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Law firms increasing emphasis on business development

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In today’s legal market, it’s not enough for attorneys to be knowledgeable of the law — they must also be knowledgeable in the world of sales.

Cacioppo Cacioppo

Though attorneys are not “salespeople” in the traditional sense of the word, Jayna Cacioppo, a partner with Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, said the changing legal market has made attorneys’ ability to sell their skills to potential clients an integral part of growing their practices. But the sales aspect of the law, or business development, is not a task that attorneys must tackle alone. Rather, firms across the country are expanding the roles of their marketing/business development departments to help attorneys assess the market for their work and make strategic decisions to attract new clients.

According to a study from the Legal Marketing Association and Bloomberg Law, 67 percent of attorneys and marketing and business development professionals have observed their firms placing greater emphasis on their marketing and business development departments in recent years. That greater emphasis is driven by a variety of factors, chief among which is internal pressure to generate revenue.

When Cacioppo began practicing law in 2005, the process of generating revenue for herself and her firm was much different than it is today. She wasn’t expected to go out and find her own business, but today’s legal field demands that sort of hunting from its attorneys.

That’s where professionals like Kelly Sharpe, the business development director at Taft, come in. When Cacioppo works with Sharpe or another member of the firm’s marketing/business development team, they collaborate to develop pitches to potential clients, put together marketing materials based on the needs of a specific client and create a written memorandum to detail how the attorneys at Taft can help the potential client accomplish their goals.

Sharpe Sharpe

Similarly, Amber Weatherford, director of marketing and business development analytics for Ice Miller LLP, works with the firm’s various practice groups to help them reach their business development goals. She uses data and analytical tools to give attorneys a competitive edge in their local legal market.

But Sharpe and Weatherford’s job descriptions have not always included close work with attorneys and practice groups. With degrees in the communications and marketing realm, Sharpe’s career began as a marketing assistant handling issues such as tactical support for the firm’s website, while Weatherford’s initial duties at Ice Miller were more administrative in nature. Natural progression through their careers has led to some changes in their jobs, but other significant changes in their roles have been caused by shifts in the legal market.

Today, Sharpe and Weatherford say their jobs enable them to make strategic decisions for their firms, a change brought about by the requirement in recent years for attorneys to go out and find work. Now, instead of only handling duties in the marketing realm, such as event planning, their business development duties are of equal importance as they conduct market research and gather competitive intelligence to put their firms in the best position to attract the same clients being sought out by their competitors.

Similarly, Amber Bollman, a journalist-turned-lawyer who now works for Barnes & Thornburg LLP as a business development director, said the transition to more strategic roles for marketing and business development personnel represents a shift from a reactive to a proactive legal market. While attorneys a decade ago were likelier to get business in the aftermath of a specific event in a client’s life, today’s world requires attorneys to develop relationships with potential clients before they ever have a need for an attorney.

Bollman Bollman

Often, attorneys begin to express an interest in working with the business development department after a few years in practice, Bollman said. Before then, new attorneys are trying to get a grasp on their practice area so they can meet their clients’ needs. But after two or three years on the job, they begin to realize the need for a strategy to help their practice continue to grow.

But on the flip side, attorneys who have used a specific strategy for many years to grow their practice, such as cold-calling, may be less inclined to reach out to a marketing and business development professional for help, Bollman said. However an attorney chooses to approach his or her work, Bollman said it is her job to understand the work each attorney does so that she can help develop a strategic plan whenever necessary.

marketing barsIn order to be successful in their roles, the business development professionals said it is crucial for them to understand attorneys’ unique practices while also having a firm grasp on the competitive market. For example, firms such as Barnes, Taft and Ice Miller are likelier to be in direct competition with other larger firms, but less so with solo and small boutique firms, Weatherford said. A business development professional’s job is to have that sort of understanding of who the firm’s direct competitors are and to share that knowledge with their attorneys, they said.

Further, at Taft, Cacioppo said the marketing and business development team has a firm grasp of her specific clients’ needs — knowledge the team gains by attending events with her and making an effort to get to know the clients. Face-to-face interactions with potential clients at events or meetings are the key to a successful business development strategy, Weatherford said.

But Bollman has another tool in her arsenal that separates her from other marketing and business development specialists — a law degree. Though she is not required to be an expert in all areas of the law, Bollman said her business development work requires her to know “a little bit about a lot” of her firm’s practices. Having a base knowledge of the inner workings of the law, such as legal terms of art that might be foreign to non-legal professionals, gives Bollman additional insight into the legal market that can enable her to understand what her firm has to offer and communicate those offerings to potential clients.

Weatherford Weatherford

But even though Sharpe and Weatherford don’t have law degrees, they said their years of experience in legal marketing has helped them learn the basics of the law, enabling them to make the strategic decisions now required of business development professionals.

“As is the case for most industries, it’s an extremely competitive marketplace and the phones just aren’t ringing for attorneys anymore,” Weatherford said. “We’re trying to do what we can to support the firm and its attorneys.”•

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