Blog/Podcast: What a Former Stand-Up Comic Can Teach Lawyers About Business Development

Generally, lawyers don’t like the idea of selling their services, and many firms are hesitant to hire sales executives (or at least put “sales” in their title). But you don’t need to shy away from sales.

Brenda Pontiff, Director of Marketing and Business Development at the Los Angeles-based appellate firm Horvitz & Levy, has spent her career helping law and accounting firms sell their services. She joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast to share business development dos and don’ts, and talk about how her stint as a stand-up comic has influenced her career.

Don’t just be resilient — embrace resilience.

It’s not enough to just handle or even bounce back from challenges. You have to anticipate and embrace them, knowing that setbacks are part of the process and every “no” gets you closer to a “yes.” There’s no fear or shame in failing. This is something Brenda learned during her days as a comic, and she’s passed this lesson on to the lawyers she works with.

It’s not just extroverts who can excel in sales, either. People of all personalities can learn to embrace resilience, and a surprising number of sales executives are introverts. Even the quietest, most introverted person can become a sales pro if they learn to handle rejection.

Don’t assume non-lawyers can’t sell legal services.

American Bar Association rules state that non-lawyers can’t have ownership interest in a firm. That’s caused many lawyers to believe — to their firms’ detriment — that non-lawyers can’t have sales positions. Despite some lawyers’ reservations, you don’t need to have a J.D. to have a worthwhile conversation with a client, understand their needs and figure out what services would work for them. True, sales staff can’t provide the services themselves, but they can connect the dots.

Non-lawyer sales staff seem to be more common at small, niche firms, but big firms can benefit from these employees, too. It can be a bit trickier, since larger firms often have many practice areas, industries served and geographic locations; but just because it can be more difficult, doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Do take a note from accounting firms.

Accounting firms have evolved because they’ve taken the time to understand their clients holistically, and offer business solutions way beyond audits. Lawyers, on the other hand, may handle a litigation matter for a client, but know very little about their company, their operations and their future vision for growth.

To be competitive, lawyers need to start acting like the audit partners of the world, roll up their sleeves and get to know their clients comprehensively. Companies contact law firms for a reason — they’re all trying to mitigate risks. They’re all worried about the bottom line and they’re all looking for solutions. It’s up to lawyers to present those solutions — and the more you know about your clients, the better off you are.

And from appellate lawyers, too.

Because of the type of law they practice, appellate lawyers are naturally collaborative, which is a great mindset when it comes to marketing and business development. In Brenda’s experience, the attorneys she works with are interested in learning about different ways to go to market, network with new people and continue relationships with existing clients. And even if it’s not their favorite to-do item, they understand that having conversations with clients about their needs is part of the game.

Business development can bring lawyers out of their comfort zones, but it has to be done if law firms want to stick around for the long haul. Lean into these tasks and recognize why they’re important.

Don’t discount the importance of sales staff.

Having a staff member who’s focused on sales (and, moreover, sales training and coaching) can take a law firm to the next level. Yet many firms are hesitant to hire a sales executive because they fear the position will compete with rainmakers. However, the exact opposite is true.

Sales executives and staff don’t steal rainmakers’ thunder or become the client touchpoint; they provide support and help warm clients up. A good sales executive’s goal is to help their firm grow its next class of rainmakers and go to market in a thoughtful way, not to undercut lawyers’ success.

Brenda predicts that firms will become more comfortable with sales in the coming years and that existing sales functions, which are usually housed under marketing, will split off on their own. Firms should have a Chief Marketing Officer who’s focused on visibility, but they should also have a sales executive on equal standing. Together, these positions can help firms remain competitive.

Click here to download/subscribe to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast.

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