Selling Innovation to Clients



You can’t sell what you don’t understand.

To be successful over the long run, law firm partners have to master the ABCs—i.e. acquire, bill, and collect fees that are commensurate with other partners in the firm. This requires enormous talent, energy, and skill. Yet, in recent years, the job has become harder because of the growing number of in-house lawyers who are turning to outside counsel to help them cope with the relentless pressure to do more with less.

The lack of foundational training in innovation and related disciplines makes this challenging for both lawyers. However, it’s truly harrowing for the law firm partner because they’re the service provider in the lawyer-client relationship. Thus, there’s zero doubt who’s expected to lead.

How, exactly, does a partner navigate this transition period?

Here’s the good news: the bar is not very high—your client is likely to appreciate your sincere effort to help if combined with a candid acknowledgment of your limits.  But here’s the not-so-good news—you can’t sell what you don’t understand.  Thus, it’s going to require an investment of your scarcest resource, which is time.

This post, which is based on a chapter in the forthcoming Ark book about Business Development for a New Legal Ecosystem, provides guidance on how to make the most of your client’s expressed interest in more value. It also draws upon another ongoing project, which is building online innovation training for partners.

Beware of innovation silos

Most big firms today have someone focusing on innovation. It may not be a full-time dedicated role. It may be called something else. It may be run by a committee. Whatever it is, the existence of that function sends a message that the firm is trying to do something creative.  That is a great first step, but it must be substantiated with action.  These roles are routinely paraded in pitches and in proposals but then are not heard from once engagements are discussed in detail.

Here is the brutal truth: if you are managing a client relationship, innovation is becoming an ongoing requirement of your job. Although some partners are still selling their subject matter expertise on a time-and-materials basis, this formula is out of step with today’s clients’ needs.

So how do we bridge that gap between what clients need and what law firm partners are selling? The education of the partners and future partners is a necessary first step. Without education, we’ll miss a whole generation of lawyers who will spend their days selling law the way it has been done for decades. They will lose revenue, weaken relationships, and ultimately lose clients.


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