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Getting a Seat at the Table

How Law Firm Marketers Can Assume a Leadership Role

Peter A. Johnson, Esq., M.Ed., J.D.

This article appeared in Marketing the Law Firm in January, 2020.

Once upon a time, the “marketing director” at a law firm was likely to be a legal “secretary” who printed out attorney bios and ordered business cards. In time when a “white glove” approach to relationship building was all that was deemed necessary, marketing and business development was not a priority.

Times have changed. Today the legal marketing role is filled by highly specialized and trained professionals with the task of promoting their firm and its attorneys, while driving business development. Yet, at many law firms it is still difficult for the marketing professional to become more than an implementer of a strategy that was determined by others.

Obviously, it is more effective to have the marketing professional play a direct role in overall strategic planning, and, in particular, how marketing will impact and steer the direction in which the firm is going. The marketing director needs to gain “a seat at the table” in order to have a voice in planning, and to be viewed as an integral member of the firm’s management team. How do you go about earning that seat?

Over the years I have had the privilege of working with talented marketing professionals whom I have asked to share their experiences and advice regarding becoming part of the management team. Drawing on my own experience and with helpful input from my colleagues who have succeeded in earning their place at the table, here’s what it will take for you become a part of the strategic planning process. 

Kristen Bateman Leis, Chief Marketing & Business Development Officer at Parker Poe, on how the marketing director’s has role has evolved: “In my experience, the business development and marketing professionals in law firms are some of the most well versed and regular contributors to strategy. We develop and implement business plans every day and help drive collaboration to meet the strategic goals for our law firms.”

Still, Kristen acknowledges that, “Marketing is sometimes forgotten as a valued contributor to the executive table because even smart people mistake marketing as a ‘soft’ contributor to the company’s bottom line.”

Here are seven steps to take to help earn your own seat at the table.

  1. Be visible. It is too easy to squirrel yourself away in your office working on the details of the latest press release or white paper. You need to see and be seen, to be viewed as an active and energetic force for good within the firm. Attend events with the partners, volunteer for internal committees, be proactive in reaching out to attorneys with business development opportunities. Susanne Mandel, Director of Business Development & Marketing at Lowndes in Florida, advises, “Speak the language of your firm: understand your firm’s economics, key performance indicators and profitability. Take the lead among your peers in the firm: share ideas and collaborate with finance, technology, and HR. Provide unsolicited communication: articles, presentations, and training on legal industry trends, clients and client industry issues.”
  2. Promote your work. Don’t let marketing slide along under the radar. Let everyone at the firm know what activities and actions you are undertaking to create awareness and build credibility among potential clients. Create an internal marketing campaign to announce successes both large and small. Make yourself an indispensable and consistently productive member of the team, and make sure everybody knows it.
  3. Act the part. Dress, speak and communicate professionally, almost as if you were a partner. Observe how successful attorneys get what they need in terms of internal support and borrow their best practices. Craft your internal emails to impress. Be reliable, prompt and thorough. Leis’ advice is “to demonstrate a superior business acumen, make sure your priorities are in line with the law firm’s strategic goals, understand the culture of the firm, and speak with data.” James Durham, Chief Client Service Officer at Shipman & Goodwin, LLP, advises, “Know and be sensitive to each lawyer’s communication style, listen and reflect and be confident in your responses. Nothing is more lethal to a career than appearing to lawyers to be unsure of yourself when advising them.”
  4. Know the players. Understand the power structure within the firm and carve out a place for yourself.  Find a partner (or partners) to serve as a champion for the marketing department, and as a personal sponsor for you. Reach out to up-and-coming associates to enlist them in marketing activities – their careers will benefit from being more active in business development.
  5. Be willing to go outside for help. Jeanne Hammerstrom, Chief Marketing Officer at Benesch Friedlander Coplan & Aronoff LLP, suggests you be willing to arm yourself with outside resources. “Understand what the Managing Partner and Executive Committee value; but more importantly know those in the legal industry who can bring value to the firm like strategic consultants, business development coaches, recruiters, pricing and project management and technology experts who can bring solutions to challenges they’ve been dealing with or will experience. You may not know all the answers, but you’ll find out who does!”
  6. Exceed expectations. For clients, meeting expectations is not enough. They expect their lawyers to go above and beyond to deliver extra value as defined by them – not the firm. Susanne Mandel expands on this, “Just as we advise our lawyers to become trusted advisors to their clients by understanding their business, going the extra mile, and providing added value, marketing and business development professionals must do the same. After all, the lawyers are our clients.”
  7. Be the best at what you do. James Durham describes his “special sauce” as having firm colleagues describe you as the “best with whom they have ever worked.”  Learn what you need to earn that description. “You can earn the lawyers’ trust by doing whatever you do really well. Know your role cold! If you are in PR, be at the top of your game, ditto for events, pitches, or whatever. Be passionate about what you are doing, don’t just do it because the legal marketing world pays well.” Nothing surpasses being the best at what you do.

Nobody is going to offer you a seat the management table just because they like you. But you can make yourself essential by knowing a little (or, better yet, a lot) about everything going on at the firm, by demonstrating the value effective marketing can bring to the firm’s business development process, and by quantifying marketing’s impact on firm profitability.

Susanne Mandel of Lowndes Law sums up the best approach, “Strategically focusing on relationships, service, and value – instead of the immediate matter at hand – will earn credibility, trust and a coveted seat at the table.”

Thanks once again to my friends and colleagues Kristen, Jeanne, Susanne and Jim for taking the time to share their insights. The rest is up to you!

Peter Johnson is founder and principal of Law Practice Consultants, LLC of Newton, MA.  Law Practice Consultants, LLC offers consulting, coaching and training services that help law firms respond to the challenges of today’s highly competitive legal marketplace. For more information visit