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What Legal Can Learn from Sales

Few corporate functions are more poles apart than Legal and Sales. The traditional caricature of a sales guy is the show boater who flouts the rules to close a deal. Lawyers are hard working and rule bound. However, perhaps we can learn more from the sales function than we realise.

Teach your clients something new and commercially valuable.

In-house lawyers often talk about how to get a seat at the strategy table, yet few get the invitation. They may not be commercially oriented enough.

An interesting analysis of nearly 700 B2B salespeople by consulting firm CEB revealed that today’s top-performing sales reps (i.e., those most likely to exceed their goals) differentiate themselves through the use of “commercial teaching”. In other words, they teach their customers something new and valuable about how to run their business more effectively.

Another study, this time by executive recruitment firm, Russell Reynolds Associates, found that top-performing GCs operate contrary to conventional wisdom: they use their knowledge of the law to generate competitive advantage. They push the business to take calculated risks. Indeed, these GCs are 11% more willing to take risks than the average GC and are almost as likely to take risks as the average business executive.

In other words, like our counterparts in Sales, today’s legal stars don’t just facilitate commercial outcomes while minimising risk, they actively identify commercial possibilities and push the business to take calculated risks.

What do famous athletes, renown musicians, world-class speakers, and top litigators have in common?

Unfortunately, lawyers have room for improvement in this area. Early findings from Plexus’ Legal Talent Management Survey—the results of which will be published in a few months—reveal that lawyers struggle to deliver against the competencies that link to commercial teaching. These include: proactivity, business acumen, communication clarity, aligning tasks to business partners’ goals, and effectively demonstrating Legal’s value.

Managers: provide coaching.

What do famous athletes, renown musicians, world-class speakers, and top litigators have in common?

In addition to spending a lot of time practicing, they have great coaches. Research shows that having a manager who is a good coach increases the likelihood of a sales rep achieving their sales targets by nearly 20%. (It also significantly improves how hard salespeople work and how likely they are to stay with their current employer.)

Any role in which a manager can observe a direct report interacting with a client is ripe for coaching—and Legal is no exception. Unfortunately, only a handful of legal managers make good coaches. Our talent survey revealed that only one-third of lawyers feel their manager is effective in this space. To improve your coaching skills, see the “How To” section below.

How To Optimise Coaching

Observe. Observe your lawyers interacting with clients. Coaching “in absentia” or “after the fact” is dangerous as managers in this situation often lack important context and may make flawed assumptions about what occurred, which can be highly demotivating.

Listen. After the client interaction, ask the lawyer for his/her perspective. What went right? What would they have done differently? What were they thinking and feeling at key moments in the conversation? During this stage, managers should ask lots of questions and deeply process the lawyer’s responses. The purpose is to: (a) understand what the lawyer did well, to offer praise and encourage the right behaviours in future, and (b) determine where the lawyer may have “gotten off track” mentally. (Most mistakes are due to a lack of knowledge/information or to misperception.) What’s paramount here is resisting the temptation to jump to “solution mode”. This step is about improving your understanding of the situation from the lawyer’s perspective, so that you can provide targeted feedback in the next step.

Praise and Propose. Once you understand the lawyer’s perspective, rather than simply telling him/her what to do differently next time, first offer praise for the things that went well. Next, pose suggestions for improvement as a question. For example: “What if you’d said X? Do you think the client would have responded differently? How so?” Asking questions—instead of giving directives—is not only more palatable, it encourages the lawyer to process the benefits of your advice.

Confirm. To cement the learning, simply confirm that, in future conversations, the lawyer will implement the new approach.

While there are many traits of sales people that would not be advantageous for lawyers to emulate, when it comes to creating value for our organisations and improving lawyer performance, there is a lot we can and should learn from them. If you are skeptical, just think of this: 20% of Fortune 500 CEOs come from the sales function. Fewer than 2% come from Legal.

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