“I’ve spent 18 months cultivating a relationship with an in-house litigation manager who says all of the right things but we have yet to get a lick of work. I don’t know whether to pull the plug on my efforts or keep buying him lunch . . . .”
After spending many years working with law firms on growth issues, I hear this refrain pretty much all of the time. Characterizing what is at work here as merely a “closing” problem is too simplistic; trying “harder” to persuade a prospect to do something he or she has not yet decided to do generally won’t do the trick. Put another way, “constructive sentiment” alone won’t cause prospects to hire you – something more is generally needed in order to get a prospect to act on sentiment and to actually implement a buying decision.
When lawyers find themselves in these straits I suggest they rely on three strategies best described with the following soundbites: i) Isolate, ii) Find the Movement, iii) Create Accountability
Prospects want and need lawyers to do the thinking for them, but this presumes that you have learned enough about their landscape of responsibility (broadly defined) to form some pretty intelligent opinions about where your firm’s capabilities may fit best. It’s hard for companies to make first-time commitments to law firms around a category of work; conversely, it’s often easier for prospects to respond warmly to a more “surgical strike.” Moreover, prospects are themselves very practical, and any new vendor they’re thinking of using for the first time must reflect a similar practical sensibility and literacy. It’s not very difficult to figure out what legal needs match up well with a full service firm’s substantive capabilities; it’s a bit more challenging, however, to understand the political decision-making landscape of a prospect well enough to isolate the first-time retention decisions that are actually achievable. I encourage lawyers to isolate a specific issue/matter that falls within a particular category of legal work that could be a good starting point for a relationship, and take into account practical concerns weighing on the minds of decision makers about which they learn while building the relationship.
Find the Movement: The “Epi-Priorities”
In trying to launch a relationship with a new prospect, you should work hard to find out about the peripheral but nonetheless important managerial priorities of your decision makers. Don’t be afraid to ask the question, “Other than achieving great outcomes on the matters handled by your outside law firms, what less obvious but important priorities do you and others in the department care about . . . ?” These priorities tend to break down into managerial, operational, and process issues that “lay” senior management or the GC is asking the law department to advance – I call these “epi-priorities,” or not-so-obvious priorities. The sweet spot “first matter” opportunity typically reflects a solid match between substantive legal need with legal capability, and an intersection of one or two epi-priorities. Listed below are examples of epi-priorities for which you might look:
Legal Process Improvement
- Other matter management methods
- Shared risk approaches to fees
- Linkage with matter management processes
After Action Review
- Front end operational gaps and failures
- Management of the matter itself
Enterprise Risk Assessment
- Become part of the front end business planning cycle
- Hang out with Marsh, Aon, Wells Fargo, BB&T, Lockton, Willis, or other business insurance risk management consultants
- Combat “event-driven” nature of litigation focused dialogue
- There is no better, quicker or easier way to build up equity with people
- Repositioning the law department to become more consequential within company
- Learning about and advancing career aspirations of persons of consequence (“Where do you want to be in three years?” “What do you want to be doing in 24 months?”)
- The managerial vocabulary of all departments and their performance
- Essential for law departments that need to get more credit for their successes
- What technology and software applications are law departments and their law firms using to become more efficient and effective?
- Litigation management software systems, client dashboards, project management software, etc.
The concept of “accountability” really refers to the point in time when an outside lawyer needs to cash in on the equity accumulated throughout the relationship cultivation process. Relationship building earns you permission to suggest a particular intersection between your law firm’s capabilities and the prospect company’s needs.
“I’d like to share with you some thoughts I have about where we might be able to grow our relationship this year in ways that I think would be beneficial to you. Would you mind grabbing a cup of coffee with me to discuss this at some time when your schedule has cleared out a bit . . . ?”
Yes, you’ve signaled to the prospect that you want to have a business discussion about where it might make sense to work more closely with each other. More importantly, however, you’ve also suggested that whatever great thoughts you have will be supported with specific benefits you believe they will derive from working on the opportunity you’ve “isolated” for them. “I’ve done my homework, we’ve spent time with each other, I’ve shown patience, and I’ve put myself in a position to think actively about where it might make sense to kick off a relationship given my knowledge of both your substantive needs and epi-priorities.”
So get on with it. Capture more new clients in 2016: isolate, find the movement, and inject accountability!