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| 11 minutes read

CMO Series EP46 - Dave Southern on driving legal BD with client-based collaboration

It’s well documented that better client-based collaboration can boost legal business development results and build stronger, lasting relationships between law firms and their clients.

What isn’t as clear is how firms can go about creating the initiatives and processes required to implement that closer collaboration.

Ed Lovatt had the pleasure of welcoming Dave Southern, who has a notable career with positions at Baker McKenzie, Baker Hostetler and most recently at Boston based Choate, Hall & Stewart, to the CMO Series to learn how greater client collaboration can lead to BD success.

In this episode Ed and Dave discuss:

  • Dave’s career journey so far and how his experiences have influenced his philosophy on client collaboration
  • Why closer client collaboration is so important 
  • How to improve the results of lateral acquistions 
  • How to apply this process to all clients of the firm and examples of how this has worked 
  • How this approach fits within the overall go-to-market strategy of the firm
  • Advice for legal marketing and BD professionals looking to improve their client collaboration


Intro: Welcome to the Passle Podcast CMO Series 

Ed: Hello and welcome to the CMO Series podcast. Today we are very happy to welcome Dave Southern, who has a noteworthy career and has included positions at Baker, McKenzie, Baker Hostedler, and most recently at the Boston based firm Choate, Hall & Stewart. Dave, I want to dive straight into it today and get the crux of the content because I think we've got a fair bit to cover on client based collaboration. Dave, welcome to the podcast. I'm excited to learn from this conversation and hear a little bit more about your experiences and knowledge. If you could take us through the career journey so far and maybe just touch on a few points as to how these experiences have influenced your philosophy on client collaboration. 

Dave: Thank you, Ed. I'm delighted to be here talking with you guys today. I guess I'd start from the standpoint. I've been in the business development and marketing space for some time now. I've had many roles in my career, from being an advertising executive, helping to sell more beer, more cheese, more salad dressings, all purpose household cleaners, artificial sweeteners, ice cream, and much more, to a time that I spent as an investor relations executive, positioning and selling equity securities to the capital markets for specific companies, and then also business development and marketing within professional services, including both for EY and also, as you had mentioned, for several law firms. As I reflect on these experiences, I asked myself what's been common to all these experiences, and what really jumped out to me is the fact that we win and we grow when we're learning as much as we possibly can about our clients needs and understanding them better than anybody else. Hopefully everybody in our legal services industry deals with RFPs, but the needs that are specified, and these are most often just the first level of needs. And it's really important to dig deeper. And it's only by digging deeper and working harder in order to be able to understand those needs and those motivations that we're going to be able to make the difference that will actually close the sale. So the primary focus of my efforts throughout all of these experiences has been to be essentially a client advocate, if you will, advocating for more and better and deeper understanding of our clients needs. And as it happens, I believe that bringing this focus to the challenge of collaboration within a law firm can actually be a real game changer for us. 

Ed: So perhaps just a tag onto what you just finished with there. Why would you say that closer collaboration is so important specifically within the legal field? I know your background is more varied, as you said, salad dressings as well, but why would you say it's important within the legal sector? 

Dave: Well, Heidi Gardner, of course, has published a lot of information and research on the effects of collaboration within the law firm space and has demonstrated that there are clear advantages, real economic benefits that come from enhancing the collaboration that any law firm brings to clients. But the other thing is it helps to ensure stronger relationships with clients and makes those relationships much stickier, which can be so helpful over time and frankly, provide a great base for continuing to grow the relationships and grow the revenues from those relationships. There's another aspect of collaboration today that I think is really important given what's happening in our industry, and that is in relation to lateral activity. So many firms are bringing on so many new laterals, and the general consensus is that about half the time those lateral experiences don't measure up to the business case that was set up in the first moment. And I think that there's a great opportunity to improve what's been a generally poor record up to now when it comes to lateral acquisitions. 

Ed: You mentioned Heidi Gardner there. I'm assuming you mean the best selling author and not the SNL actress. 

Dave: That's indeed true, yes. 

Ed: Good. You just touched on lateral activity. Is it possible to improve the results of lateral acquisitions, and if so, how would you say it's possible? 

Dave: I think that there is a real possibility to do that, and I know that there are some firms that have been making great inroads in this area. I think that one of the key things is that the efforts need to be much more purposeful and much more deliberate. And by that, I mean that there needs to be focused attention right from the beginning on understanding what really sets apart the person who's joining the firm, the new lateral. What is it that they offer to their clients? What value have they provided to their clients before? That's really been important and extraordinary. And by focusing attention on what those areas are, and then importantly, giving thought to what sorts of other clients are either in those same industries or have those same kinds of issues, you can then identify opportunities for repeating those kinds of successes again and again and again. I think the level of attention to collaboration generally when it comes to lateral acquisitions is setting up meetings, for sure, which is great and very important, but oftentimes it kind of stops there. And I think that firms would benefit from having a more purposeful approach to this and perhaps even having more senior level people focused on helping to make this all happen. Oftentimes as a lateral is coming on board, it's left to some of the less experienced folks on the team to be able to take care of all the things that need to happen. And I think that by paying more attention and again, as I say, importantly, focusing on client issues and the ways that somebody has brought value to a client before you can unlock some real opportunities that are really important. 

Ed: Perhaps this is a silly followup question, Dave, but there's definitely a case for the value of collaboration with legal professionals, the firms and their clients. Do you think this can be applied to all the clients within a firm, and if so, how? Is that a silly question? 

Dave: No, Ed, that's a great question. I do believe that this kind of an approach can be taken to all clients of the firm. And what I recommend is taking what I would characterise as a campaign approach. By that, I mean identifying those services that clearly bring great value to a client, those services that the firm is most proud of and can actually express quite clearly what the benefits are to the clients. And once you've identified those services that you want to be focusing on, I would recommend then taking a look at what about those clients causes them to have a need for those services. In other words, do you have clients that are within that same industry that could potentially benefit from that same issue? Do you have clients that have value chains that are characterised quite similarly to the client that you provided the services to? Is there some way that you can identify those to whom you could bring that kind of service? So once you've identified other clients of the firm that could benefit from this particular specific service, I recommend then putting together the business case. In other words, developing the case to the extent that there will be any communication vehicles that would help to make the case clearer, set those up, and then begin working with your relationship partners within the firm in order to facilitate introductions to clients. And then, of course, extended as well to other prospective clients of the firm so that you can actually reach out and have a very specific approach that's almost got kind of a product that you're offering. And the reason why that has worked is because if you're targeting properly, you're reaching out to those clients that could very well benefit from that same kind of an approach. One thing that I like about this kind of an approach is the incentives built around collaboration are often not clear or, in fact, incentives that are set up are not quite effective enough because the model within law firms oftentimes has a very strong relationship partner that kind of owns that relationship and oftentimes functions as a gatekeeper. And so it's difficult sometimes to get past that. We can of course talk for days about compensation systems and motivation and incentives related to collaboration. But this kind of an approach that I'm advocating is one that kind of does a little bit of strategic jujitsu. And by that I mean it turns it on its head and focuses on the motivations of the lawyers who are providing the service and allows them to be the kind of drivers of the collaboration, which I think is likely to be much more successful. Let me give you an example of a specific case where this kind of collaboration has worked. Let's assume for a moment, you've got a client who's in the pharmaceutical space and is manufacturing and distributing Pharmaceuticals that are utilising schedule two narcotics. Not an uncommon situation, but an ingredient or a product that could potentially be abused where there's a potential risk of that. Obviously, the manufacturer needs to be concerned about such a thing. So if you were to conduct an investigation for that client, investigating the prescription patterns for that product around the country or around the world, and identifying those situations where there are outliers and situations where it seems that perhaps there are too many more prescriptions being written in an area than one would imagine, that allows you to identify very quickly what the potential areas of risk are for that particular product and for that product to be potentially abused, opening the company to liability that the company would want to obviously avoid, if possible, seeing that and seeing the way that that sort of an analysis was able to help manage the risk profile for the client, we were able to then identify other companies that were in similar kinds of situations. And this is just talking within the pharmaceutical space. But if you can imagine, there would be all kinds of companies who have products that are potentially abused by people when used, not in the way that they were first developed and positioned. And so one could then take that as a kind of a service, an investigative service that can help in terms of risk management for all kinds of different clients. And that's exactly what we did then was to identify those companies that would make sense to then take that too, and open to a lot of new conversations in that way. 

Ed: I'm glad that wasn't a silly question, because your answer and the example you've given makes it sound like the collaboration really paid off for the firm and the professionals involved. I can see that it's a bit of a niche example, but that it could actually work within other sectors that a law firm can provide for as well. Would you say, sorry, such an approach fits within the overall go to market strategy of the firm? 

Dave: Well, as I mentioned at the outset of our talk, there's no substitute in my mind for consistent focus on client needs. And if you're able to be focusing in on and really considering the true value and benefit that's been provided to clients, I think that you find yourself in a space where you're going to have much more productive conversations within the firm and be much more likely to identify those areas that are worthy of this kind of focus and that need this kind of promotion. And so these campaigns can help to raise the awareness of the specific issues faced by many clients. So I think that there's a great kind of a knock on benefit of this approach which causes everyone's awareness of potential for helping clients, which at the end of the day is of course what we're all about, but there's a great opportunity for the awareness of that as a concept to really permeate the firm much more extensively.

Ed:  Incredibly interesting answers and some really important information. Dave, one of the phrases or sayings that you mentioned was strategic Jujitsu, which I've never heard before, but it conjures up some amazing images in my head. 

Dave: Yeah. Well, I'm glad you appreciate that. The point that I was thinking about is that we have approached collaboration head on for so long with the idea that we're going to be able to motivate people either with money or recognition or whatever it is. And I think we may have been focusing on the wrong people as we were doing that, and so I kind of like that. Anyway, thanks. 

Ed: Well, Dave, we're getting towards the end of our time and a question that we like to ask often at the end of our podcast is if you had one piece of advice for legal marketing and BD professionals looking to improve their client collaboration, what would it be? 

Dave: It may not surprise you that I'm going to say understanding client needs is the key and there are so many ways to do that. And I think in all of the conversations that you have with partners and even associates around the firm asking those questions that challenge people to think about what's in it for the client or what did I actually provide to the client is I think such a powerful way to get yourself on a level in a conversation where you're dealing with things that are really going to make a difference. And so I feel like that's something that's always worth considering. As you're making your rounds around the firm and trying to accomplish all the various things that we all have to try to accomplish. 

Ed: I think that's a solid answer. There will probably be a lot of people listening who are seasoned and experts in their field and also new legal marketers and BD professionals that are probably nodding their head at that answer. 

Dave: Sometimes the obvious answers are the right ones. 

Ed: Yeah, it's right in front of you. Too easy sometimes. Dave, thank you so much for coming on and sharing your wisdom and knowledge. We have to wrap it up. Although I'm sure we could actually continue to chat all day and branch out into other topics where you have plenty of expertise, I'm sure our audience will hugely benefit from this conversation. Thank you so much. We'll speak very soon.

Dave: Ed, thank you so much for the opportunity. It's been great to talk to you. 

Ed: Absolutely pleasure.


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