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Law Practice Magazine

The Leadership Issue

Marketing: At the Intersection of Leadership and Marketing

Micah U Buchdahl


  • When and where law firm leadership should engage in marketing and business development decisions.
  • Learn the best ways to facilitate growth in assisting attorneys in building a book of business.
  • Tips and tricks for leading a law firm down the right path of marketing spending and staffing.
Marketing: At the Intersection of Leadership and Marketing WONG

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Is law firm leadership and law firm marketing synonymous? Or better yet, should they be?

The leaders of most law firms—sometimes a managing partner (MP), other times a management or executive committee—are often going to have first and final say on marketing and business development decisions. If not the strategies themselves, then often the dollars approved to staff and finance them.

The problem lies in that not all great law firm leaders are great marketing minds.

More times than not what gets you on the leadership track is that you have attorneys, clients, cases or a practice group that generates significant law firm revenue. I’m not going to go into all the reasoning. Suffice it to say that we all know that just because you generate business does not mean you know how to generate new business. Sometimes it was luck in getting handed a matter that blows up (in a good way). Other times, it is simply a historical handoff of a client from one generation to the next (again, we don’t need to go into succession planning in this column).

What I’m trying to get across is that there is not always a direct correlation between generating revenue and actual rainmaking. Good leaders know that and behave accordingly. Poor leaders don’t know that they don’t know—and rarely recognize the deficiency in skill set. What are ways that a leader can effectively lead in the world of law firm marketing?

Follow the Leader

Some might call it stealing. Or being a copycat. But for many firms, the best approach for leaders in evaluating marketing decisions is to take a good hard look at what your (successful) competition is doing. To be honest, you need to sense that the firm you are copying knows what they are doing and have a reputation for strong business development. Just because law firm A is jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge does not mean it is a good idea. Unless you’ve watched them successfully do it, with positive results.

Lead by Example

In many ways, this approach is the polar opposite of “follow the leader.” You may ask me which is better, follow or lead? And like a good lawyer, I’ll answer “it depends.” I often look for marketing opportunities—many times with an industry focus—and purposely hope not to find any other law firms in the vicinity. When dozens of law firms are already sponsors or similarly involved with a venture it is tougher to carve out a unique niche. I love proposing to do something where we’re the first or only law firm involved—assuming I’ve done my due diligence in judging the audience and the opportunity.

Avoid the Ego/Sucker Sell

While writing this column, I received a client alert from a respected, midsize law firm in the Midwest touting their managing partner being interviewed for “a nationally distributed public television program.” I won’t name the firm. But I recognized the “show”—as law firm clients of mine had been pitched it repeatedly. I immediately forwarded the alert to a managing partner client of mine saying “see, this is why you get these baloney solicitations on a daily basis.” No, it is not “pay to play”––just the “production costs” that range in the 10 to $30,000 range.

This is why we can’t have nice things. And why some leaders don’t necessarily know the difference between marketing and a good shell game—where you always think you know better, but never do.

Did you build your own book?

I watched eyes roll at a management committee meeting when the “marketing partner” enthusiastically touted ways to build a book of business. The issue was that he was literally handed his book of business by his dad. His opinions lacked credibility—with them, and with me. My eyes were rolling too, which I’m pretty sure was not appreciated. It is important when you are a leader in marketing, or designating people to lead, that they are seen by their peers as credible.

An MP that brought me into a very conservative firm “to make things happen,” would often repeat to me that the young partners and senior associates at the firm were used to waiting for business that came over the transom. Again, you might’ve helped retain or grow a client or files, but you were not really the originator. Your colleagues know that. It matters. As the law firm competitiveness landscape changed in the wake of Bates v. Arizona, technology, globalization, cross-border work and law firm mergers, waiting for the phone to ring was not a sound marketing plan—and I’m still not 100 percent sure what a transom is.

The Company You Keep

One of my favorite MPs was a relatively young (40ish) attorney who had moved up the ranks as he established himself as one of that state’s top practitioners in the profession. He was taking over for an MP that had ruled the law firm for decades. At the time, I was the firm’s first venture into having one do “marketing.” It wasn’t always easy. I would author what I’d term a benign press release for a relatively mundane topic such as who had made a top lawyer accolade list. And then wait weeks before the management committee would make some edits and sign off. Finally, I begged him to let me just write it and send it out. What could happen? I reminded him that you would simply fire me if it went wrong. Much like my first boss, Washington Capitals general manager, David Poile (back when I was a 22-year-old in the NHL teams’ PR department), he would let me run slightly amuck with some ideas, knowing some would fly and others would crash. But I’ve always believed that if you do not try things that may or may not succeed, you’ll never be a topflight marketer. Simply knowing that showed that MP’s understanding of law firm leadership and marketing.

But it was his phrase, “the company you keep,” that certainly helped me guide many law firms in subsequent decades. He believed that putting the law firm in the same place as some of the top firms in the world would put a spotlight on the brand and elevate name recognition. I’d suggest that today there are other law firms that would want to be in his company, not vice versa. He also instructed me on Chambers USA before anyone knew what Chambers USA was—again, positioning with the “company you keep” and helping me fast track efforts as we morphed from Martindale-Hubbell to new, more modernized entities. The bottom line is that a good MP will not only help a marketer succeed but set everyone up for success (me included).

The Proof Is in the Pudding

It is not an intentional theme to use the law firm directory/accolade example again, but it fits. Another one of my favorite MPs in the early 2000s would argue with me over where some of the firm’s marketing budget was directed. I was frustrated because the budget was relatively small, and a chunk of it was going toward a Super Lawyer “package” that was not moving my game plan forward. I reminded him that the money there meant I could not put it toward something I thought had some real business development benefit. Please, please stop spending it in places that are not moving the ball forward. So, he pointed his finger at me and said, “OK, we’ll try it your way, and the proof will be in the pudding!” He remains to this day one of my favorites. And over time, the budget did go up, and hopefully the proof was in the pudding. Another favorite leadership trait of MPs that I succeeded under was a willingness to let me be my lawyer-self, advocating, and sometimes arguing my point, instead of just doing what I was told.

If I wanted your opinion, I’d ask for it.

Of course, those are what I’d deem “success stories” of where marketing and leadership intersected. For each of those, there are MPs and management and marketing committees that were not particularly interested in my opinion. They knew better than me, and my job was to do what I was told, not what I thought was best (of course, never implicitly stated that way). There were those that saw all law firm marketers as some sort of snake oil salespeople (and there are some, just not me) flushing partner profits down the drain. Others saw marketing as a necessary evil being thrust upon them. Many were tired of the merry-go-round of internal and external professionals that led to constant retooling.

The best leaders set up the marketer to succeed. Great law firm leaders know their own limitations, and delegate accordingly. And the most successful law firms will meet at the intersection of leadership and marketing—it is a four-way stop—look around and consider the examples provided, before proceeding.