A Team Approach
Savvy Law Firms Make it Easy for Nonlawyer Professionals to Contribute
Posted May 23, 2006 1:52 AM CDT
By Terry Carter
A posting to a law marketing e-mail discussion group titled “One Marketer’s Trip Through Hell” recently triggered more than the usual buzz in the online community. The chatter might be boiled down to this: Whether the lawyers running law firms know it or not, some of them don’t deal particularly well with the nonlawyer professional staff. Plenty of firms do just fine, of course. And they need to. They are dealing with an influx of not just marketers, but also managers for such areas as human resources and information systems as well as oodles of “C” type executives (as in COOs, CFOs and CEOs).
The concept of law as a business concerns more than profits per partner and gross revenues. Most successful businesses try to ensure that each employee, from the mailroom to the executive suites, has goals and objectives that can be tracked and encouraged.
Some law firms still work on the sink-or-swim plan, though, for the staffers and sometimes the lawyers.
So, what was hell like? The complaining marketer had 25 years’ experience, nine of them in law firms. She landed with a 350-lawyer firm in a large metropolitan area and quickly realized they didn’t know what to do with her. Perhaps she should have divined something from the fact that she was their third chief marketing officer in two and a half years.
As the marketer tells the story, the managing partner, a woman, was hostile toward the marketer and created a committee to oversee her department, loading it with partners hostile to the concept. The marketer was ignored in meetings. The managing partner canceled marketing contracts in midrun and delayed payments for sponsorships to the point that there were threats of being turned over to collection agencies.
After a year and a half of enduring frustration and anguish, the marketer was shown the door.
“There are some firms that are not nearly as enlightened as others and tend much more toward the old caste system,” says Richard N. Gary, who chaired the San Francisco-based firm Thelen Reid & Priest, among the 100 largest in the country, for 11 years before leaving in 2003 to work as a consultant. “They can be very successful law firms, but I don’t know if they’re good places to work.”
Being a Player
Gary knows law firms and he knows business. He left Thelen Reid’s predecessor firm in 1979 for a six year stint at one of his clients, rising from general counsel to president of Kaiser Steel Corp. Now he is a consultant offering business savvy to law firms.
Never mind the old joke that law schools don’t teach lawyers how to practice law.
There’s no question they don’t teach them to run businesses, except perhaps for the joint J.D./MBA programs. But it takes more than simply hiring business professionals to help run a law firm. They need to be treated as players, not just employees with fancy titles who remain out of the loop.
“That’s where you get situations in which people are not having a good experience,” says Kim Perret, chief marketing officer in the Washington, D.C., office of 400-lawyer Sutherland Asbill & Brennan and president of the 2,000-plus-member Legal Marketing Association.
“They can’t perform at the level for which they have training and experience,” she says, “even though they could add a lot of benefit to the firm.”
Gary says there are signs that indicate how a firm treats its nonlawyer professionals. “Do they participate in significant committees and are they listed on the firm’s Web site?” he asks. “But even more important is whether there is an underlying philosophy that everyone at the firm, from the managing partner down to the person who delivers mail, has an important role to play. And firm leaders need to help everyone in the organization understand that and make it real.”
Some firms have stopped using the word staff for those in marketing and administration, opting for other terms such as business support team or client services team.
Titles and wording help, but sometimes inevitable tensions remain between those practicing law and those engaged in more businesslike or creative efforts, which can seem alien to lawyers.
A sprawling employment law firm, with 310 lawyers in 24 offices around the country, created a new position to foster cooperation. It made one partner chair of the client services committee, creating a role for him to act as a buffer between the lawyers and the nonlawyer professionals.
“In a design project recently, some of the professional staff in one of the offices were frustrated because they felt they didn’t understand what it was the lawyers wanted,” says Joseph L. Beachboard, a partner in the Torrance, Calif., office of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart and the designated buffer.
“I spent a half-hour on the phone with two lawyers and two professional staff and found they needed two brochures instead of one. The project turned out great and is a model for our other offices. This way we can avoid the banging of heads between the two groups.” Beachboard offers another measure of success: “In the past five years we’ve doubled in size and haven’t lost one person from our marketing staff of eight.”
Though statistics sometimes skew reality, marketers on average have the shelf life of a souffle. Their average stay at law firms is increasing, however, perhaps another indication that more firms are figuring out how to use them and keep them.
“It’s getting better, more in line with the tenure of executive directors and some of the other administrative people who stay around longer,” says Sally Schmidt, who in 1986 was the first president of the Legal Marketing Association. Schmidt, a marketing consultant in St. Paul, Minn., finds marketers for law firms around the country. Schmidt says she has watched the average climb over time from 1.9 years to 2.4, then 2.9 and now slightly over three years.
“It’s still a pretty new function,” Schmidt says. “And how it works out depends a lot on law firm culture.”