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Three Significant Challenges Facing Law Firm CMBDOs & Ways to Overcome Them

April 19, 2023 5:00 PM | Michele Bisceglie (Administrator)

Author: Jeff Berardi, Partner, Baretz+Brunelle | LSSO Editorial Board Member

I’m not going to sugarcoat it – being a law firm Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer (CMBDO) isn’t easy.  And things aren’t getting any less challenging as economic uncertainty prevails and the performance expectations of law firm leaders continue to grow.  When you examine the typical responsibilities that fall within the purview of the CMBDO position, you’ll notice that it is a lengthy list, and seemingly getting longer.  Heads of marketing often maintain oversight for internal/external communications, business development, client relations, digital marketing, brand/design, campaign management, and much more.  It’s no wonder that CMBDOs and legal marketing professionals have been experiencing record levels of pressure and stress in recent years.  However, I’m convinced that there are certain steps that CMBDOs can proactively take to heighten motivation and enhance enjoyment of this deeply rewarding role.

As a former law firm executive, one of things that I appreciate most about my consulting practice is that I get to work with a substantial number of marketing/BD leaders who hail from a variety of different law firms.  No matter the size, practice focus, or geographic footprint, I’ve realized that there are shared challenges that many CMBDOs are wrestling with at the moment.  In this article, I identify three of the most common obstacles and provide some guidance and suggestions for how best to overcome these potential barriers to success: 

  1. Recruiting and retaining talent
  2. Allocating resources: time, energy, and priorities
  3. Aligning marketing/BD activities to drive results

For each section, I have also included a checklist of questions for consideration.  There are no easy solutions, but the reality is that it’s sometimes easier to diagnose and treat the problem when you are viewing it from a completely objective and unbiased perspective. 

Challenge #1: Recruiting and Retaining Talent

Simply put, this is one of the biggest drains on the energy and level of focus of law firm marketing leaders – massive amounts of time are spent on efforts to recruit and retain marketing/BD team members.  Looking back over the last several years, there has been a great deal of churn in the industry, and it is more difficult than ever to keep gifted team members satisfied and protected from competitors who are looking to poach capable talent.  Although moderately high levels of turnover have always existed to some degree in the legal marketing/BD space, market dynamics related to COVID have exacerbated the situation.  Many firms are now experiencing a vicious cycle in which they resort to paying more to recruit talented professionals, only to find that they may have lost some of their current team members to a competitor who is employing the exact same tactics.  In an environment where many law firm marketers don’t expect to stay at the same firm for more than a few years, the net effect is that it can create a lot of tension within the organization and can have an adverse impact on law firm culture to have people come and go so frequently.

So, what can law firm CMBDOs do about this challenge?  For starters, there is a lot of research that indicates that professionals who experience a greater sense of purpose in their roles are more likely to stay in their positions.  To that end, I recommend supporting initiatives that help to cultivate that shared sense of purpose, such as involving people more frequently in projects, and clearly communicating goals and objectives as well as some context for how individuals fit into the big picture – all which can go a long way toward improving motivation and reducing turnover.  It requires a dedicated effort, however, to encourage more junior team members to learn about the role that they play in the strategic vision of the department or the firm.  The wonderful thing about this solution is that it often doesn’t require a major investment from the firm to accomplish this goal. 

Another suggestion is to ask employees for their honest feedback on what they like or don’t like about their respective roles.  I recommend using an anonymous survey to collect this information, so that team members can voice their true opinions without fear of retaliation from managers or supervisors.  A recent article in notes the benefits of obtaining feedback and offers other ideas for consideration.  On a separate but related note, training and professional development opportunities are an excellent way to demonstrate that you care about the growth and well-being of team members at various levels within the organization.  This need not be limited to marketing, sales, and service members.  For instance, business development workshops designed to assist partners or associates with growing client relationships can serve a dual purpose by also giving marketing/BD team members a viable framework to use for their ongoing coaching and support. 

Key questions to ask:

  • Does the department have a clear and well-defined strategic vision for the department that is connected to broader firm goals?
  • Do team members understand and embrace a sense of purpose?
  • What training and professional development opportunities is the firm providing – and – is it enough to keep team members motivated and “sticky” within the organization?

Challenge #2: Allocating Resources – Time, Energy, and Priorities

Another longtime challenge for law firms is that they frequently find themselves juggling limited business development and client growth resources who are expected to support a multitude of offices, practice groups, and industries/sectors.  Striking the appropriate balance between these competing demands is imperative.  One of the issues is that many law firms are structurally organized by practice groups or office locations; conversely, most clients self-identify by industries or sectors. This dynamic creates a bit of a mismatch between how the law firm is internally structured and how they should be positioning their services as part of an external client-facing go-to-market strategy.  It also creates a management dilemma – if the firm’s P&L exists at the practice level, how will industry groups be led, supported by marketing/BD, and properly evaluated so that there is the proper level of oversight and accountability for these important initiatives?

The firms that are getting this right have been able to fund, design, and advance multi-practice and multi-disciplinary campaigns that are focused on key industries and sectors.  If executed well, these efforts pinpoint issues and challenges that clients and prospects care deeply about, featuring topics and trends that have the potential to affect businesses across an entire sector.  Another reliable method is to develop content intended for narrow target audiences within sub-practice groups (think Fintech, Renewable Energy, Data Privacy, etc.).  If firms are overly broad in their approach to thought leadership, they may discover that clients consider the content to be rudimentary and are less likely to engage.

Before you can devise and execute such campaigns, you need to ensure that you are effectively integrating activities across the client service, BD, and sales functions.  In addition, you need to be able to contend with partners who expect (or demand) support for practice-driven requests, which can frequently be administrative rather than strategic in nature.  A major area of focus should be to prioritize department activities by defining which efforts are high in value and return, and which are of lower benefit to the firm and should be modified or perhaps even removed from the equation entirely.  This can be done by scoring each project on a scale of 1 – 10 for its impact on the business and then rescoring based on each project’s relative ease of implementation.  Another important factor is to make sure that you educate the firm’s internal clients (its lawyers) about a potential shift to a more client-centric approach.  Developing and conveying a robust internal communications strategy is a critical element to ensure that you achieve management support for any changes to the traditional service delivery model.

Key questions to ask:

  • Have you achieved full alignment between your marketing, business development, and client-facing (sales) activities to ensure that all functions are operating in a collaborative way?
  • Are you prioritizing high-value activities and finding ways to reduce the time the marketing/BD team spends on lower-value (often administrative) efforts?
  • Have you properly communicated with your lawyers that a shift is being made to support more industry go-to-market efforts (and why that’s important), and the impact that might have upon individuals or practice areas that may have traditionally been supported to a greater degree?

Challenge #3: Aligning Marketing/BD Activities to Drive Results

The age-old question of how to demonstrate ROI is perhaps the most difficult nut for law firm CMBDOs to crack.  In other words, how can law firms more clearly tie their marketing/BD efforts to revenue growth?  It sounds remarkably simple, but ROI is often very difficult to track, measure, and prove.  Still, the better and more equipped CMBDOs have made solid progress on this front, and we should take note of what they’ve done and how they’ve done it.  For starters, those that have been successful have often invested in building or buying new technology tools that enable marketing team members to connect BD activities to new matters opened, track the effectiveness of marketing/BD/sales campaigns, and report upon the overall contribution and value of a department, function, or client team.  In addition, the most capable CMBDOs are successfully using digital marketing strategies to their full potential.  They are tracking and measuring their progress – such as by generating and managing leads, through enhanced email automation and targeted paid social media campaigns – and they are actively reporting to firm management their impact and overall results. 

Are you worried that this is too heavy of a lift?  If so, here are a few simple things you can do to get started.  Begin by capturing all expenses that go into a dedicated marketing and BD campaign.  This includes any costs to develop thought leadership, sponsorships, events, travel for lawyers/BD professionals, etc.  From there, you need to make sure that you determine if any new matters are opened as a direct result of this campaign.  This entails connecting new matters to activities related to the campaign initiative.  In some cases, you may wish to assign a grading system that asks lawyers to rank the influence that the campaign had on landing the matter – is it 75%, 50%, 25%?  Once that percentage is assigned, it’s a relatively simple calculation to establish the overall campaign value from the new revenue that was generated.  Importantly, you will want to deduct the costs from the new revenue to show net impact.  Keep in mind that it isn’t solely about revenue growth – the impact might be measured by other factors as well such as increased awareness, greater client engagement, an uptick in proposals or meetings, etc.  But the number that firm management will most care about is undoubtedly going to be new revenue, so be sure to track and measure that wherever possible.

On the sales front, there has been a lot of discussion over the past decade about whether firms should create a client-facing sales team made up of business executives.  Although it may be true that there are a greater number of business professionals who have client-facing roles, the expansive sales teams that we’ve heard about in recent years have not come to fruition. The firms that have gained traction often employ sales teams that are small, nimble, and focused, usually consisting of just a few people who are exclusively devoted to generating leads and driving new business opportunities.  Nevertheless, lots of firms continue to be curious about whether they should launch a client-facing sales team.  It has been encouraging to see that more marketing/BD roles have opportunities for direct interaction with the firm’s external clients, but we still have a long way to go on this front.  Regardless of the exact nature of the role, I have long believed that business professionals can add value to the client relationship in a variety of ways

Key questions to ask:

  • Is the team directly connecting revenue generated through marketing/BD? 
  • Is the team tracking new matters opened with corresponding financial data?
  • Does the team have a clearly defined digital marketing blueprint for the next 1-3 years?
  • Knowing your firm and attorneys, what are the benefits of having a client-facing sales team?
  • Does it fit with the culture of the firm, and will you be able to find the right people for the role?

The Bottom Line

Law firm CMBDOs are frequently confronted with challenges that can distract from strategic priorities and get in the way of making progress.  Common struggles include retaining and motivating team members, determining the right balance of support between practice and industry initiatives, and demonstrating ROI for firm management or other key stakeholders.  Have the staffing-related ups and downs of the past few years have had a damaging effect on marketing team members?  If so, offer more purpose and training opportunities.  Are you straining to adequately support practices, regions, and industries?  Prioritize key industry groups and educate internally about the shift to a more client-centric approach.  Having a hard time measuring ROI or defining the contribution of your team?  Build or buy technology tools that more clearly connect financial data and new matters opened to marketing activities.

In closing, I want to convey to my clients and friends – you are not alone.  Having spent 13 years as the CMO of a global law firm, I understand that it can feel a bit lonely in this role.  That said, it’s important to realize that others are in a similar boat.  By asking the right questions and by making some small modifications to your approach, you can overcome these common challenges and reduce the inevitable stress that accompanies the law firm CMBDO role.

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