How to Jump-Start Cross-Selling in Your Law Firm

Posted by Larry Bodine | Jan 14, 2014 | 2 Comments

There are seven common objections that block cross-selling programs.
(c) Larry Bodine

Cross-selling is an elusive goal for law firms. The idea is simple: to interest clients that are using one practice area in using a second or third area. But the devil is in the details and most cross-selling plans fail as soon as they meet one of several common objections.

As a result, to paraphrase Mark Twain, everyone talks about cross-selling, but nobody is doing anything about it.

More important than ever

Yet cross-selling is more important than ever. According to new research by The BTI Consulting Group in Boston, corporations in the Fortune 1000 list are using 20% fewer core law firms than they did a year earlier. This means that fewer law firms will get the available work, and they will likely be the firms that successfully cross-sold their practices.

Knowing this, law firms send out calls to come to cross-selling sessions, but can't get lawyers to attend the meetings. Firms struggle to identify cross-selling targets but falter when it comes to making contact with the client. The keys to success are overcoming the objections that partners raise and focusing on firmwide, rather than individual, goals.

  • To jump-start a program, attorneys need to keep in mind the firmwide goals of cross-selling:
  • To keep current clients by establishing as many points of contact with the law firm as possible.
  • To expand client relationships by assuring that the client is completely satisfied with the firm's service and inquiring into the additional business problems a client has.
  • To familiarize the lawyers with the client, so that they know the client's business and understand the client's industry.

Seven common objections

There are seven common objections that block cross-selling programs, according to an online poll taken during a Web seminar in February entitled, “The Secret to Cross-Selling Legal Services.” Some 250 lawyers across the country attended the online event, which I presented along with marketing trainer Jim Durham of Dedham, MA. The objections are actually a list of excuses you'll hear from your partners, and they can be surmounted so long as the firm focuses on the goals of cross-selling.

Here is why partners cringe at the notion of cross selling.

1. Unwillingness or lack of knowledge of how to sell.

This is the number one objection to cross-selling. After all, sales and marketing is not taught in law schools, and many lawyers take the position that they didn't practice law so they could become a pushy salesperson. Coupled with this reluctance is the resistance that in-house lawyers have to getting sales pitches from law firms.

The flaw in this assumption is that selling involves pushing legal services on a client. The trick is to get your client to tell you what difficulties they face and for the law firm to listen for an opportunity to help.

The best approach is to determine whether the client is satisfied with the firm's services to begin with. A client must be very satisfied with your current services and must trust you to give you more work. Accordingly, I recommend that firms ask their clients: What are we doing well? What could we be doing better? What is going on in your business that we should be thinking about?

The last question is important. In the process of surveying or interviewing clients, the firm will be able to inquire into a client's business challenges. The idea is to inquire into what keeps the executives up at night. Chances are the law firm has a practice that can offer a solution.

2. Lack of knowledge regarding other partner's practices.

A lawyer can't sell his partner's practice if he's not familiar with what he does. This is commonly the case in law firms, where attorneys know each other well only within their practice group. Lawyers in the group may even meet regularly, but it doesn't create cross-selling opportunities, because the group focuses strictly on itself.

An essential element of a cross-selling program is an internal method to distribute news about successful transactions and court cases the lawyers have achieved. If your firm doesn't have an internal newsletter, now is the time to start one. Other methods include posting client successes on an Intranet, and if the client gives permission, publishing the success story on the firm Web site. Some sophisticated firms store the case histories in a database or knowledge management system, or collect the results annually in an annual report.

It is surprising how difficult it is for law firms to come up with examples of client successes. Often the information exists in the minds and computers of individual lawyers, but is not written down in a central location. For cross-selling to succeed, firms must collect the case histories.

And it goes without saying that lawyers must read the newsletters and study the accomplishments of their partners.

3. The firm does not compensate for cross-selling activities.

The maxim in law firms is “what gets rewarded, gets done.” If there is no incentive to market the firm's services, then lawyers will spend all their time billing hours. On the other hand, if a lawyer knows that his cross-selling activities will come up in his compensation review, the lawyer will participate. Some law firms provide a specific financial reward for introducing clients to other partners. The precise method and calculation of lawyer compensation can be discussed without end; but suffice it to say that a lawyer's cross-selling activity must be a factor that is considered in the compensation review. Otherwise it just won't happen.

For cross-selling to work, the notion of sharing credit must also be built into a cross-selling program. The “eat what you kill” system, in which a lawyer gets origination credit solely for new business he brings in for himself, is fatal to cross-selling. Cross-selling happens in pairs or teams, and the firm must give credit for a team effort.

4. Fear of Losing Clients.

Some lawyers are reluctant to refer their clients to their own partners because they fear that the partner will mishandle the matter or do a poor job. As a result, the logic goes, the lawyer could lose the client's work entirely. This is an objection that is often unspoken or mentioned only in private.

I believe this is a bogus objection, because what the lawyer actually fears is losing control of the client, which may happen if another person is introduced into the relationship. This view treats the client as a lawyer's personal property or private book of business. Clients must be viewed as corporate assets, which belong to the firm as a whole, and accordingly must be shared.

This objection also demonstrates that the lawyer doesn't know enough about his partner's background and what exactly he does in his practice. If the lawyer were to take the pains to learn what his colleagues do and understand the partner's achievements, the lawyer would be more inclined to refer his partner.

Regardless, the objection means that the legal work is going to another law firm, which is far worse than having the work done by another lawyer at your own firm.

5. The firm does not recognize cross-selling appropriately.

Some law firms will throw a congratulatory party when a lawyer brings in a new client. But if a file is opened for a client by lawyers in a new practice, it's mentioned only briefly in the weekly new-matter memos circulated internally. This misplacement of emphasis is a mistake.

Recognition is a powerful motivator and it should be used accordingly. A cross-selling success should be a hot news item for the firm's internal newsletter and should be spotlighted on the firm Intranet. I recommend that the process be described in detail, beginning with how the lawyer came to meet the client in the first place, how the lawyer learned of the new potential legal work, the steps the lawyer took to introduce another partner of the firm, and what the partner did to impress the client with the firm's capabilities. The point is to recognize the teamwork, and to honor it with gusto.

6. The client has established law firms in other practice areas already.

By now every business client worth having has worked with a law firm already, so the objection is probably true. However, this shouldn't stop a cross-selling effort; in fact, it should be the reason to undertake one.

The BTI Consulting Group found that 60% of Fortune 1000 companies hired a major credible law firm with whom they haven't worked in the last 12 months. These potential clients are looking for law firms that better meet their needs. These assignments may be small but are highly visible to clients even on routine matters. The fact that Fortune 1000 clients are hiring new law firms while they reduce the number of firms they work with suggests underlying weakness in client relationships.

The idea of a cross-selling effort is to put the client's legal work into play. It may be that a company has worked with another firm for many years. However the in-house counsel and executives will be open to a proposal to have their legal work handled more efficiently, to consolidate their matters or just to get the job done less expensively. Of course it takes research and teamwork to develop these proposals, and that's what a cross-selling team is for.

7. Fear of imposing on other partners.

Of course it is difficult for a lawyer to go, hat in hand, and ask a partner to introduce him to his client. Lawyers are reluctant to butt into the relationships of colleagues. This approach yields few cross-selling results, because it starts out the wrong way.

Instead, partners should develop lists of their own clients who can be cross-sold to their colleagues. For example, some law firms require lawyers to develop marketing plans, beginning with the names of three clients who are cross-selling targets. The names of these clients are bought to cross-selling meetings, where the relationship partner describes the client and the opportunities to grow the relationship. Other attendees are asked to bring the names of all contacts they have at the client. The team effort begins with a partner volunteering his client to the firm as a whole.

Strategy for cross-selling

Overcoming these initial objections will go a long way toward getting a cross-selling program started. It means that the firm will have to change the way it thinks about compensation, ownership of clients and approach to selling. It will mean that the firm will have to cease relying on individual rainmakers and learn to work in teams focused on clients. But these are all positive changes, and will lay the groundwork for a successful strategy for cross-selling.

About the Author

Larry Bodine

Larry Bodine is a marketer, journalist and attorney who knows how to turn website visitors into clients for trial law firms.


Ricardo Souza Reply

Posted Feb 09, 2014 at 20:35:42

Dear Larry,

Very interesting! Congrats! What kind of metrics would you suggest for the measurement of the cross selling in law firm?


Ricardo Inglez de Souza

Larry Bodine Reply

Posted Feb 10, 2014 at 10:49:47

A good measurement is the number of introductions made — by a partner introducing another lawyer from his/her firm to a client. The idea is to generate activity. If there is intentional activity, there will results that turn into new matters and files.

However it is too much of a burden to measure actual new matters at the outset — it can be a criterion once the cross-selling program is mature, but not at the beginning. Pressure to produce dollars will feel intimidating to lawyers who are overcoming a relutance to introduce their own partners.

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