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The Top 5 Reasons Your Law Firm Can’t Cross-Sell

By January 29, 2018May 28th, 2020No Comments

5 Reasons You Can’t Cross-Sell

Many years ago as a young marketer at a 500-lawyer firm, the managing partner tasked me with developing a firm-wide cross-selling project, with the goal of “institutionalizing” more of our big clients. I did exhaustive academic research. Of course, every marketer knew that “getting business from existing clients is five times easier than getting a new client” (although I don’t know who first proclaimed that misleading platitude). I devised a step-by-step, bulletproof process in extraordinary depth and detail.

The design was, if I may say, pure genius.  The gleeful managing partner agreed that it was a sure-fire winner. It was guaranteed to bring in millions of dollars of new business. He rolled out cross-selling initiative firm-wide in all offices. I planned to receive an enormous year-end bonus.

Unfortunately, of course, it turned out to be a catastrophe. 

It was a complete and utter failure, the Hindenburg of marketing efforts ― by far the biggest disaster in my entire career. Not a single lawyer tried it. WTF? I was so sure this was going to work.

I interviewed my favorite partners to determine what went wrong. They confidentially told me that there was “no way in hell [they] were going to do any of it.” I was dumbfounded. Why not? Actually, in retrospect it was pretty obvious. The whole program was premised on the absurd belief that that the lawyers would do what was good for the firm, rather than what was in the lawyers’ personal financial interest.

I was young and naïve. I’d made a total rookie mistake.

There were countless issues I wasn’t experienced enough to consider: (1) They liked keeping their clients portable, so they could pick up their ball and leave if the firm didn’t pay them what they wanted. (2) The compensation system didn’t reward this behavior at all. (3) The firm’s culture and leadership didn’t demand that they put their critical client relationships in their fellow partners’ hands. (4) The partners didn’t trust each other’s legal skills and client service. What if they screwed up the relationship? One said, “I’d lose control of the relationship, and risk losing the client that’s putting food in my children’s mouths.” Another partner said, “I’d rather send the work to another firm where I can’t be blamed if it gets screwed up.” One called his clients “hot-house orchids.”

Plus, (5) they were doing just fine already. They were busy, and there was no penalty if they ignored the cross-selling initiative, went back to work, and maintained the status quo.  And this was just the start of the objections. There were over a dozen other barriers. Read them here and here.

Of course, the lawyers were right to behave as they did. At that firm, they didn’t trust the firm, its management, or each other to do the right thing, so it would be unreasonable for them to even try. As long as they could control every aspect of their client relationships, they were safe. No lawyer had so many clients that they were willing to risk putting them in the hands of partners in other practice areas whom they didn’t trust immensely.

Most firms thinks everyone else is cross-selling better than they are.

Most commentators are still writing about how simple and efficient cross-selling is. Sure, it’s easier to get another similar deal from a current transactional client where the same team has already done good work. But it’s not easier to get that first piece of litigation work from that same corporate client. (In fact, I’d argue that it can be TWICE as difficult because you not only have to sell the client on your skills and service, you must first sell the partner at your firm who controls that relationship to let you anywhere near them.)

That’s not to say that some firms aren’t cross-selling effectively. Some are.

But in my experience, they’re the exception. What’s the odds that your firm is?

Next week, I’ll identify “The 5 Traits of Successful Cross-Selling Firms.” 


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Start by reading the definitive book on the subject, We’re Smart. We’re Old. And We’re the Best at Everything – The World’s First No-BS Guide to Legal Marketing and Branding.” It’s available at Amazon here. 

Contact Ross Fishman directly for more information at +1.847.921.7677 or And watch this fun strategy and branding VIDEO!