Creating opportunity is no longer the preserve of senior lawyers; it calls for a multidisciplinary effort that redefines the concept of business development
The law firm’s functions of business development (BD), client relationship management, and marketing have undergone something of a slow, quite evolution. In a watershed moment during 2017, Dentons went outside the legal profession to appoint a non-lawyer to the role of Canada Chief Executive Officer. Beth Wilson, a former managing partner for Big Four consulting firm KPMG, became a member of the Dentons global management committee and global board.
It was a decision the firm described as “a reflection of our clients increasing view that their legal advisers should offer broader perspectives, insights, and understanding of their business and industry.”
The business-building challenges that firms face are widely recognized. The 2018 Litigation Finance Survey reveals that 96 percent of law firms identify the pressure to be more competitive in bringing in new business as the most critical business challenge they face. The survey says that while U.S. law firms are doing a better job at managing costs and maximizing revenue, they face volatility in client demand and competition to generate business in the first place.
To remedy this, progressive firms are seeking professionals with deep sector expertise to help them build more targeted prepositions. A recent survey of Am Law 200 law firms employing dedicated C-level financial, marketing, IT, knowledge, and human resources professionals found a strong correlation between the presence of C-suite professionals and increased firm profitability.
Harnessing these new players to create client-centric solutions involves changing how firms assemble and deliver their offerings. This is where the more strategic role of business development comes into play, orchestrating diverse talent centered around deep client insight. And for marketing, the development of sophisticated, highly targeted solutions to requires direct access to the client.
“Marketing and BD used to be seen narrowly as the lead generators,” explains Bob Robertson, Director and Head of U.S. Marketing and Business Development at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. “It’s actually more nuanced than that; it’s about understanding a client overall, how their relationship fits with the firm and being able to diagnose or identify opportunities to create value by bringing disparate capabilities together across a firm to help a client’s organization to prosper.
“Today’s BD professionals need to establish themselves as the client interface, able to speak beyond the general counsel, building relationships with procurement, legal ops, and beyond.” Partners and BD leaders must put the needs of the client in prime focus. Previously, when clients solely developed relationships with fee-earning partners, each conversation could be interpreted as financially motivated, given that the partner had an incentive to find opportunities to charge for.
Non-fee earning roles in areas such as the client services team, offer clients a more independent party with whom to relay feedback, provide insight, and share input on potential opportunities. The growing influence of procurement teams is further evidence of this approach. The reputation or connections of a senior lawyer are no longer a guarantee of securing or retaining lucrative contracts and retainers. Having a voice for the client brings a valuable degree of objectivity to relationships that previous partner-only relations lacked.
Client expectations have evolved. They want firms to understand their business, help manage risk, and be proactive. Indeed, 65 percent of law firms report that cross-selling to existing clients is their top growth priority, according to Calibrate Legal’s 2018 Law Firm Growth Enablement Survey. “What does it mean to be a new kind of lawyer?” asks Robertson. “One who looks to the full arsenal of what their firm can bring to a relationship beyond legal expertise alone.”
Such changes don’t come without hurdles, internally and externally. From an internal perspective, according to Calibrate Legal, 50 percent of firms say availability and willingness of lawyers to collaborate remain major barriers. Externally, attracting in-demand skill sets beyond the legal core puts law firms in competition with other sectors, where the war for talent is fierce. It means succeeding in attracting people who might not have traditionally seen themselves charting a career in the legal sector, including technology, AI, and machine-learning experts, non-legal professionals who have skills that are in high demand and command correspondingly lucrative remuneration.
However, recruiting only for technical expertise is no longer enough. “The threshold we need to reach in terms of technical expertise is now a hygiene factor,” notes Kevin Hogarth, Global Director of People and Culture at Norton Rose Fulbright. “Demonstrating how we are re-engineering the business of law and delivery of legal services, seeking efficiencies, embracing technology, and bringing the best collection of capabilities together for our clients, these are the issues taking center stage in pitches. It’s what our clients are asking about and what’s increasingly differentiating law firms.”
Robertson goes further, saying, “What matters is the proof in daily delivery: what the client really experiences at every interaction. That’s what we need to reengineer, so promise meets reality.” Client success is now firmly a shared responsibility beyond the partner’s remit, with BD and marketing professionals playing a more pivotal role in driving growth.