What law firms can learn from consulting firms

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By Lucy Hirst, Openside Tutor

At Openside we are often struck by the similarities between law and consulting business models, yet the differences in approach and mindset to generate and deliver work. If a firm could combine the best of a law firms ‘IQ’ (content) with that of a consulting firms ‘EQ’ (or, ability to truly understand a client’s context), that firm would be unstoppable.

From our work in both sectors we frequently experience greater commerciality, from Senior Consultant to Director within consulting, than from Associate to Senior Associate (sometimes even Partner) within a law firm.

Typically, we see that management consultants have a broader client advisory skill set – they will seek a deeper understanding of strategic and commercial context to guide their advice, but also they will begin their sales training earlier, and have more know-how on the structure, pricing and project management of engagements.

Overall, there appears to be less of a divide between sales and delivery activity within a consulting firm, great delivery being the best way to land further work.

Selling content as a commodity

Lawyers we work with have an incredible ability to quickly assess and process large amounts of data to draw compelling conclusions.  Lawyers are great at content. Yet, topics such as influencing and communication styles, client stakeholder and power mapping, decision facilitation, problem-solving and basic sales know-how – which are bread and butter to your average consultant – can be less understood (and sometimes viewed as less important against the development of deep technical knowledge) by those working in the legal sector.

There can be less emphasis on using legal advice to solve strategic problems. This means content is delivered as a commodity. Commodity selling is safer and perhaps plays to a lawyer’s disposition of avoiding risk.

We frequently hear Partners from leading law firms describe how they did not become fully aware of sales and selling until they joined the Partnership, whereas selling major projects is the primary route for a consulting firm Partner. Indeed, law firms can sometimes recoil even from the word ‘sales,’ preferring lighter terms such as ‘fee generation.’ The route to Partner in a law firm is often primarily focused on being a ‘great lawyer’, whilst in a consulting firm it is always about being a great consultant and being able to increase revenue (‘the size of the pie’).

This means three things for law firms. Firstly, commodity selling means that value is left on the table. Secondly, legal teams may be less able to appreciate their client’s commercial imperatives if they do not fully understand their own. And finally, and more significantly, it means law as an industry is vulnerable to disruption.

Developing an interest in context as well as content

Future pressure on law firm margins – or even challenges in the market itself – could be alleviated by stealing some tricks of the trade from the major consulting players. To improve sales effectiveness and commerciality of fee earners, law firms should consider the following:

1. Broaden the training and development curriculum

Most lawyers we come across have extraordinary technical skills, often backed up by detailed knowledge, that makes them strong litigators and subject matter advisors. Whilst a broad range of training is often available with a law firm, client demands mean that training is often reduced to that which is mandatory, or compliance based. Consulting firms tend to have a more balanced approach, blending technical know-how with greater exposure to how results are achieved through understanding and influencing people and clients. They invest and prioritise attitude-based training and leadership and psychometric assessments as standard (targeted at developing self-awareness which in turn helps develop understanding of others, how they operate and their motives). This can make their interpersonal and influencing (ergo sales) skills sharper.

2. Start sales effectiveness training earlier

Most consulting firms continue to operate performance management for individuals through balanced scorecards which include sales and revenue for all levels. Even if a consultant or senior consultant (trainee or junior associate equivalent) does not have a sales target they are expected to demonstrate their contribution to sales at the end of the performance review alongside what and how they have delivered for clients. This means that their awareness of sales and consulting effectiveness issues and associated training starts earlier.

3. Involve fee earners in practice and engagement management  

Consulting firms rarely employ practice managers, favouring instead networks of consultants to act as leadership teams in addition to selling and delivering work for clients. This means that junior consultants are routinely exposed to basic practice operations and financials, including topics such as margins, work in progress and man-days, sooner.

4. Make sales approaches, tools and techniques part of ‘how we do things around here’

Sales training in a consulting firm is often the way in which Partners look to build and cement working cultures and practice teams.  The language of sales is often the language of the practice. Law firms often continue to have business development teams – consulting firms rarely do, business development being owned and led by everyone in the practice as part of sales and delivery activities.

‘I’m a great lawyer, but I am not a great businessman’ was a rather harsh but interesting statement made by a successful law firm Partner to us during an executive development session. Most lawyers clearly have a solid awareness of ‘business,’ – they could not advise clients if they did not – but for how long can fee earners in law firms afford to have less sharp commercial and influencing capabilities than some of their contemporaries in other sectors? Our view is not much longer, certainly as those contemporaries are deciding they want to start eating much bigger slices of legal pie.

For more information on how Openside develop the core business development skills and behaviours for professional services firms, please contact us or visit our training page.