(Note—This is the fourth in a series of posts taken from my recent presentation to attorneys and legal professionals at the DRI conference in New York.)

In the past, I, like many legal marketers, have assumed that the objective of sales and marketing is to initiate and nurture relationships that over time will become institutional relationships.  Obviously, I’m not the only one who has thought this way. Virtually every lawyer and staff professional in private law firms cites this axiom: “The best source of new business is satisfied existing clients.” 

Why, then, is cross-selling such a challenge?  Why are so few firms able to form and operate truly effective interdisciplinary client service teams?  Those of us in law firms need to be brutally honest with ourselves here:  It’s not as easy as it should be if the “satisfied client” adage is as true as we have always assumed it to be. Maybe it’s not!

Recent Association of Corporate Counsel and BTI Consulting Group survey results (which I discuss in depth in this previous post) provide the subtext for the answers to those questions. The truth is that buyers are looking at individual attorneys, not law firms, when making legal purchasing decisions.

No doubt, many buyers of legal services want to align with a trusted adviser outside lawyer who can act as a quarterback and draw from the total resources of his/her firm to address all legal needs.  Frankly, though, many buyers do not, and they are aggressively and cooperatively disaggregating the outside-lawyer supply chain.  In his epochal work, “The End of Lawyers?”, Richard Susskind uses this phrase:  “disintermediation.”  Call it what you will, the fact that buyers are doing it invalidates, or at least calls into serious question the “satisfied client” notion has driven so much law firm marketing since the inception of law firm marketing.

This has a tremendous impact on what has been a primary focus of many legal marketing departments—the cross-selling of legal services. But what clients may be telling us is that cross-selling isn’t particularly effective. They hire lawyers, not law firms, and just because they have a strong relationship with one attorney doesn’t make them predisposed to engage a safe-firm attorney in an unrelated field. Many companies are “unbundling” outside legal services to shop around for the best value on an a la carte basis. Steven Lauer, author of “The Value-Able Law Department,” even suggests that corporate clients will increasingly turn to multi-organizational teams of lawyers, picking attorneys from different firms to represent them in the same matter.

Part of this is shift in buyer thinking is due to the wide availability of information via the Internet. Clients can instantaneously consider and vet many more attorneys today, regardless of geographic separation.

I first witnessed this nearly seven years ago when I met, Judi Trail, JPMorgan Chase’s Vice President of Professional Services Sourcing.   She was, and is, a leader on a team that had developed, and continues to improve, a massive knowledge management system intended to provide JPMC’s inside buyers detailed information about hundreds of pre-approved lawyers across the country – information that includes billing rates, practice areas, experience, diversity profile and other relevant facts.  When a JPMC lawyer needs to engage a lawyer with a particular expertise in a particular geography at a particular price point, the system automatically produces a short list of outside lawyers who meet the criteria, are pre-approved, and are listed in the JPMC system.  Thus, the inside lawyer maintains some discretion over outside counsel selection, but doesn’t face the daunting task of searching “from scratch.” 

JPMC’s system is but one of many crafted by sophisticated buyers who are interested in hiring a lawyer, not a law firm. While it is true that some buyers will continue to pursue institutional relationships with outside lawyers, it is clear that in “the new legal normal,” many more will not. These buyers are not interested in institutional relationships in the historic sense nor in being cross-sold in the way that law firms have assumed that they can execute.

In a future installment, we will discuss how attorneys and legal marketers can move from firm-level branding to the type of individual branding that corporate clients increasingly desire.