SEPTEMBER 12, 2016


Last month we wrote about the explosive changes that have occurred in law firms over the past decade. Perhaps no non-practicing lawyer position has changed as dramatically as that of the leading marketing professional, which bears no resemblance to the position in the 1990s.

The Bigger Picture

An increasing number of law firms have become complex global organizations. They have grown both internally and by acquisition, mirroring the combinations so frequent in American business. Clients have changed, too, and can no longer be counted on to remain with a law firm for generations, to be passed on from senior to junior partners. So, marketing which was considered undignified and proscribed by rules of professional conduct, has gone from the activity no one wanted—or thought they needed—to a virtual must-have function.

Firms recognize that they can no longer wait for the phone to ring to get business. Simply stated, there are too many law firms chasing too few business opportunities and they must compete rigorously for corporate clients.

The Good Old Days

The Alexander Group conducted its first marketing search 25 years ago. At that time, we were asked to recruit an individual who could put together brochures and operate a collating machine. One retired Am Law 100 CMO recalls joining his firm in 1990, when partners were wondering what the “world wide web” was and if it had anything to do with them. Back then, this manager’s responsibilities included preparing seating charts for client and partner functions. Yep, it’s a different world today.

Business Development: A Critical Part of Marketing

The role of the law firm’s CMO has evolved dramatically and taken on increasing importance as firms adapt to globalization and define their markets, and implement a go-to-market strategy to remain competitive. Not only is the CMO viewed as a business partner with the firm’s lawyers in defining and communicating a firm’s brand, but a growing number of CMOs are charged with helping the firm secure and expand client relationships. And it goes without saying that today’s marketing leader has to recruit, retain and develop a cohesive and often geographically dispersed team.

An outstanding CMO can move into the COO/ED role, as Karen Braun formerly CMO of Kirkland and now Executive Director of Sullivan & Cromwell, has successfully done, because the CMO must understand all aspects of client relationships, firm strategy and pricing.

Chief marketing leaders charged with the business development function are recruiting senior business development professionals embedded in practice groups this requires search firms to broaden their recruiting targets to organizations outside the legal industry that have proven business development functions.

Law Firm Marketing and Business Development Continues to Evolve

Because the role of a law firm’s marketing leader has grown, the necessary skill set required has also evolved. As they seek talented and effective marketing and business development leaders, law firms are increasingly open to recruiting marketing leaders outside of the legal industry. Some of the early recruits to law firm marketing were from public accounting and consulting firms that had established a global brand at least a decade ahead of law firms. Others were lawyers who saw marketing as a better and more desirable fit for their talents. Later hires have come from financial service firms and businesses that serve the legal industry.

In the early 1990s, Howrey & Simon (since dissolved but which at its peak had 700 attorneys in locations worldwide), made a distinctive statement by recruiting Mary K Young, a consumer products marketing manager, to lead its global marketing efforts. The firm’s Chairman, an antitrust lawyer, had worked extensively with consumer companies and believed they were a great source of marketing talent. Interestingly the firm’s prior marketing leader was a brand manager from General Mills.

Our research found that about 25 percent of Am Law 100 firms have hired their CMOs from outside the legal industry. Recent external hires include marketing executives from PwC, Thomson Reuters, and Alvarez & Marshal to name a few. The incorporation of business development into the purview of CMO responsibilities is reflected in new titles including Chief Business Officer, Chief Strategy Officer, and Chief Client Services Officer. Of the 40 Am Law firms that have hired or promoted a new CMO in the last three years, 15 have “business development” included in the title, as do 35 of the Am Law 100 overall.

What Are Future Trends in Law Firm Marketing Executives?

Law firms and their marketing functions will continue to evolve at breakneck speed. One trend we’re seeing now is business development professionals embedded in global practice groups, working in tandem with the practice management function. Some firms will be charging one individual with oversight of both business development and practice management functions within a practice group, opening up career-broadening opportunities for both marketing and business development and practice management professionals.