Proper Hiring and Staffing of Your Law Firm’s Marketing Team

Volume 39 Number 4

By

About the Author

Micah Buchdahl is an attorney who works with law firms on business development initiatives. Based in Moorestown, N.J., he is president of HTMLawyers Inc., a law marketing consultancy. He is a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section.

Law Practice Magazine | July/August 2013 | The Big Ideas Issue

IF YOUR LAW FIRM has a “marketing” department—which might consist of one beleaguered soul or an army that has grown wildly out of control—at some point you may have asked yourself, “Where did we go wrong?” In a business in which we, as lawyers, pride ourselves on being problem solvers, this is often a frustrating and confounding conundrum.

Whether you are hiring a chief marketing officer (CMO), director, manager, webmaster, event planner or coordinator, it is important to have the right people in the proper roles—with appropriate compensation, staffing and reporting structure, placement and skills. A helpful hint: If your firm has never had a marketer before, or the “team” consists of one to three people, they are not CMOs; they are more likely managers. Being realistic about the position improves your chances of getting someone with a realistic chance of success.

Law firms continue to struggle in figuring out:

  • How much do we pay?
  • Who is the proper fit, and what are the right credentials?
  • What is the formula for success?
  • Why in the world is there so much turnover among marketers?

Forget rule of thumb and related statistics. When it comes to staffing marketing departments, the numbers are not based on numbers! The largest marketing departments are typically at the largest law firms. However, there are boutique firms with departments that dwarf those with hundreds of attorneys. Some might tell you that there should be one full-timer for every 20 or 30 attorneys. The reality is that the staffing should be based on initiatives, not people or budget. Forget statistics about firm size and similar statistics about compensation. In two instances—firm size and geography—these are not relevant factors. The number of people and the credentials they hold should be based on the quantity and quality of your firm’s marketing and business development efforts. You shouldn’t hire a coordinator to create a sophisticated business development plan for a practice group, and you shouldn’t hire a CMO to make sure the muffins are in the conference room for a breakfast briefing. Staff accordingly.

How much do we pay? In some markets there is a dirty little secret of the legal marketing profession. Based on credentials and experience, law firms can overpay compared to their corporate brethren. I’ve come across young law marketers over the years who threaten to leave the law firm setting, only to realize that they are worth about 50 cents on the dollar to the equivalent-sized business down the street. Many marketers refer to the extra compensation as “battle pay”—because of the BlackBerry tethered to the marketer on weekends for completing a request for proposal that is due Monday and got lost in the shuffle (on a partner’s desk). Or simply working through and navigating the political landscape that every firm possesses. To be balanced, there are occasionally law firm marketers who are underpaid. By and large, however, this is a very well-paid field. In hiring marketing staff, I find that the compensation range varies significantly by geography. Some markets do not have enough qualified candidates to take care of the law firm demands. You need to weigh the pool of qualified candidates with the sophistication of work. In recent years I’ve placed lead marketers into Midwest firms for as little as $35,000 annually. The same position in the Northeast might require $75,000.

Who is the proper fit, and what are the right credentials? Many will likely agree when I describe the marketing job as half politics and personality, and half “doing stuff.” Marketers are in a service industry within a service industry. Forging strong relationships with partners and administrative staff is probably at least as important as the skill set. When you are interviewing candidates, first make sure that the hire is a cultural fit.

In regard to credentials, you need to look at the skills that match your firm’s strategic plans and goals. To repeat, if the day-to-day functions are not really all that sophisticated (a marketer at a huge law firm once referred to her department as Kinko’s—supplying biographies and brochures to attorneys on demand), then hire someone who delivers those capabilities. If the person is truly developing the brand, the messaging—the direction of the law firm in the marketplace—get a solid corporate marketer who has done the same for another business.

A trend in recent years has been to hire someone from outside of the law firm marketing space. It is based on the same trend of hiring nonlawyer CEOs to lead firms instead of managing partners. These trends are based on the perceived failures of people within law firms to replicate the success of large nonlaw businesses. In many cases, I’ve followed that trend—but only in situations where the law firm already had an established marketing department. It does not work when a law firm still is unsure of the deliverables that will come from the marketing arm. And don’t tell a veteran marketer you are looking for innovation and change when you know that they will spend their days responding to proposals, updating the website and submitting rankings data. Be honest with yourself and them.

What is the formula for success? Every week I’m either trying to formulate a successful marketing plan for a law firm or placing the marketer who will deliver the goods. Anyone—myself included—who tells you they have a batting average above .750 is not being truthful. If .300 is the measuring stick for a baseball hitter, I’d suggest a touch above .500 is a winning prognosticator. Fitting the right staff with the right firm is often like putting the proverbial square peg into a round hole.

To at least try to achieve the formula for success, start with these few tips:

  • Make sure the right people are asking the questions. Most law firm leaders don’t know what to ask about what makes a great marketer. Someone in the room needs to know what to look for.
  • Be sure the reporting structure for the marketing leader is proper. Good marketers ask you about the reporting structure because they know the wrong one means they are doomed. The best bet is a high-ranking marketing partner or the managing partner. Committees don’t work.
  • Have preset benchmarks and goals for the marketing team, based on reality. And back up those plans with the proper budget and team size.
  • Demand return on investment in tracking the successes of efforts that are trackable. Put a dollar amount on what is invested and what pays off. Issues of origination and such make some of this tracking skewed. But you should know what your money is getting you.
  • Most importantly, do your homework on hires. I’m not talking about calling references. I’m talking about looking at the track record. In some cases, when “ideal candidates” have five big-name law firms on their résumés, it means they have failed five times. In other cases, they have been quite successful at each and have catapulted themselves to better opportunities and better pay.

Why in the world is there so much turnover among marketers? This might be the question I get asked the most by management committees. “Is it us or is it them?” I usually reply, “It was probably both.” Many law firms with a strong history of continuity among administration, human resources, technology, library and the like find themselves frustrated with the hamster wheel of short marketing staff tenures. This leads to dissension among the partnership in regard to the investment made in people that either depart for greener pastures or are asked to find a new home.

The aforementioned geography issue plays a role in giving marketers chances to move up and/or earn significantly more. It’s free enterprise. And you can’t fault someone for moving from $50,000 to $75,000, or $150,000 to $300,000. This happens every day. Hiring the person whose career and compensation is in step with the firm is critical. I’ve hired and interviewed lots of people looking for a short-term stop or stepping stone. Recently, a law firm I worked with—feeling burned by its last hire—decided it would not look at someone with fewer than five years at his or her last stop. The firm found itself with very few applicants to choose from. It’s an inexact science. Make sure the placement and decisions are based on the firm’s needs, but also the marketer’s understanding of lawyers and the specific space in which the attorney practices—selling IP and selling PI don’t follow the same models. Fit a square peg into a square hole, if you can.

The combination of hiring the right person and treating him or her with respect—not as easy as it sounds—will increase longevity, and with it, the ability to build something that works. My rule of thumb is that five good years is a win. Marketing is a business built on creativity and freshness. The best voices get stale. And then you move on. Don’t just say you are going to finally hire an in-house marketer or finally hire the right one. Be strategic and honest in the process. Some attorneys still prefer to look at the marketer’s role as a necessary evil in today’s law firm model. The reality is that it may be the most critical position in the building. Today’s best firms may not have the best marketing departments, but that is changing. Better to be ahead of the curve than trying to play catch-up.

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