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Life Lessons from Jim Durham - A Pioneer in Legal Marketing

Stephen Seckler


  • Jim Durham, the grandson of a sharecropper and the first in his family to go to college has been a partner at a major law firm, a sports agent, a Chief Marketing Officer for several major law firms, an outside marketing consultant and inspirational speaker, and an internal marketing executive for, the online arm of major league baseball.
  • Today, Jim is the Chief Operating Officer at Verrill, a large regional firm that has its roots in Portland, Maine.
  • Jim is also an author of a couple books including The Essential Little Book of Great Lawyering, a 55 page book that was intended to fit in your pocket, which grew out of his experience in interviewing hundreds of law firm clients about what they value in their attorneys.
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I had the good fortune of meeting Jim Durham in the early 1990s when legal marketing was just taking off in law firms. For decades before, law was thought of more as a profession. And while it is still very much a profession, there has been a dramatic shift in the way law firms think about marketing. 

In the 1970s, most firms were doing little to promote their reputations. By the end of the 1980s, most firms were actively looking for ways to market.  Today, the most successful and most highly compensated lawyers are the ones who have figured out how to create a niche and build strong relationships with potential clients and referral sources. Jim Durham was highly influential in helping many firms and many lawyers to make that shift.

I recently reconnected with Jim and spoke to him about my work with senior lawyers who are trying to figure out The Next Stage. Jim is someone who has reinvented himself numerous times in his career and he is on to his next chapter. As I learned more about his humble upbringing, I realized that Jim was a story waiting to be told.

Jim has been a partner at a major law firm, a sports agent, a Chief Marketing Officer for several major law firms, an outside marketing consultant and inspirational speaker, and an internal marketing executive for, the online arm of major league baseball. Today, Jim Durham is the Chief Operating Officer at Verrill, a large regional firm that has its roots in Portland, Maine. 

But Jim’s origins would not suggest that he would be where he is today.

The Grandson of a Sharecropper Becomes the First in His Family to Go to College

Jim Durham grew up outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan, to parents who never finished high school. His father, who worked in a factory his whole adult life, was the son of a sharecropper in Arkansas. Jim’s father picked cotton for about 50 cents a day and at sixteen, he headed north for more opportunity. He never returned home to Arkansas except for summer visits.

While Jim was a good athlete and did well in school, he never expected to go to college. Only 20% of his high school class continued their education after graduation. But throughout his early life, he met teachers and other adults who saw promise in him and who gave him opportunities he never imagined.

During one summer in high school, he participated in a program called Boy’s State where students pretend to build a government in a mystical 51st state. When a friend of Jim’s pushed him to run for governor of Boy’s State, Jim needed to produce “campaign materials.” When one of the mentors at the program saw Jim’s credentials, he sat down with Jim over breakfast for three hours and then told him he should probably apply to Harvard. The mentor had been recruiting for Harvard for many years and he was impressed by Jim.

Maybe that was the first sign that Jim had a talent for marketing!

Until the mentor mentioned Harvard, Jim didn’t even know where it was, and he certainly didn’t think he could afford the tuition. But with encouragement and assurances that he could get a scholarship if he got in, Jim applied and was given an opportunity that completely changed his life.

I asked Jim what his family thought about this. For his father, who had left his own family at the age of 16, Jim’s adventure to the East Coast was very upsetting. During the drive from Michigan to Cambridge, neither of his parents spoke to him until the last two hours of the drive. Today, his father is very proud of him.

Several Jobs in Sales Laid the Foundation for His Future Career

The transition to college was challenging for Jim and he suffered from some imposter syndrome. But when he received his first semester grades, he realized that maybe Harvard had not made a mistake. In the end, Harvard was a great experience and really opened his eyes to many new possibilities in life. At the same time, he did not get a lot of career guidance in school and so after graduation, he headed back to Michigan and began selling insurance.

Jim had known from an early age that he wanted to become a lawyer. Like Carmen Ortiz, the first female and Hispanic US Attorney in Massachusetts (who I also interviewed for the Voice of Experience), Jim was inspired to become a lawyer by watching the show, Perry Mason.  However after finishing his degree at Harvard, he was not quite ready to pursue his childhood dream.

In the 1970s, it was a lot more common for people to enter law school right after college. Jim took the path less traveled and found out that he had a knack for selling. He moved from selling insurance to selling college class rings and had Michigan and Northern Ohio as his territory. After that, he became the Director of Marketing for Jubilee 350 when Boston was celebrating its 350th Anniversary.

As he says, all of these experiences set him up for a future career in legal sales and marketing.

Opportunity and Instinct Have Guided Jim’s Career

Jim began his legal career at the Boston law firm Nutter McClennen and Fish, once home to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. He had his sights set on becoming a litigator, but at the time, 10 out of 11 of the incoming associates were interested in litigation. When the firm asked him to join the business department, Jim saw an opportunity to apply his experience in business. He also saw that the head of the firm was also the head of the business department. Instinct told him that this would be a good place to start his career.

I asked Jim what legal marketing was like in those days, and he said that in the early 1980s, there was no legal marketing. But as a fourth or fifth year associate, he was invited with some partners to attend a program on business development that was put on by one of the early influencers in the field of legal marketing, Bill Flannery. Bill inspired Jim to get more involved.

Jim had always had a strong interest in sports and when he was given the opportunity to work for a small golf marketing company, he decided to leave his junior partnership behind. The job involved a combination of marketing and spending some time as a sports agent. He was meeting senior members of the PGA and really enjoying himself. After a few years, his partner got sick and the money was tight, so Jim realized he should either go back to private practice or take one of the jobs in the newly emerging field of legal marketing. He was hired as the first marketing director of Mintz Levin.

As Jim describes it, the role worked because Ken Novack, the managing partner at the time, was very business oriented, a very strong leader, and was highly respected. And he had Jim’s back. He supported essentially everything Jim wanted to do with the firm from client interviews and rebranding, to training for everyone on client service.

In the seven years he was there, it grew to a department of around seven people with a couple of outside consultants.

Once the department became a well-oiled machine, Jim realized that there was another opportunity waiting for him: marketing consulting. At the time there were only a handful of consultants really doing the work and none of them had practiced law, been in-house counsel, and built an in-house marketing and business development function at a major firm. In 1997, he started his own consulting business, and it just took off from there. The demand was incredible at the time and, as Jim put it, he had a lot of credibility.

Jim Was Prolific in Building His Own Brand and Built a Very Successful Consulting Business; But Opportunity Came to Him Again During the Dot-Com Boom

Jim was guiding his clients on ways to elevate their reputations and build their business relationships. At the same time, he was doing exactly the same thing for himself. In building his own brand, he was prolific. He wrote dozens and dozens of articles and spoke all the time at conferences where marketing directors and managing partners were the audience. He knew that if he prepared painstakingly for his presentations and did a good job, he would get business. Eventually, he had such a big client base that he was on the road 200 plus days a year and couldn't actually take on more clients.

Several years in, he got a call from a headhunter saying that he had been recommended to be considered for the role of Senior Vice President of Sponsorship for a new company called, owned by Major League Baseball owners. Jim had always been a huge sports fan and a big baseball fan. It was the Dot-com boom and another chance to combine his many interests, so Jim decided to make another big career shift and take a risk. was an amazing experience for Jim but after the Dot-com crash, the company had some challenges, so Jim returned to law firm consulting for a couple of years. It wasn’t long before he had the opportunity to return in-house where he became the Chief Marketing Officer for Ropes and Gray.

It was a 60% pay cut from consulting, but Jim was tired of being on the road. He also saw it as an opportunity to build a department and build he did. From there, he held a series of similar positions at several other AmLaw100 firms.

Jim Takes Great Pride in the Hundreds of People He Has Helped

I asked Jim what he is most proud of in his career. Without hesitation, he immediately talked about all of the people he has been able to help along the way. As he describes it, he had the opportunity to influence hundreds of people, mostly in the legal marketing industry. He takes pride in the fact that for almost everyone who's ever worked for him, his goal was always to give them the chance to grow and the opportunity for them to advance in their careers. When he couldn't promote them anymore, he would be their biggest reference for a new opportunity. He was never one to turn away a call from anyone who was given his name for advice in the industry.

I can vouch for that fact as Jim had a big impact on my own decision to get involved in legal marketing and coaching.

Jim and his wife are also very devoted to a special needs child who they raised after his twin brother tragically died as an infant. Jim speaks fondly of Reed and the joy he brings to their life. As he puts it, Reed brings light into the room, and he still does everywhere he goes.

I asked him to talk about the impact that raising a special needs child and having a tragic loss have had on his life. He said that both of these things have made him more compassionate and empathetic, both things that are important in leadership.

A Prolific Writer Who Has Published Fiction and Written a Lot on Marketing and Business Development

Over the years, I’ve read many of Jim’s articles on legal marketing. In 2006, he published The Essential Little Book of Great Lawyering, a 55 page book that was intended to fit in your pocket. The book grew out of his experience in interviewing hundreds of law firm clients about what they value in their attorneys.

Like many of the opportunities that have come Jim’s way, Jim was encouraged to write the book by someone who saw great value in what he had to offer. He was at a national law firm in DC and one of the people in his training program said to him that whenever he was there, he always learned some great kernels of wisdom. He wished Jim would write it all down so that it's in one place and fits in a pocket. So Jim went home that weekend and wrote down all of the best thoughts he had collected on legal business development and marketing.

Jim also wrote a work of fiction called My Father’s Writings which is really a compellation of his own writing. He had hundreds of pages of short stories, essays, poems, and observations which he had never published. He had also been writing a holiday letter every year which went way beyond what he and his family did on their summer vacation.

Jim wanted to make it something that maybe could have a little inspiration and decided that after 20 years of writing, he should just collect everything he’d written, have somebody type it all up, and see if maybe it could be a book.

But he was so embarrassed to think that anybody would care about his story, that he changed the narrative and made up in a novel that basically purported to be his father's writings. So all of his writings in the book are being collected by a fictitious son whose father died tragically. It's a novel, even though it's full of observations from his real life.

That is the part of Jim’s back story that I found the most moving.

I was also moved by the life lessons he learned from his own father who barely missed a day of work in 35 years and treated everyone from the cleaner to the senior vice president with the same respect.

Joining Verrill as COO is the Capstone to a Fulfilling Career

Jim now serves in an operational role at Verrill, a regional firm with offices in, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Washington, DC, and New York. He has always thought it would be great to run a law firm. Throughout his career, he has worked with great teams at major law firms. He says he was blessed to work with great senior management teams at firms including Ropes and Gray, McGuire Woods, and Littler Mendel. While his focus has generally been on the marketing and business development functions, he has made contributions to all of the operational functions of the firm.

Jim does not consider himself an expert in finance, HR, or technology. But he understands that leaders are not experts in everything. Good leaders hire people who are great at what they do. He or she surrounds themselves with talent that complements the leader. The leader works with those experts to make the best strategic decisions for the firm and then works with those leaders to execute on that vision.

Jim loves being in this role and considers this the high point of his career, something that he has been striving for since he entered the legal profession. He continues to write about life, family, and many other topics. He hopes to publish more books in the future and continue to be an inspiration to others in the same way his mentors were an inspiration to him throughout his life and his career.