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Legal marketing departments are not measuring up to other industries in the global marketing profession, Calibrate CEO Jennifer Johnson writes. She examines the reasons for this phenomenon and gives tips on how firms can recruit high-quality marketing professionals.

Today, world-class marketing teams across all industries are delivering personalized and enhanced customer experiences, while proving their value by driving revenue through their activities.

These teams operate almost entirely in a digital marketing world, in which they are able measure the impact and return on investment of their programs with confidence and precision. And these are just the baseline expectations—to truly excel, a modern marketing team must deliver much more.

As recruiters who specialize in sourcing legal marketing Revenue Enablers™, we believe very few law firms come close to measuring up to this standard.

This is not a problem with the quality of available marketing talent—we talk to a multitude of qualified, enthusiastic and highly professional marketers with advanced digital skills every week.

However, we find that very few of them end up in a law firm marketing position. Many are rejected for their lack of legal marketing experience. In other cases, they choose not to apply, because they do not see the potential to do high-value work in a law firm.

Firms need to pay attention to the changes in marketing and adopt new ways to promote themselves. Firms that aspire to recruiting world-class marketing leadership will reap the rewards of faster, more sustainable revenue growth in the decades to come.

Change Comes Slowly

Following Bates v. Arizona Bar in 1977, which upended the ABA’s 70-year advertising ban, law firms began a slow, gentle tiptoe into the great lake of marketing. By 1985, when the Legal Marketing Association was founded, a total of 12 major U.S. law firms had full-time marketing positions.

But, while corporate America was investing in ever more sophisticated marketing strategies and platforms, law firm marketing evolved at a glacial pace. Legal marketing positions were mainly junior, tasked with organizing client events, directories, and newsletters. Decisions on marketing strategy, tactics, and budgets were made by lawyers; marketers were the “arms and legs.” In fact, it wasn’t until 1990 that a professional marketing executive was hired as chief marketing officer of a major U.S. law firm.

The number of legal marketing positions has grown impressively since then, but the work they do has not changed much. Too many law firm marketing teams are still preoccupied with legacy events, marketing lists, and award programs. With a few notable exceptions, law firms are not adopting digital marketing best practices such as client personalization and account-based marketing.

And few law firm CMOs have true executive-level accountabilities—the majority are simply expected to provide oversight for the tactical activities of a junior team.

The Need to Do Things Differently

Today, legal markets are being rapidly disrupted by technology and nontraditional competition. Despite this, we see little evidence of change in the way most law firms approach marketing.

When a new first-chair marketing position opens up, firms tend to recruit via the rear-view mirror—almost inevitably, the first and most important criterion for a law firm marketing leader is “prior law firm marketing experience.” Success in these positions is measured, not by hard metrics like contribution to revenue, but on partners’ level of satisfaction with “their” marketing resources.

A small number of firms (both large and small) are choosing to do things differently. Recognizing that most lawyers have no formal marketing training and that it is too important and highly ineffective to be managed by partner consensus, they are hiring true executive-level marketing leaders.

They are relying on these leaders’ expertise to build marketing strategies, teams, and processes that are focused on understanding and fulfilling clients’ needs—leading directly to revenue growth. And they are expecting these leaders to prove their value through business-focused metrics, while winning the hearts and minds of the firm’s partners by using sophisticated change management techniques.

All of this is a tall order, but we see encouraging signs that progressive firms are up for the change. If your firm falls into this category, we have four suggestions for recruiting your next first-chair marketing professional:


Hire for leadership ability and business acumen, not tactical marketing experience.

Your marketing leader needs to be focused, not on the actual “doing” of marketing, but on building a high-performance team and on shaping a growth agenda. Certainly, he or she needs to be knowledgeable about digital, ROI measurement, data analytics, account-based marketing and other modern marketing concepts. But the ability to influence—up, down and sideways—is even more important to their success.

Consider nonlegal candidates.

Highly skilled growth marketers who understand the dynamics of professional services are succeeding in the accounting, consulting, engineering, technology, investment and even health care sectors. By insisting on law firm experience as a sine qua non, firms limit themselves to a tiny pool of senior marketing talent and perpetuate the status quo.

Expect accountability and give authority.

A true marketing leader needs the authority to make decisions that are in the best interests of the firm. We suggest targeting candidates who are comfortable functioning as part of a senior leadership team. Give them accountability for goals that are specific and measurable, but at the same time strategic to the firm. Don’t micro-manage them. Be prepared to back them up, and demand results. The best candidates will thrive in this kind of environment.

Have the courage to change.

Traditional legal marketing tactics are quickly losing relevance. Firms should expect that true marketing leaders will challenge current ways of doing things and will come to the table with ideas that may seem radical. Significant changes in processes, technology and people may be required to execute them. This can be uncomfortable—our advice is to embrace the changes and recognize that positive momentum in business is never without pain points.
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