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When we begin a search for a client, we often hear that they want to “take it to the next level.” But what does “next level” really mean? Is it just a buzzword that we deploy at conferences because it sounds good, or is there truly a “next level” marketer waiting in the wings?

Our response is yes, we do believe a next level exists. We believe the marketplace is yearning to attain more sophisticated levels within marketing and business development. We also believe that the marketplace is slightly ambivalent because it doesn’t know what “it” will look like when we’ve reached this next level.

Then and Now

The legal marketplace has experienced important shifts over the last few decades. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw the first wave of professional marketers break down doors. These brave pioneers brought in corporate-like thinking and helped executive directors bring structure, process and strategy to law firms. Firm brands bolstered by sophisticated strategists and designers began looking a lot more like corporations.

Then, technology and process management hit the industry like a tidal wave a few years later. Smart, forward-thinking firms capitalized on this and recruited marketing technology professionals to partner with information technology departments and began hiring more targeted business development managers with analytical and sales skills.

Now we’re entering what we can consider the third wave in legal marketing. We are grappling with new issues, process improvement, pricing conundrums, big data (or a lack thereof) and an ever-contracting market. We need to look outside the boundaries for new business and with that, we might be wise to look outside our boundaries for new talent or for new skills of our own.

What’s in high demand? Marketing and business development professionals who understand clients; who can take a holistic view of clients, revenues, geographic disposition and firm culture; people who can systematically chart a strategy driving revenue growth, both new and organic; and people who can drive efficiencies within our marketing departments. These professionals will find their firms new clients and new market share without annoying existing clients and will bring law firms to the next level.

However, this is where the big question looms and some ambivalence begins: Do firms want what could very well be explosive growth? Do they want to blaze trails with their business strategy? If they do (and we think they do) then they will need to take some decisive steps to attain it, and that’s where you come in.

Growth: Where Will it Come From?

Growth in the next several years will come from a few places. It will come from from specific, niche industries, particularly regulated sectors; from deeper client relationships yielding repeat and expanded business; and from cross-selling. In each of these instances, it follows naturally that the marketing and business development teams will need to look and feel different, too. They will possess a depth of knowledge about the industries their clients are in, as well as the key stakeholders and issues. They will propose ideas that will help their clients be better businesses. They will bring a sophisticated touch and a true strategic focus to their work, taking a page from the marketing playbooks of industries that have historically been more innovative than law firms, such as consulting, technology and from within specific industries as well. Yet they will still need to be capable of successfully navigating the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of law firms.

So how does a CMO who has progressively moved through the ranks at his or her law firm stay on top of their game? Perhaps this person has already weathered two of these big shifts. Can it be done again?

We believe so. Whether someone is rebooting skills after many years in the industry or bringing portable skills from the outside, CMOs and their teams will need to bring data into their decisions. Whether the CMO takes initiative to learn about big data or they build a data-savvy team, it must be part of the mix going forward.

Finally, this new breed of marketing leader will be financially literate, have a seat at the table and, sometimes, be the one to convene that table. This piece is crucial. Marketing professionals must be the ones tracking trends and presenting data to the decision makers.

You Are the Subject-Matter Expert

Marketing and business development leads will also need to learn how to say “no” and be comfortable with it. The mentality of saying “yes” to a large rainmaker just because they are a big driver of revenue needs to change. Don’t get us wrong — we know that working in a partnership environment is difficult when all the partners are your boss. All at once. And so is the COO. But saying no in combination with providing alternatives and evidence to support those alternatives will actually garner respect, even if they disagree. The point isn’t to be obstinate and disagreeable. The point is that you are the subject-matter expert when it comes to your job, and we think you should act like it. Respectfully, of course. With data as your ammunition.

For those who are striving to get the “seat at the table”: You know the saying “dress for the job you want, not the job you have”? You have to find your voice as the subject-matter expert and exercise it with authority. Respectfully, of course. With data as your ammunition.

Taking it to the Next Level

Most law firms want to evolve, and they need marketing and business development people brave enough to step to the helm and lead them there.

Some words and phrases we hear often in our searches include: accountability, results, discipline, metrics-driven, generating leads, filling the marketing funnel and capturing more market share. Marketing and business development professionals sit at the intersection of so many critical functions in the firm: technology, finance, operations, professional development, recruiting. In many cases the marketing and business development professionals evolve into lawyer confidantes. Packaging all the knowledge and expertise along with this unique ability to lead firms and their lawyers is the “next level.”

Firms are not always requesting specific expertise when launching a senior-level search. They’re not saying “bring us a person with expertise in [fill in the blank with pricing/branding/technology].” What they’re seeking are professionals who have a proven record of being architects of departments that have proven successful results against set strategies.

Marketing pros who have the combination of tenacity, curiosity and a forward-thinking mentality are the most well-positioned constituency in a law firm to be able drive change. What will that look like ultimately? Our hope is that it will be a highly profitable law firm that serves as a true business partner to its clients, is led by professionals who are trained in their respective craft, make decisions based on a combination of data and metrics, and are given the latitude to implement change, all while still taking great care of the precious human capital product that lies within.

Author Jennifer Johnson is CEO of Calibrate.  A version of this article was originally published in Strategies+, the blog of the Legal Marketing Association.

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