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Episode 72: Bringing on a Legal Sales Professional at a Small Firm with Keith Donovan, Managing Partner & Chair of the Executive Committee at Morris James

Guest: Keith Donovan, Managing Partner and Chair of the Executive Committee of Morris James

Episode 72: Bringing on a Legal Sales Professional at a Small Firm

Sharon:  Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Podcast. Today, my guest is Keith E. Donovan, Managing Partner and Chair of the Executive Committee of Morris James, which has six offices in Delaware. Keith has more than 25 years’ experience litigating personal injury cases. The firm has a wide range of business practice areas. In addition, Morris James has taken the progressive step of engaging a full-time client-facing business development manager, a salesperson if you will. She is Dawn Sheiker, who has been a past guest on this podcast. This is intriguing to me because while having a full-time salesperson is something that we increasingly see at Am Law-size firms, it’s more unusual to have someone in this capacity at a smaller or regional firm. Today, we’ll get the scoop on the thought process behind this as well as advice for firms who want to follow a similar path. Keith, welcome to the podcast.

Keith: Thank you so much for having me, Sharon.

Sharon: So glad to be talking with you. Tell us about your background. Did you always want to be a lawyer? How did you get into law?

Keith: I can’t say that I always wanted to be a lawyer. I was born and raised in Delaware and I attended my undergraduate studies at the University of Delaware, where I was a business major. As part of that business major, I concentrated in business management or leadership issues as I worked my way through my undergraduate degree process. I was probably two years into that process when I started to think seriously about what life was going to be like after college, and it was at that time that I started focusing on an interest in the law. About halfway through my undergraduate degree, I made a decision that I wanted to focus on law school. I was intrigued by the law and I was interested in pursuing that career path, so after completing my business degree, I headed out to law school.

Sharon:  Did you initially think that you wanted to be a trial lawyer?

Keith: I did not initially think I wanted to be a trial lawyer. Growing up in Delaware and understanding a little bit about the law in the state of Delaware, particularly in the northern part of the state where corporate and business practice is so prevalent in the law, and with my business background, when I entered law school I assumed that I would be practicing in the area of corporate law in one way or another. It wasn’t until my second year or so of law school, when I took an intensive trial advocacy practice class that I really enjoyed the thought of being in a courtroom and fighting for individual rights within a courtroom. When I entered my third year of law school, my mind had changed from being a business or corporate lawyer to that of being a trial lawyer.

Sharon:  Interesting. You’re now the Chair of the Executive Committee and the Managing Partner. Sometimes I’ve heard that described as a thankless task. What attracted you to spearheading the firm’s leadership? Were there certain ideas you had that you wanted to implement?

Keith: I’m in the process of completing my second year as managing partner now. Prior to that, I served on our Executive Committee for the preceding nine years. To answer your question more directly, I already had an interest in organizational leadership, and that goes all the way back to my college days when I was studying business. Even as a very young lawyer working my way up through the law firm process, I always wanted to be able to contribute to the leadership aspects of the firm. When the opportunity presented itself, I expressed my interest in becoming part of the Executive Committee here at Morris James and served in that capacity for a number of years. It wasn’t as if I had a specific direction I wanted to take the firm as much as I wanted to contribute, and I had a firm belief that good leadership can make a difference in any organization, especially in a law firm.

Sharon: Nine years, that’s a long time to be on the Executive Committee. Then moving into managing partner, I suppose it was a good training ground, or at least you knew the personalities and the players. How long had the firm been thinking about a client-facing business development person—I’ll say a salesperson—and what made the firm decide to take the leap?

Keith:  I think that, at least for me personally, it’s a two-part process here. As I was more strongly considering a movement toward the managing partner position in the firm, our former managing partner was also looking at the prospect of a client relations type of position at our firm. Together, probably in 2017, which was a year before I started my term as managing partner, we as an executive committee that’s a leadership committee, started looking into the role of the business development type of person. Now, in that regard, myself personally, I was focused on the client-centered nature of what we do as a law practice, as a service. I really became connected to the idea that we needed an individual, a professional, to join our firm who could help us in focusing in our clients. They are our asset and they are our best resource moving forward.

Sharon: If I remember correctly, the firm also has a more traditional director of marketing. You have somebody in that position, right?

Keith:  That’s correct; we do have a marketing director. Part of our thinking process or analysis was, while looking at the prospect of adding a business development position or a client relations type of position, we recognized that the marketing aspect of what we do at the firm is different from the client services aspect or our business development aspect. We thought we could create an environment where we had two leadership positions, one focusing primarily on the marketing aspects of what we do and another focusing exclusively on client relations and understanding how we’re serving our clients to help us develop further business into the future.

Sharon: I haven’t heard of many firms that are regional or smaller thinking about that. What opened your eyes?

Keith: I think from my perspective, looking at the future and trying to think about not just the next year or two, but looking at the next five, 10 and 20 years out, I was trying to think about ways we could increase the competitiveness of our firm. Understanding our clients, understanding what our clients want or, more importantly, what our clients need from us became critical to that thinking process.

In a law firm—I think in any business—adding a position that is not a direct revenue-generating position can be a tough sell to your partners, but our partners trusted us and listened to us thinking about things in a more long-term way. They saw that adding a director of client relations could be additive to our service; it could better us as lawyers, make us a better law firm and, more importantly, make us more competitive in the market. As you mentioned, Sharon, this concept of big law or larger law firms focusing on this, but not seeing it in smaller and mid-size firms, one of the things I tried to do was move us away from categorizing ourselves and instead, look specifically at us as a firm, what our culture is, what our goals and objectives are and whether adding such a position would be beneficial to our clients and to us. We concluded that the answer was yes to both of those things, so we moved in that direction.

Sharon:  I give you a lot of credit because I believe it is the way firms of all sizes are going to go, but those who are doing it now really have the competitive advantage. I’m sure some of your lawyers said this, but why not just do a client satisfaction survey and find out what your clients wanted, and not have to hire another non-revenue generating person, let’s say?

Keith:  Yes, that’s interesting. We did talk about that and I think that client satisfaction surveys are helpful. I think outside consultants can be helpful, but what we were looking for was someone who was committed to the long-term success of our clients and our firm. The idea behind that was, “Let’s invest in somebody, a human being, a professional to join us, who would become part of our culture, understand who we are as a law firm and then become part of the service that we give to clients.” Again, it’s a little bit of a sell internally to explain why we’re creating a new position or spending the money, if you will, on a new position, but we focused on the long-term and our ability to better serve our clients, and our partners were agreeable to make a movement in that direction.

I will tell you parenthetically that we had one partner in particular who came to me and told me this was the dumbest idea he had ever heard of. He basically told me what you just told me, that it’s a big-law type of thing, not something for a smaller, mid-size, regional firm like us. That same partner, in just a few short months, was at my door saying what a terrific addition our director of client relations was to our firm on many fronts. We’re winning some partners over bit by bit. Others were on board from the beginning.

Sharon: I’m surprised there was only one knocking at your door, but how did you handle the resistance? Lawyers usually say, “Only a lawyer can sell legal services.”

Keith:   That’s interesting, a very good question. When I first started thinking about the position itself, I would have put myself in that camp, meaning a lawyer can only sell legal-related services. But the more I studied it, the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that diversity of thought and having different types of professionals engaged in what we refer to as client services would make us better and more competitive. To answer your question of how we convinced partners, I simply asked them to give us the benefit of a little bit of time; to understand that this is a long-term investment but we should see some short-term gains as well. Again, credit to our partners. They were patient. They allowed us to step into this process. It’s unfolding as we speak right now, and it’s getting better and better. We’re seeing how the engagement of a professional with a focus on our clients and our partnership with our clients into the future, how it can be beneficial to all of us involved.

Sharon: Hopefully firms who are listening to this would say, “Oh, maybe I should consider that.” What would your advice be to mid-size firms or smaller firms considering it, in terms of the process or persuading your partners so you get the support? What would your advice be?

Keith:  I think the first bit of advice would be to really look internally at yourself first, to look at your firm and understand what your firm’s needs are. Every firm is different, and you have to first take an honest appraisal of where you are and what might be good for you as a firm.

The second piece of advice would be to not think too traditionally, meaning the concept of, “Are we adding an expense?” or, “Are we adding a direct revenue stream?” which can be pervasive in law firms. If you think of adding a director of client relations or a business development person as an expense, it’s easy to reach the conclusion that we don’t need to add expenses. No one wants to increase the expense side of the equation. But if you think of it as an investment that will deliver long-term returns and improve how you deliver service to clients, that will also relate to the bottom line in the long term and in the short term as well.

That’s the advice I would give. Have an honest look at yourself and understand that if you’re going to go in this direction, you need to partner with this professional in your firm. You need to have leadership support the position so that all of your lawyers are working in conjunction with this person to better serve clients and to better engage in the future of business development for the firm.

Sharon: Usually the challenge is finding the right person for the job. It’s not necessarily a lawyer and not necessarily a salesperson. What do you think a firm should look for in hiring somebody for this position?

Keith:  If it’s the firm’s first entrance into this position, meaning if they do not have someone like that at the firm, then I think finding a person who has some law firm experience is very helpful, if not necessary. For us, when we brought Dawn in, Dawn had some law firm experience. That helped us understand that she understood how a law firm works and functions. Beyond that, the person has to understand how to engage with lawyers and how to engage with clients. This person has to understand how we interact with our clients, how we engage with legal services and how we can do a better job of that. It really does require a person who has an outgoing personality, an ability to interact with many different types of people and clients, especially if you have a diverse firm like we have in the nature of the services that we provide to clients. But the most important thing is the person has to be focused on how we can better serve our clients and how can we better solidify our position within our markets for legal services.

Sharon:  This just crossed my mind. Did you get pushback from practice area partners? For instance, I’m thinking that others in firm might say, “Oh, we’re only a defense firm,” or, “Keith, that’s fine for your practice area, personal injury, but it’s not going to work for mine. That’s just not the way it works.”

Keith:  Yes, indeed we did. I think it’s natural for law firms to focus on their individual practice area. In fact, Sharon, this is one of the areas where you asked about my coming into the role of managing partner. One of the things I tried to break down is the thinking that we are a bunch of different units or silos or practice groups and instead focus on the entirety of the firm as a team or an organizational structure. Now, having said that, there are different ways in which each practice group may engage with clients, may interest clients to reach out to us for legal services. That part is true, but that does not mean that you don’t need someone to help you make sure you’re rendering the best service you can to your existing clients and understanding how you’re going to attract clients for the next month or next year or next five or 10 years. Again, my ask of the partners who gave pushback was to be a little patient, to allow us to bring the right person in and then give this person a chance to engage with each partner, each lawyer and see how that process unfolds. It’s been a positive experience and I think it’s only going to get better for us.

Sharon:  It sounds great. What other pieces of advice do you have for firms that might be considering the process? I think being willing to give it time is so important because it’s just like marketing; it doesn’t happen overnight.

Keith:  The thoughts or advice I have is that lawyers are used to running the business of their organization themselves, and they’re certainly not adverse to spending money on things they think are important. Those financial decisions, though, can sometimes not be coordinated across the firm. When you have a director of client relations, someone who’s focusing on the entire firm, it helps us all make sure we’re working in connection with each other, that we are taking advantage of the fact that we have 70 attorneys and six offices. We have lots of professionals who are doing good things for clients, but one person or one group might not know what the other is doing. This type of position forces each of us to be accountable to our own strategic plans, but it also requires us to be accountable to the strategic plans of the firm overall. It’s that second piece that I think is important for the continued growth and success of our firm or any firm.

Sharon:    That’s really interesting. You have your work cut out for you in terms of trying to break down the silos, but it sounds like you’re making a lot of progress there.

Keith:  Sharon, I do think that whenever there is the prospect of change in any organization—and I’m only familiar with law firms—it creates some resistance. It creates some anxiety. So, it’s important, if you go in this direction as a firm, that you are able to have some short-term successes. It’s not the goal to focus on the short-term, but I do think it’s important that you’re not just looking at something that is supposedly out there in five or 10 years. The right person who fits into that business development role, that client relations role, has to be able to make connections to show that there are some things we can do in the very near term that are beneficial to each practice group, and also those pieces of the puzzle will add to what we’re creating for the long-term. Make no mistake about it, Sharon, in the end, there’s a bottom-line piece to all of this. We have to be successful in how we’re delivering legal services, how we are engaging the market, but we also have to have business success while we’re doing it. So, the ask is tall. I agree with you, but I think it’s the right way to serve clients into the future. At least so far, it’s been successful for us, and I think it’s going to continue to be more successful.

Sharon:    That’s terrific. I give you a lot of credit for even considering it and embarking on it. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about it, Keith. To everyone listening, that wraps up another episode of the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst. If you would like to contact Keith, we’ll have his information in the show notes. If you like what you heard and you’d like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest who can help you move your firm forward. Thanks so much for listening.


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