‘Transitioning into the digital age’ – Paul Smith, Founder and former Chairman of Eversheds Sutherland

Paul Smith

Paul Smith is the former Chairman of Eversheds Sutherland. He has led the firm to numerous successful pitches to clients including Eaton Corporation, Loius Dreyfus Commodities, FMC Corporation, Tyco and, most famously, a $3 billion deal with DuPont. He has been recognised by Lawyer Magazine as a Hot 100 and Legal Business Magazine as Lawyer of the Year.
We met with Paul to gain insight into:
– How business development has evolved in the legal sector over recent years
– What it takes to bring on new business
– How technology is impacting the industry and the opportunities it will create
– The growing role of digital marketing and social media in the legal sector

Paul Smith Boss to Boss Interview Profile Photo

4. What are the fundamental characteristics of someone who can and someone who can’t make sales?

Question 1 – How has business development changed in recent years within the legal sector and if you were starting your career today, where would you invest your time to ensure you were bringing business to your firm?

I think it goes without saying that the legal sector is fairly traditional. When I started practising, lawyers weren’t allowed to advertise, the most you could have was a business card; so conferences, writing articles were all forbidden. So when the big change came about, I embraced that with passion and started out marketing business development. I came to a very early conclusion that marketing really didn’t deliver being all about sales, so I set up the first salesforce I think in any law firm. The thing we realised was that marketing can give me a profile and brochures and seminars of the rest of it but ultimately people like people so we got together all the people in the firm that I thought were the enthusiasts and we said how would we go out to win business from the U.S clients and we were going through all the role-play about what we might say to these clients where met them. The lady around the conference centre said ‘what are you doing?’ I said well we’re rehearsing to see what we would say to these clients if and when we met them. She said that’s sales. I said lawyers don’t do sales, it’s forbidden and it’s all very acidy and horrible. She said from trust me you’re doing sales and her brother who was there, was the sales director of a big Dutch company and he sat in on the role play and was pretty appalled about what he saw bar from one partner from our Birmingham office who did the role-play, asked loads of questions, asked loads more questions and then closed the deal and everyone said where did that come from? And he confessed to being a salesman in a former life.

So I’ve always been passionate about getting in front of clouds, listening to what they have to say, asking lots of questions. We formalised that, we’ve used a couple of outside training companies to train pretty much all our lawyers in sell techniques but in other firms, it seems something unpleasant and nasty. It’s what gets results and all those years on, as a result of that strategy, we have over 500 US companies from Amazon to Starbucks to Tyco Depot and many other household names. So if I was starting out again I’d probably do the same thing which is spending more time going around and spending time with clients, finding out what their needs are and building the network. I think some of the most effective legal business developments are the ones that are the experts, who just go around their client base or potential client base every couple of months telling them what’s going on in the market. For the clients, that gives a huge reassurance that their lawyer knows what’s going on. Obviously with the digital age and other forms of marketing communication that’s changing, but I think ultimately you have to develop those relationships with senior buyers of legal services. You have to do all the other stuff, the technical stuff which we’ll come on to. But essentially you need to build up the trust and dare I say the friendship of the clients that we want to represent.

Question 2 – What technology do you think will affect the legal industry in the next few years and what opportunities may arise from this?

I was sitting on a client presentation recently in America where they’d ask all the firm’s they’d ever worked with to present on how would they deal with the work across the world and how would they utilise technology. And the general counsel summed it up with two cartoon characters; Fred Flintstone, The Jetsons and he said that sadly most of the firm’s they’re currently working with were in the Fred Flintstone camp, very few in the Jetsons camp meaning that a lot of lawyers like things the way they are, aren’t there to change, aren’t prepared to invest. Whereas all the clients want to know what we’re doing with technology, they’re under pressure to use AI and robotics and other more effective ways of dealing with other businesses. The lawyers are not immune to that. There are all sorts of soothsayers in the legal world, like Richard Susskind, who has a book called ‘The end of lawyers’ and he predicts that all lawyers would be out of business in a few years time to be replaced by robots and technology. I’m not in that camp, many firms including ours are already using AI to deliver legal services, our clients expect it. There are tools you can buy like Kira and Luminance which make the job easier.

So as a lawyer growing up I probably spent far too much time at my desk with piles and piles of files and reading lots of documents and that can be done through AI. Give them a few documents and listen, pick up the thread. You can use AI to isolate key clauses in a document, you can get AI to get rid of duplicates, you can get them to spot themes and that takes away hundreds of hours of drudgery from what a lot of lawyers do. So some people said that is the end of lawyers because if they’re not looking through documents, what else do they do? The answer is they do it the same but it’s assisted by technology. So I see that it augments what we do, it doesn’t replace what we do but it means that we’re far more efficient, we can do things much cheaper and if you get it right, then it’s possible to make more money by using AI than the traditional methods of manual review which takes thousands of hours. So I think AI is already very much part of the landscape for the forward-looking Jetson firms, but for the Flintstones they just don’t see the need to invest in it and they do need to invest in it and their lawyers don’t trust it as you can’t replace robotics in place of humans.

Question 3 – How do you believe social media and digital marketing have affected the legal sector and how are the companies reacting to those changes?

I think with all businesses, especially our, dare I say, our younger lawyers disregard it as natural to be communicating with their clients on Facebook and looking into each other’s LinkedIn and all that sort of social networking stuff just becomes second nature. I think it works well while you’ve got groups of specialists, say for example we’ve got educational specialists, they’ll be in groups with Vice Chancellors and heads of HR and colleges and education authorities. They can be part of the community and that leads to work for us because they’re all in communication with each other. So I think social networking works well for us in terms of a legal opportunity to get in front of clients. But there’s a whole range of things we’re doing, so the one I particularly like is our Employment Law app because we’re an international firm so we want to convince clients that we can look after their needs all over the world. So you’re going to the Eversheds Sutherland employment app and you can type in ‘what is the law of sex discrimination?’, type in the number of countries and it would immediately give you the answer; in 14 different countries, you know. For us, content is free, that’s just the way that we get to market and demonstrate our knowledge and in that way, clients will come to use our services. So another thing we do is online training so our clients, especially in the world of compliance have to demonstrate that all their people have been trained in anti-bribery, ethics, compliance matters.

So we have online training that we sell to clients that sorts of been very effective. So we are dealing with our clients so that many levels and as I say clients expect you to to have all this technology infrastructure, but I would repeat again that this isn’t a substitute for having personal relationships with people at the senior level and I got an innovation award from the FT a little while ago. I went to the innovator’s breakfast and it was three law firms and 20 startups in the legal space and they said which were the law firm of the future or the legal provider of the future and they said it would be Eversheds Sutherland then I said well that’s very flattering but you’re in this new space with VC money behind you, why do you think that we will succeed and you will struggle? To which the answer was big firms like yours have the relationships with the senior buyers of legal services, you’ve got a brand here and it’s very difficult for us as startups to get that access to the c-suite. So I think provided we learn from the new providers, we incorporate them into what we do, then we will thrive and survive. If we ignore it, then we’ll have problems. The big accountancy firms, big four, very much moving into the legal space and they’re doing it through technology, so they say we’re doing cheaper and more efficiently with technology than the traditional legal way. So we have to be able to offer above the high-level contact and the infrastructure of technology.

Question 4 – What are the fundamental characteristics of someone who can and someone who can’t make sales?

I think that it’s said that sales can be taught. You don’t have to be some special kind of individual, a lot of sales training is technique. I think for lawyers, they’re trained to be risk-averse, they’re trained to give answers, they’re trying to give solutions. So their natural instinct when a client comes up with a problem is to immediately tell them what the answers as the expert. Whereas sales training teaches you that you get the clients talking, you uncover what their needs are, try and understand their business, you then spur the questions and then ultimately you might get into something where you can actually help them with the service.

Many lawyers find that hard, because it’s the listening piece, because a good sales meeting, you know, I regard a good sales meeting is one where I’ve said virtually nothing and the client has done all the talking and I’ve gained a real understanding for what they do. I think lawyers also over-engineer these meetings with clients, getting marketing people to do you know, huge amounts of background research on the client. I have to admit I don’t do that, you can usually pick up at reception you know, the annual brochure, have a quick look online before you go in for a meeting and then people say well how do you understand their business if you’ve not done hours and hours of research? And the answer is I say to them, how’s business? And they tell me how their business is. So you can over-engineer it to make it too complicated, but ultimately it’s people getting along with people, it’s people trusting people. Lawyers will always tell you that the nirvana is to be the client’s trusted adviser. I don’t subscribe to that, I think that your aim should be to be the client’s friend, to be recognised as their friend, someone that can help them, whatever they’re faced with.