graduating law school and business school, I went to Thomson Reuters, where I was part of an internal strategy consulting team focused on Thomson’s legal brand. Then, for personal reasons, I ended up moving out west. My then wife and I decided to relocate to the San Francisco Bay Area and I found myself with an opportunity to be part of a new team at Robert Half, which was focused on negotiating both business and legal terms of the relationship between Robert Half and those large Global 1000 companies.
So I had a great basis of training in sort of direct client interaction in that role and really the fundamentals of negotiating business and legal terms in that capacity, but after being there for about five years, I found myself wanting to get back to the ecosystem and technology industry which is so core to the Bay Area and, in fact, before going to law school, I had a stint at Silicon Valley Bank, where I was focused again on tech and live sciences as a banker. So I wanted to come back to that world. I ended up coming over to Fenwick and West, where I had the pleasure and opportunity of leading Fenwick’s business development team; again, Fenwick, being a mid-sized firm, was a great opportunity.
Sharon: Was Fenwick at that time—I’m just curious—were you the first person in that position, in a business development position, or were you—
Neel: There were other people on that team, but I came in to sit under the CMO and help run that team.
Sharon: And then from there?
Neel: Then from there, I really wanted to get more direct out-of-the-market client interaction and potential client interaction experience. So I realized that I needed to go to a larger firm in order to make that happen, and DLA Piper is well-known in the industry for having a deep bench of trained client development professionals. So I then had the opportunity to come over to DLA, where I had a great experience and think very highly of that team currently led by Erin Dimry, who’s a tremendous executive herself, and I worked alongside a number of other professionals, including Catherine Zinn.
Catherine, then a few years after my arrival to DLA, ended up coming over to Orrick to be our Chief Client Officer, and no small part of the reasons for me coming to Orrick were Catherine’s leadership here, so that being one piece of the pie that made it a good fit for me to come over to Orrick. The other bit was that Orrick is a super-strong, tech-focused law firm and it is a global law firm with a singular partnership. So all of those sorts of components together made the move to Orrick all the more appealing for me and I’ve been sort of here for about 3½ years now and it’s been a great experience.
Sharon: I didn’t realize it was that long. I’m really just curious, you got your J.D., MBA.
Sharon: Did you want to go into the legal field or was it just sort of a—
Neel: I didn’t want to practice law. I went to law school and business school with the intent of being a stronger businessperson by having that legal training. I wanted to be able to understand the sort of ins and outs of contracts and other business-focused areas of law so that I can be a stronger business executive. I didn’t have an interest in a traditional sort of associate-to-partner path legal career.
Sharon: But it sounds like you had an interest in the legal field.
Neel: Oh, absolutely, in the legal industry itself, I’ve always had an interest and the business of law is a very interesting and fast-growing space.
Sharon: Did you gain that interest or was it ignited? I’m just curious; I’m sorry.
Neel: Yeah, that’s fair. I think that interest sort of became further ignited when I had the opportunity to come to Thomson. The Thomson job was much more of a sort of business-focused position, but it happened to be focused on the legal industry. So that training allowed me to sort of gain a deeper perspective in the sort of legal industry overall and the different segmentation therein, and really understand how large of a universe it can be.
Sharon: Wow! It sounds like such a strong background, especially when you’re talking to these tech clients in terms of just seeing it from both perspectives. Legal, you can see the legal aspects and have a really strong understanding of that as well as the business aspect. I mean it sounds really—to me, it seems very attractive in terms of them being attracted to somebody like you.
Neel: Yeah, I think that’s fair. I have a deep understanding, or at least a deep interest, in the sort of business of our clients, especially in our technology clients, and really getting pretty granular about what they’re trying to achieve, how they’re trying to achieve it and how we may be able to help beyond traditional legal services. Whether that’s introductions to relevant investors; whether that’s potential commercial introductions we can make; or whether that’s assistance with finding board members or other executive team hires that they want to make. It’s sort of a whole slew of value-add services that we’re able to provide and a lot of that stems from my deep interest in their businesses.
Sharon: It sounds very interesting, a lot of variety. So can you tell us a little bit about the work you do? I’m sure no day is the same, but in terms of consulting with tech firms on financing a business strategy, where do you start or how does that come up?
Neel: Yeah, you can look at it as two different buckets: one, existing clients, who are raising capital, and two, our partners, who will ask me to take time and meet with them. For example, this morning, I had two different such meetings before 11:00 in the morning and talking to these companies about where they’re going. One is raising a Series A round and the other is raising a Series C round and that typically is the sort of sweet spot for me as far as what I could deprive derive the most value from a fundraising perspective, but we were also talking with the Series C company about board members that they may be wanting to add and who from our universe may be relevant. So that’s sort of a little flavor of how that works.
Part of the reason we offer these value-add services is that they distinguish Orrick from other players in the marketing, but it also provides an opportunity for reciprocity with our investor population who appreciates the deal flow we’re sending their way. The theory being in time, and hopefully less time than more time, they will send us the companies as well that are a fit for our platform.
Sharon: And when you say that the Series A and Series C are the sweet spot for you, what do you mean by that?
Neel: I mean companies that are raising or have raised a financial round between Series A and Series C, so that’s typically, they’re raising between call $8 million and $80 million for purposes of discussion. So that is the area where I can provide sort of the most value to those companies from a fundraising perspective.
Now, when you asked about this, I said there are different buckets. So that’s one bucket where it’s kind of existing clients. Then there’s sort of the net new where those are clients, or potential clients I should say, that I’m pursuing on behalf of the firm, oftentimes in direct coordination with a partner and, in some cases, just completely on my own, for the initial portion of it and in those instances, I’m also discussing fundraising opportunities that we’re able to potentially assist with that may lead to the ability for Orrick to have an engagement with that company.
Sharon: So when you’re talking about a net new, are they mostly coming from—I mean is it from your own networking? Is it from referrals? Is it from people you knew in past lives? Where is that coming from?
Neel: Yeah, it’s all of the above. I would say probably half of my own network, another quarter referrals, that come in and then another quarter are just other.
Sharon: O.K., when do you bring the lawyers themselves into the process?
Neel: It depends on the stage of the company and how far along we are in the sales process. I’ll do the initial sort of vetting to make sure it’s a company we want to work with, and then once I’ve done that and I realize that there is an opportunity and there is interest with the company, I’ll identify the right partner who I think is the right partner within my firm and then go and meet with them, discuss the opportunity, assuming there’s interest. Then, we’ll work together on when to introduce them and how to best introduce them and if, for whatever reason, there’s not a fit, then looking at others within the firm who may be interested, but in no case do I stand as an impediment to the relationship between the partner and the company. Once that sort of rapport has been established and we kind of know what next steps are from a legal needs perspective, I take a step back and I will oftentimes maintain a relationship with the founder or other executives that I’ve met initially, but certainly let the partner then lead the relationship. There’s no need for an additional intermediary, myself, once that relationship has been established.
Sharon: I know that Orrick has such a history of people in roles like yours, I mean relatively speaking in terms of it’s relatively new, but do you find resistance from your lawyers at all or like, “I’ll take care of it myself,” or “Don’t get involved,” or anything like that? Or prospective clients, are they like, “I don’t understand what you do?”
Neel: No, I think my colleagues here at the firm are very supportive of my efforts and they realize that they are complementary to their own and not competitive to their own, so there are obviously exceptions here and there, but by far and wide, the reception is positive and very supportive.
As far as clients are concerned, kind of explaining why I do what I do and they seem to get it. They oftentimes have their own sort of client development and client relationship teams internally within their own companies, so they understand the purpose around it. So yeah, there tends to be not a whole lot of pushback on the client side either. It’s a relatively new function here at Orrick, fine, but we’re an innovative place. We’re willing to try things. We will tweak things if they’re not working well. In that way, we are willing to be novel in our approach to providing legal services.
Sharon: No, you’re definitely an innovative firm and leading the charge in a lot of this in terms of—I’m sure on the legal side and financing side and the things that are something I may not know as much about, but in terms of the business to client, having client-facing business development, a team spearheading that, definitely on the cutting edge.
I’m curious because—this is my own perception—it seems like you’re dealing with, like two different kinds of personalities. You’re dealing with the lawyer personality and let’s say the, I don’t know, entrepreneurial personality, but you’re dealing with a lot of deal people, which tends to be a more, to me, transactional personality and maybe that’s not correct, but do you find that you’re sort of switching your gears or speeds, or am I just totally off base?
Neel: Yeah, I don’t think you’re off base. I think it’s a fair thought. I would say that our sort of lawyers here tend to be more business-minded than many other groups of attorneys and because of that I think there’s sort of more homogeny in dialect, in verbiage, in style of conversation. We are a very business-oriented place, so it’s kind of a natural flow from one group being the entrepreneurial group to the other group, which is the internal lawyers here.
Sharon: And then when you’re dealing with the venture capitalists, the money people.
Neel: Yeah, we all speak the same language. Frankly, we all speak the same language and the sort of intent around it is a little bit different. The investors want to put their money into the best company where they’re going to get the best return and the companies want to raise money from the best firms; they want to raise the most money; we want to help our companies along the way grow up. So we all have our own sort of different motivations, but we’re speaking the same language; we’re all looking at ultimately the same positive outcomes. That’s kind of what we’re all looking out for here.
Sharon: O.K., and so what role does the marketing department play in what you do? Are you totally separate or do you turn to them? Are they turning to you? How does that work?
Neel: So I would say that our marketing department is a vital and integral part of our client development efforts. They are sort of a distinct group from our sales team, but we’re closely aligned with one another. I rely heavily on them for their insights, their strategies and partnership in pursuit of the companies and industries and a whole variety of different things, but we’re closely related. But we are sort of different people doing different sorts of things, but I would say that our marketing senior people are some of the best that I’ve worked with in the industry and I should point out one other thing that Catherine Zinn, who I referenced earlier, is now not only our Chief Client Officer, but is also now our—she oversees client development and marketing. So, our Global Head of Marketing reports up to Catherine as well.
Sharon: All right, so you’re pulling in the same direction, not that you wouldn’t be, but I’m just saying sometimes they’re doing parallel things, but not interacting a lot, but it sounds like you’re working very closely there.
Neel: I would say so. I’d probably interact with our marketing team in any given week at least once a day on one thing or another.
Sharon: O.K., so the challenge often is how to hire somebody like you, somebody in a client-facing position for business development for a law firm, maybe not at your level, but somebody who’s going to be opening doors or expanding existing relationships. What qualities do you think somebody should look for in that person?
Neel: I would say enthusiasm and passion about a particular industry, an understanding of legal services and why companies use legal services, at what stages and for what different reasons. So what you’d want to have in somebody in this role is somebody who can have a conversation with a GC or a CFO or a founder or what have you and be able to think about, “Wow, here are areas of my firm that might be relevant and how do I speak about them intelligently, but not having necessarily a great level of granularity and depth, but at a high level? How do I speak about them intelligently and what is relevant about them to this particular company?” It’s somebody who can do those two things: (1) again passion, enthusiasm; (2) an understanding of the services that any given firm is able to provide and how do you find those people? That’s a great question. You can find them from a variety of different areas. I would say an interesting area that I’ve seen is former practitioners or people who are associates who didn’t want that career path any longer. I’m hearing more about folks making a transition that way. Those who are in client development functions at other professional services organizations, such as some of the larger accounting and consulting firms. Those are typically people who can learn the legal services side, but have an understanding of how to pursue and maintain client relationships. Those are some initial thoughts.
Sharon: O.K., so not necessarily—when I say being a good salesperson, I’m not talking about selling a used car, but it seems to me like a lot of patience, understanding a long-term sale in a sense, and also, as you were saying, maintaining the relationship. I think it just takes a different personality than it might be in a shorter-term turnover sort of thing.
Neel: Yeah, so I would agree that the personality types are important. I’m sorry. I think I missed the question there.
Sharon: I’m not sure I was stating it clearly. So they don’t need to be a lawyer?
Neel: Well, I don’t think so. It certainly doesn’t hurt for somebody to have that background so they can understand the practice areas a little better, but I don’t think that that’s a deal breaker if somebody else otherwise has the right characteristics and just doesn’t have professional legal training.
Sharon: So if you’re interviewing, if after this conversation, you had an interview with somebody to fill a position like this—O.K., the résumé got them in the door, so what would attract you? What would make you say, “O.K., I want to keep talking to this person,” or “They should go to the next level,” or what do you think it might be?
Neel: I think a lot of it is passion and enthusiasm, which can be summed up to a sort of personality type where somebody does have a sort of consultative approach that you think that they’re curious; they’re passionate, but they’re not just thinking about an overly salesy, as you said, short-term transactional approach. So I think personality type is a big thing for me. I think sort of industry knowledge, depending upon the sector for which I’m hiring. I would want to understand that that potential candidate has not only knowledge of and a network in that area, but also knowledge of like what’s going on in that industry, so if it’s an energy sector person, what’s going on there. For example, in tech, I can dig very deeply and understand how much the person actually knows and so on, and so I think those are more important than the sort of professional legal training pieces of the pie.
Sharon: That makes a lot of sense. You can see passion in the eyes and in the way they’re talking, but it’s hard to put into words, I guess.
Neel: Yeah, and again, in the industry sector, understanding is important, very important.
Sharon: Are you seeing more firms hiring people in positions like these as opposed to more marketing people? I know that some marketing people I am friends with are being pressured to become client-facing business developers, which they’ve never done before.
Neel: Right, so I am seeing more and more firms implement externally-focused sales team programs. I do think that some marketing people can make that transition, but some just don’t want to. It’s a very different mindset and not to say that one is more valuable than the other, but they’re just really different, and that leap for some people is uncomfortable and something that they don’t want to do. So I think forcing somebody to make that shift is generally not going to be a good solution for the employee/candidate or the firm. So if somebody has a willingness and expresses a willingness and an interest to do it, that’s fine and that’s one thing, but again, forcing it is not what I see as a recipe for success.
Sharon: No, I would definitely agree with that, definitely, yes, and Neel, thank you so much for taking the time and talking with us today. It’s great to have a chance to talk to you. I know that you have really been on the forefront from a while back. I mean more than ten years ago, I think, which is really early on and so you’ve really seen the development and the growth here. So thank you so much for being with us and to everybody listening, that wraps up another episode of the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast. If you’d like to contact Neel, we’ll have his information in the show notes and if you like what you heard and would like to hear more, you can subscribe at iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please review us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest who can help you move your firm forward. Thank you so much for listening.
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