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November/December 2019


Marketing Musical Chairs

Micah Buchdahl

You couldn’t help but laugh when reading earlier this year about the Am Law 100 law firm that had a new chief marketing officer (CMO) last less than a week before moving on. It was a microcosmic, anecdotal example of a problem that is plaguing law firms a few decades into what appears to still be a “new reality” of investment in professional marketing personnel.

If your firm has been through the often arduous and painstaking process of searching for a marketer that fits your needs, culture and payroll, you shook your head with an understanding nod to how difficult it seems to find the right people and the right fit. More times than not, you probably feel like you ended up trying to shove a square peg into a round hole.

Call the positions and titles what you want—usually a combination of one or more from marketing, business development, client service, branding, sales or some attempts at creative terminology that end up being more silly than anything else. In the end the marketer is hired to help a law firm generate business and revenue in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Don't Get Too Comfortable

I’ve seen it referenced many times as a merry-go-round, but for those marketing professionals with a carnival ticket in their pocket, the feeling might be more akin to a roller coaster. Tenures are brief. In many cases they are actually exceedingly longer than they appear—since law firms eschew having to repeat the process again, or deal with threats of litigation, or simply are not sure what should come next. I’ve seen many a firm keep a failed marketer in place because of hiring fatigue. There is also the ammunition it provides naysayers among the partnership that love to chime in with a “I told you so” as to why “marketing just won’t work here.”

Those naysayers are wrong. Marketing works in the world of business and, despite some evidence to the contrary, lawyering is a business. It is more about hiring the wrong people or providing inadequate department staffing, budgets or chains of command. For a marketing director or CMO, the line delineating reporting structure, expectations and goals is equally ominous. Many question, “What am I here to do, and are you going to give me the time, resources and tools to do it?”

The good news for many short-tenured marketing pros is that your next job is likely right around the corner—it might be with a better firm, for bigger bucks—because law firms love to hire people who have the same titles and similar-sounding experiences on résumés that often have more stops than an Amtrak local. Firms somehow never actually perform the type of due diligence that would identify that their new marketer’s work at the last place was a disaster. Like the CMO that lasted a few days, I also laugh when I see firms hiring the mistakes of another: “Oooh, he worked at prestigious firm X, Y and Z.” Never mind that he was a train wreck there.

Nobody Bats 1.000

Make no mistake, though, that while the revolving door is still moving at a breezy pace, there is vast improvement in the sophistication and investment in the process. I started working with law firms on marketing efforts in the late ’90s, about 20 years past Bates v. Arizona, and just as the internet was getting itself geared up with the World Wide Web, email, search engines and other newfangled technologies that were already making attorney heads’ spin. If they knew texting, social media and rampant practice globalization was on the way, those heads would’ve popped right off. The changing business of law practice was well underway.

Those marketing “pros” I often was asked to sit down with were librarians, receptionists, secretaries with time on their hands and others that simply drew the short straw. As the years went on, I’ve ended up hiring dozens of marketing staff at law firms of all sizes throughout the country. And I never claim to bat 1.000. I think I tout my batting average at around .600—which would put me in the baseball Hall of Fame. It also means there are four flops for every 10 placements. I also hire with the stated goal of “if this person is still here in five years, I did a great job.” I’ve hired male and female, young and old, those with no law firm experience and those with many of those “stops” along the way (trying to weigh the “was it them or was it him or her” blame for why things did not work out). I’ve seen terrible hires last a long time and great ones last a short one. I’ve had the joy of hiring a coordinator and watching him or her morph into a solid CMO or CEO. As well as the selections who went up in flames. It’s an inexact science.

Great Expectations

Another repeated scenario I still see all the time are mistakes and misdirection from both the law firm doing the hiring and the marketer doing the applying. On the law firm side, there are often convoluted search committees made up of many attorneys who are not well-versed in the necessary skill sets, or don’t ask the right questions or are simply there in the first place as part of some internal negotiation. They are set up to fail. Colleagues who are partners or serve on search committees tell me horror stories as to what led them to make the wrong hire—usually realizing so about a week into the new CMO’s tenure. The marketer is sometimes sold a bill of goods, but in many cases there is a lot of honesty about how hard it has been for the firm to succeed in hiring the right people for these positions. Many marketers worth their salt should run to the exits when hearing about the reporting structure or firm’s philosophy on business development ... or the graveyard full of once-vibrant marketing pros.

Of course, like any of us who have been retained to fill these important marketing roles, those applying have successfully gotten by the gatekeeper with misdirection and misrepresentation too. I’ve repeatedly had marketers assure me they understood that being visible—that is, not working from home—was nonnegotiable, only to immediately insist upon working remotely or not at all. Others have no problem skipping town for a better gig after a few months. Still others don’t realize the real pressures tied to a job that is not 9:00-to-5:00 and can infringe on vacations and weekends. I often remind some well-compensated professionals that there is “combat pay” tied to the job. Here’s a bit of advice: If the position does not sound all that great, it isn’t. And nothing is going to change that.

Plenty of Blame to Go Around

My guess is that many attorneys reading this column are shaking their heads in agreement, as are many of the marketers. Those that take offense to the overall state of the marketing market are likely the very same problem children I’ve referenced. Granted, there are some excellent law firms with vibrant, successful marketing teams. There is no question that the profession and role are still evolving and improving. But until I can go a week without seeing more turnover from the same firms, with the same seemingly finite set of marketers, we’ll all watch the merry-go-round continue to spin.

Micah Buchdahl

Micah Buchdahl is an attorney who works with law firms on business development initiatives. Based in Moorestown, New Jersey, he is president of HTMLawyers, Inc., a law marketing consultancy. He is a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. [email protected]