As featured in Attorney at Work on June 27, 2019
The marketing and business development function in law firms is an established, credible business service. Unless a firm acquires a marketing department as part of a merger, these departments are built — carefully and thoughtfully — over time. But many smaller firms operate without one until someone realizes the firm’s growth is curtailed because fee-earners are the ones doing all the heavy lifting. Sooner or later, all firms — even solo practices — find themselves asking “when” they know the time has come to hire a marketing or BD professional, closely followed by “how” do I hire and whom.
This is the first in a two-part piece addressing these questions.
Signs Its the Right Time to Hire
If you are answering “yes” to one or more of these five factors, then it’s likely time to embark on hiring your first marketing or BD professional:
Having identified the need to build a marketing or BD function, it’s important to avoid some common missteps in implementing that plan:
1. Confusing marketing and business development
Many firm leaders do not understand the difference between marketing and BD. Many firms also define these functions very differently. Know where you need the most assistance and name it according to your specific needs and firm. For example, heavy-hitting BD activities include:
On the other hand, duties typically associated with the marketing function include:
2. Asking for too little or too much experience
Understand the level of seniority you need for this position and overall function. Do partners need to be guided and coached on this function (which indicates a more senior strategist) or do they need help in executing on their already identified goals (which suggests a mid-level professional)?
3. Writing and unrealistic job description
When writing the job description, think about how you want to prioritize responsibilities. A common failing is writing the entire marketing or BD function in one job description, rather than one well-considered role that meets immediate needs, from which you can grow.
4. Lack of strategy
Think about your recruiting strategy. Do you know enough about the role to identify the right candidates? What are the most important qualifications? Prior experience? Technical expertise? Cultural fit?
You Can't Know What You Don't Know
The danger lies in attempting to build a marketing or BD team despite a lack of experience with the field. Avoid missteps by seeking advice from those experienced with defining and recruiting the right marketing and BD team for a firm like yours. At the same time, ask peers to share what they’ve learned in building out their departments.
I add this for your consideration: Marketing and BD professionals provide a different way to grow the firm, both through existing and new streams of revenue. They are not restricted by a finite number of billable hours. They are professionals focused on building relationships who will supplement your lawyers and who have the liberty of taking a long-term view of the firm to achieve — and hopefully, exceed — its strategic goals.
Armed with the knowledge that the timing is right to hire a marketing or BD professional, how do you go about looking for the right candidates? Stay tuned for part two.
Co-authored with Trisha Daho, Founder & CEO, Empowered
What confounds Managing Partners?
In so many conversations that we have with accounting firms, law firms, and similar professional services firms, managing partners seem confounded by a series of challenges affecting their firms:
Stopping the cycle
Many firms, even smaller to medium sized firms, have contemplated how to best attract the clients they most want. They get training on business development, they go out into the market, and they hustle to put into practice what they have learned. Sometimes. Until they get busy. And then, marketing and business development fall quickly off the table for a while. By the time most firms come up for air, they are hitting another dip in revenue growth, and the cycle starts all over again.
In order to create sustainable, long term, vibrant growth, firms (no matter how small), need to focus on creating a brand that is clear, desirable to key target clients, and executed with precision and diligence. Few firms manage this to an outstanding degree. But it is absolutely possible and the best firms have already figured that out. It all starts with a strategy.
The importance of strategy
Firms must create a strong and compelling vision, one that speaks to every single stakeholder. Clients, of course, but also targets, networking partners, alliances, and their own team. This can seem daunting, but with the help of a strategist or management consultant, firms can determine how to communicate a vision that sings directly to their ideal clients and targets.
Once a firm creates that vision, the work of living it begins. This means creating a strong brand presence in exactly the right market. Most firms see this phase as “marketing,” but it is so much more than creating a website and some marketing collateral. In professional services firms, every single person, from the janitor to the managing partner, must be living a clear, consistent brand for that firm every single day. The firms that do revel in their successes, and experience exponential growth. Those that don’t, flounder. And because most humans tend to focus on what they are extremely good at most of the time, those of us in professional services firms don’t focus on making strategic decisions about how to live our brand. We’ve got billable hour requirements, after all.
How to move this forward
So, what to do? Hiring an expert who can knowledgeably drive the bus on execution is a powerful tool for professional services firms of all kinds. But you have to do it in the right way for it to make a real difference in your results.
For example, if you hire a marketing director or manager and then give that person no real authority to do a great job, it’s going to a be a giant disaster. The firm leadership must be comfortable with full empowerment to these people in these roles, especially with leading the strategic marketers that they hire. If this doesn’t happen – put simply – firms are wasting their dollars on these valuable assets. One of the most common reasons we see why senior marketing professionals leave their firms is because they lack the necessary authority and empowerment to do what the firm has asked.
If your firm is committed to creating a role for a person with the muster and acumen to execute a clear strategy, partner with the top brass of your organization on evolving that strategy over time, and inspiring the execution of that strategy by everyone in your organization. Then you really will have a powerhouse.
You’re creating history in your firm
Think about this: When you’re hiring this powerhouse with the strategic vision required for your firm’s future, you’re creating history in your firm. And the effect of this is more so when you’re a small or medium sized firm. What you’re doing actually sets the scene for years to come. The pressure to get this right, and to get it right on the first try, is huge. You’re hiring someone who will set the pace and progressiveness of the overall marketing function.
Taking this one step further, you’re hiring this powerhouse to set the marketing culture in your firm. Many have (unfortunately) experienced a negative firm culture and know all too well the long-lasting effects a bad culture can have on the day-to-day reality and perception of working and living in a law or accounting firm.
Creating the right effect
The effects of a good or bad marketing professional can be felt more significantly in a smaller firm. First-time Marketing Directors have a big role to both curate and create. But both big and small firms always struggle when hiring the wrong person at any level of the marketing ladder.
The most important consequence is that the firm partners and leadership lose confidence in the marketing function and what it should be. They ultimately back away from investing in the function because they ‘have been burnt’ and are not sure how to course correct. Common consequences we see on this include creating a marketing culture that is only reactive in nature, a ‘yes’ machine, or a function that wrongly resembles something that is more administrative or junior in nature than it should be. More junior marketing roles often are administrative in nature, but the senior roles can and should be far from this. Again, without a real and executable strategy, and without understanding what the end game looks like, this can be an expensive debacle.
Firm leadership is often not equipped with the knowledge to empower their senior marketers; so, they partner with a consultant or search professional to know what to look for and – importantly – what it should look like in their own firm.
How important is partner involvement?
Partners need to be involved from the very first steps in adding to or implanting the marketing function. This function should report into a marketing savvy partner who can advocate and help them in their success. The most senior marketing professionals in a firm need to have the eyes and ears of the firm leadership so as to help with accountability, empowerment and progress.
Partners must also get comfortable in hiring these powerhouses who they can learn from. Counter-intuitive to some, but absolutely necessary to give the authority to these worthy leadership roles.
Is resistance inevitable?
Given we should know all of this, why is there still some resistance from partners when working with marketing professionals on implementing and setting the marketing strategy? Is it because this function is still not a bona fide function of the revenue of the firm? Or is it that unless and until marketing roles are considered and remunerated with equal importance as the billable hour, they will always take a back seat?
Whatever the justification, these perceptions must change. Business minded and client centric professionals – as marketing professionals are – have cemented their value in most firms. Firms and their partners who resist this are risking the future of their firms and undermining the value these respected players have earned.
These issues go to the very heart of your firms. It affects their structure, their culture, and their future. Non-accountant and non-attorney roles in these firms are here to stay and are gaining momentum at a significant pace in most large and global firms. The most successful firms already know this quite clearly. Hire the right professionals to help you get these leadership roles right from the start, and then enjoy the rewards. Trust us, they absolutely come.
Not every firm has marketing people. While many firms – typically the larger and global firms - have had significantly sized marketing teams for years, by contrast, smaller firms have not necessarily had this need. Until now.
Smaller firms, whether they have had a certain amount of success on their own, or, whether they might be newly formed and contemplating their marketing efforts, are now starting to re-think marketing for their firm.
As a partner in a law or accounting firm, consistent revenue growth year on year is now not a given. And for most firms, it’s a challenge. This is because you need to work at differentiation and showing value, and more specifically, being solutions-focused to your clients. And all of this against the backdrop of a competitive and often slow-to-respond market.
This is where marketing and business development comes in. These people are solely focused on helping you achieve your revenue targets, growth goals, and differentiation and value to clients. They can also help you achieve the elite status of business-solutions advisor.
But where do you start? And why does it seem hard to take the plunge to hire your first-time marketer?
It’s hard because there’s no precedent, no comparisons, and no history on a marketing function or person in your firm. You don’t have the benefit of hindsight of seeing the function work effortlessly and from learning from prior mis-steps (they do happen, frequently). So, the stakes are higher for hiring your first-time marketer. After that, and down the road when you look to build out a marketing function and team after your first-time hire, the challenge is much less so. You will have learnt, seen and feel more educated as to what marketing is, what it can do for your firm, and how it has actually impacted your firm’s bottom line.
Given these factors at play, there are several key things to get right in order to make the first-time marketer for your firm work and be effective in both the short and long term. Below are my top three tips to start you off along the right path:
Do you have consistent and confirmed expectations?
The most important thing you can get right when hiring a first-time marketer for your firm is knowing exactly what it is you need, and ensuring all key stakeholders are aligned on this. Unless you and your partners can agree on the specific expectations for this role, it is - in my experience - unlikely to be a long-term success. This takes some time at the outset, but it is well worth the end result.
For example, ask yourself and your fellow partners these initial questions and see what answers you all have:
What will be the seniority of the position?
Because you are hiring your first marketing role, this single person must be at the right level of seniority. In a larger team, a combination of ‘doers’ and ‘strategists’ will often form an effective team. But in a single person team, you need to find the right balance in just one person.
There is often a correlation between experience and preference for acting as a doer versus a strategist. Less experienced recruits may tend towards being a ‘yes person’ or an administrative function (creating perception problems around what marketing can actually do). Similarly, there are also risks in hiring someone with too much horsepower who pushes the partners too far too fast (creating problems around getting the right pace and buy-in for the role). Of course, every candidate is unique and firms should not use ‘years of experience’ as a direct proxy for ability or working style.
In thinking about the seniority, also take into account who this person will mostly work with: key partners or even clients, and also what barriers may be in place for this person. In setting your new marketer up for success, they need to know both the good things and the challenging things about the role to have the best chance at getting all the elements right. Think about the challenges you as a partner have; you’re better equipped to deal with them once there’s transparency in place.
And at the risk of laboring this point, this is all particularly important because this person will be (probably for a while) your sole marketing function. This person will shape what marketing is at your firm and will literally go down in your firm’s history as to what marketing is and does for your firm. Over the years, I’ve seen firms really struggle with shifting a (wrong) perception of marketing once its in place. Getting it right at the start is essential.
What are the reporting lines and budget:
Carefully consider who this new marketer reports to. Marketers will prefer to report into a key partner, typically an office managing partner or the firm partner. Reporting into the firm leadership as a whole is another option, but, if this happens, who is the single person with the ultimate authority and responsibility on this role?
You will also have to consider what budget needs to be set aside for this person. Of course, a more junior person is less expensive than a senior person, but cost shouldn’t be your main driver. More often than not, you get what you pay for. Additionally, educate yourself on what a marketer will cost at your firm. Their salaries are structured differently to your administrative employees’ salaries. We advise firms on this constantly. And as you might expect, it is different based on size of firm, type of firm, remit of role, geography, and seniority of position.
Closely tied to the issues of reporting lines and budget is how your new marketer will show their worth and value: their return on your investment. Bring your new marketer in on this conversation so you’re both in it together. For example, ask them to create a bi-annual report to show what they’ve worked on and how that has contributed to the revenue of your firm. The more senior the person, the easier this is to show. Get them to tie their efforts into the overarching goals of the firm and how that fits with the trajectory you both discussed at the outset.
It might seem hard to embark on a first-time marketing role because it is an unknown to you. But most firms who haven’t had a dedicated marketing function are now taking the plunge. Keep your firm, your partners, and your market position as it should be and let us help you embark on this challenge together. This is literally all that we do. In our experience, firms that follow the above steps commence their search from a stronger foundation and have greater success with their new marketing function.
Kate Harry Shipham is the Principal of KHS People LLC, an executive search firm for BD and marketing people in professional services firms. Kate has done search and recruiting for nine years and prior to that was an attorney.