The year was 2009. The law firm managing partner was confessing. Not in a contrite or inquisitive manner. The tone was incredulous. He didn’t get it; and he seemed to politely resent the idea that he should invest any time or energy discussing it.
Ironically, he was elbows deep in the process of interviewing for a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) for his firm.
To be fair, it is likely that nothing in his experience had served to create the view that a senior marketing professional would be an asset to his management team or his partners. The law firm for which he served as chair, like most other AmLaw 200 firms, had enjoyed an amazing run for decades. Enviable partner profits, regular increases in hourly rates, and an impressive client list argued against any idea that something might be missing from his management suite.
His firm had experienced years of success without a CMO. The managing partner had no reason to believe that any of the things that had contributed to the historic prosperity might change.
But peer firms had CMOs. If the competition had it, there must be something to it. And someone in the management sphere had convinced him they should entertain the idea. So, there he sat.
That was nearly a decade ago, and the firm in question has had some ups and downs…but at the end of 2017 was slightly smaller than it had been in 2009, and was struggling for market share.
Though the function has come a long way, outside a handful of notable exceptions, most law firm leaders still have some semblance of the “I don’t get it” mindset“ when it comes to the professional management of marketing and business development. It may come in the form of debates over changes to the lawyer profile. Or an initiative to leverage capabilities and hunt in packs. Or the role of client interviews. Or project management. Or AFAs.
Presumably because most law firms shy away from being first-to-market with anything, the conversations tend to factor how other firms have responded to what is going on in the marketplace…and whether to follow suit. Precious few conversations broach the topic of where the market is headed and how to get there first. Or on how to capture more market share in a particular sweet spot.
No one should be surprised.
Everything about proactive marketing and business development (not to mention new or innovative service offerings) runs counter to the reactive approach that is typical of a legal practice — identify risk, spot what is wrong, name the problem. Never forget that the glass is always at least half empty.
New opportunity is most often perceived as additional risk.
When you get right down to it, lawyers and marketers are an odd pairing — one that tests even the most sincere spirit of collaboration.
So how does a CMO address the tension between, on one hand, a largely reactive approach to the market; and on the other, a proactive pursuit of opportunity? In the interest of a productive conversation, here are five ideas.
First, acknowledge the tension. To ignore the fact that on the best of days lawyers and marketers see opportunity in completely different ways is to handicap every attempt at consequential communication with lawyer leadership.
Second, relentlessly pursue a connection based on how the lawyer views the market. Speak to strategies that mitigate risk. Suggest executable plans where precedent can be cited that hints at future success. And identify the challenges. Name every issue. In short, build better conversations by staging dialogue on turf familiar to the lawyer.
Third, invest in speaking the lawyer’s language. Few things can bring an otherwise productive conversation to a halt faster than relying on marketing buzz words or consultant-speak. Communication occurs when we build on common ground and shared experiences. The use of language borne of a marketing mindset does nothing more than indicate we are willing to defer to our own shorthand, rather than invest the energy to craft a message that connects.
Fourth, focus on — to use consultant-speak — what keeps the lawyer up at night. Chances are it is not the newest marketing initiative or business development strategy unless he’s just had a less than fulfilling experience in one of these areas. And even where the lawyer’s most pressing driver can be spoken to by someone on your team, it is possible that the lawyer does not view the marketing team as the resource likely to have the solution.
And fifth, practice what we preach. Remember that if you’re in-house at a law firm, the lawyers are your targets. If the strategy you’re selling is worth anything, it should be the strategy you’re using to connect and market inside the firm. Believe in content marketing? Your internal marketing efforts should model what you’re selling. Coaching lawyers to know their client’s business? We’d do well to understand the lawyer’s practice before we preach too fervently.
Will these five ideas bridge the disconnect? This is where there is value in channeling the little bit of lawyer in all of us in order to acknowledge the downside. Things will not change overnight. And certainly not in the context of one meeting.
Nothing is going to change the fact that marketers and lawyers see the world through different lenses.
In this way, the challenges facing marketing leadership are no different than those faced by peers in finance or IT. But it does seem that our challenge is unique. Unlike other chairs in the C-Suite, marketers do not handle the money or deliver the email. To the degree that our role is about intentionally moving toward the market instead of waiting for the market to move to us, we are insinuating a new behavior, and a mindset at odds with that of most lawyers.
The only way things change with the managing partner that doesn’t get the marketing thing is when a) she experiences or at least senses a painful change is coming; and b) marketing leaders are there to ease the pain, identify an alternative path forward, and assist with critical transition.
In order to be in a position to do this, we must find ways to keep the conversation going…even when leadership questions value. Even when the practice of law serves to derail the marketing/business development focus (remember…this is why they went to law school!). And yes…even when those we seek to assist simply don’t get it.