When Erin Corbin Meszaros joined the law firm Burr & Forman in June 2009 as chief marketing officer, the job description in her contract was written vaguely.
As it turned out, the lack of detail, whether prescient or unintended, is fitting. Meszaros, like most others in her field, digs daily into an increasingly full and diverse plate of tasks that have redefined the role of legal marketer.
The pace of change has been so dizzying that, instead of spelling out duties, contracts might as well just say: We’ll figure it out as we go along.
Among the responsibilities — take a deep breath — of Meszaros:
• Marketing undertakings, such as Web design and communications e-newsletters;
• Business development, through handling request for proposals;
• Professional development, which includes individual coaching of associates by videotaping them in a mandatory program she initiated; and
• Lateral recruiting, which extends to interviewing candidates.
Meszaros even piloted a plan to restructure the budget at the mid-sized firm, which has seven offices scattered in five states, and annually assesses how much revenue can be tied to the marketing team.
While Meszaros might juggle more balls than her peers — a few of whom have asked if she is crazy to keep tossing up so many — the career of marketing has morphed dramatically for all hands over the past decade. Along the way, the marketers’ profile has risen in the industry, with their skills being tapped into more than ever.
It is hardly a calling for the inflexible, the unenergetic or the unimaginative.
“You have to have a passion to do this,” Meszaros said, “having your hand in all of these things.”
CHANGING JOB TITLES
The sea change is evident in the latest generation of job titles. Some firms have broadened or shifted marketers’ functions and dubbed them directors of business development.
The reordered priorities are reflected on the business cards of Michele Golivesky, director of business development and marketing at Taylor English Duma, which had previously outsourced marketing efforts. The title at her previous employer was flipped: marketing and business development director.
Some large firms have split the roles. Others have rolled out titles such as senior director of client and practice development, to which Kelly Williams Rike answers at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan.
“We wanted to get past the attorneys seeing us as people [to] call for tickets or brochures,” she said.
In another era, the marketer might focus on writing press releases, creating an advertisement, sweet-talking the media into quoting a firm’s attorney or setting up a booth at a convention.
By and large, law firms lagged behind other industries, pursuing new business less aggressively and paying less attention to such factors as key performance indicators.
Propelling the transformation were technological advances and economic truths, a one-two punch that has knocked sense into firms, forcing them to consider a business model that at least approximates other industries. Marketing directors picked up the mantle, with fresh positions — such as business developer — spinning off.
The dawn of the 21st century opened eyes in all industries to the potential of simultaneously expanding and sharpening their business through the wonders of technology, and few eyes were wider than law firms’.
At Alston & Bird, chief marketing officer Barbara Bryant abandoned snail mail for such purposes as invitations to events in favor of computer dissemination and tracking. “No one told us we needed to do that,” she said. “We just did it.”
Such baby steps gave way to leaps and bounds. Firms launched websites, with the marketer usually being the driving force if not the designer.
LEARNING ON THE FLY
Few marketing folks came to the assignment trained for website development, among other thoroughly modern burdens they have assumed. “You have to learn things on the fly,” Golivesky said.
Early website attempts tended to look like electronic brochures. To Clinton Gary, director of marketing at Arnall Golden Gregory, one site could barely be distinguished from another, making it difficult for potential clients to evaluate the candidates.
Firms “stopped and said, ‘We have to pay attention to our brand,’” Gary recalled.
Possible clients became less concerned with seeing a laundry list of practice areas and more with learning whether cases like theirs have been dealt with and how they were resolved, said Tom Helm, business development director at Swift Currie.
“If you are in trucking or manufacturing in Georgia, tell me what your law firm has handled there,” Helm said.
Several marketers and business developers expressed both excitement and relief over recent or upcoming rollouts of upgraded websites that they have overseen.
“You look like a small player if you are not investing in your website,” Gary said.
Another ongoing goal has been steering firms toward multiple uses of social media, primarily LinkedIn, with Twitter and Facebook also being explored.
Randall Kent, managing director of Sevaa Group, a Web development and social media company that works with law firms, labels social media as a “killer business development tool” for them.
“Over the past few years, the prevalence of social media has exploded,” Kent said. “Marketing directors are having to sharpen their proverbial saw to answer questions from shareholders and partners on how their firms can get a leg up by effectively leveraging social media.”
Gary noted that marketing staffers might dedicate half of their working hours to managing a firm’s social network.
“Clients expect it because they are experiencing it every day on the consumer side,” he said.
Golivesky has staged lunch-and-learn sessions to inform attorneys how to grow their practices through individual Linked-In pages. News items related to the firm are posted on a separate page.
Rike offers group training and one-on-one support at her firm with advice on creating effective LinkedIn profiles, even providing “cheat sheets” to attorneys, for spreading the promotional word.
With Twitter, Rike has been able to track $600,000 in revenue directly to new business secured through the 140-character tool of articulating thoughts.
The marketing colony has recognized that social media is ideal for narrowly casting information to a personalized audience.
“People want very specific information,” observed Katherine D’Urso, chief marketing officer of King & Spalding, who maintains that social media is still in its infancy.
Implementing social marketing at firms can present challenges. Gary pointed out that an informal and conversational tone is desirable, but staying within the boundaries of ethics specific to the legal arena is necessary.
“Legal marketing only has its toe in the water when it comes to leveraging the power of social networking and social media,” he said.
WHO’S WHO AMONG WHO’S WHOS
Adding further to the marketing workload is having to sift through and respond to the myriad directories that rate or rank lawyers and their firms. Which are worthy of a firm’s time and effort to assemble and provide the requested information? It is customarily left to the marketer to decide.
Meszaros sends an e-mail around her firm with a reminder that recognition is an asset. She recommends three or four directories that warrant their attention. One member of her staff spent two months filling out forms from a single directory.
Helm endeavors to give lawyers at his firm sufficient heads-up on when responses are due by listing deadlines on calendars.
To Bryant, who helps pick and choose for her firm which solicitations are worthwhile, it is all about differentiating oneself from others while supplying references and background on interesting and prestigious cases.
Information that distinguishes an attorney from peers can favorably affect a rating, according to Megan Gustafson, spokesperson for Super Lawyers, one of the high-profile rating services.
One firm recently submitted a four-pound package with two spiral-bound and tabbed updates of a single lawyer’s accomplishments over a one-year period.
“That approach is not uncommon,” Gustafson said. “But this one was particularly heavy.”
Accommodating the rating services, one of the marketers’ many concerns piled high, is not just for show. It is largely about the dough.
As the economy soured, clients of law firms were compelled to evaluate their business dealings across the board to determine if they were getting a loud enough bang for their buck.
“When that happened,” Gary said, “law firms had to react to a new reality.”
The upshot, in many instances, was firms becoming compelled to validate to clients the value that they were receiving.
Thus were legal marketers charged with helping their firms become more business-minded, more strategic in their approach, while persuading lawyers to adopt like-minded thinking.
Helm game-plans to help lawyers at his firm identify and target a specific audience rather than casting a broad net. He discourages them from using legal-speak, such as avoiding the use of “litigation” to convey the message that not every case must be settled at trial.
Among the mantras of Tiffany Zeigler, senior marketing and business development manager at Bryan Cave, are cross-selling and relationship-building.
Striving to make sure clients are served by the entire firm and not just one person, she randomly draws names from a hat to pair up lawyers — even a senior partner with a first-year associate — to swap information on clients. A lawyer, say, with interest and expertise in the arts might bring in new business with an arts-minded client working with a colleague.
“The low-hanging fruit is [from] the tree you have in your backyard,” Zeigler said.
Some firms have instituted a process for lawyers to chronicle how they have provided value on a case.
“Capture the story,” Gary said, so it can be shared with others at the firm as well as with would-be clients. “It can be [as brief as] one sentence.”
Embedded in the challenge for marketers was ushering lawyers into the brave new world. They are cognizant of the intense demands on lawyers’ time and energy, as well as the laser-beam focus on serving their clients, which throws up possible roadblocks to the learning process with acceptance of the new order.
Yet, at most firms, lawyers have bought in to the marketers’ gospel, they say, though some required more time than others to buy in.
“It was a progression,” said Golivesky, recalling that one lawyer at her firm expressed appreciation for being brought up to speed on marketing. “Over time, they really saw the benefits.”
To D’Urso, it is an easier sell when marketers can discern the lawyer’s natural strengths and play to them. If public speaking is an asset, put them in front of an audience. If they can convert an idea into a few pithy quotes, connect them with the media.
In a profession where marketing and business development got a late jump out of the box, not every proposal or innovation gets rubber-stamped by management. When Meszaros conceives an initiative, she identifies potentially receptive firm players and reaches out to them as allies. As she defined it, “Find your champions and sell it to them first.”
Firm marketers bounce ideas off each other — without, of course, revealing anything that might be considered proprietary. One formal vehicle for the exchange of viewpoints is the Southeastern Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association, whose membership has grown to 300-plus, covering nine states. The collegial nature of the group, which meets monthly, and legal marketers in general might strike some as surprising but is universally welcomed, observed Zeigler, a former chapter president.
Some marketers are wandering outside their usual circles to borrow concepts from nonlegal sources. Meszaros joined a chief marketing officers club and is headed to her first CMO convention unrelated to her industry.
In concert with the heightened emphasis on revenue streams and profits, marketing and business development staffs are occupying more office space. And the types of diplomas hanging on office walls are more varied. There was a recent time when firms promoted marketers into a business development position because it was the next level of achievement, though not necessarily the next level of skill, according to Gary.
As staffs have expanded and requirements for positions taken shape, hires are completed more to match a specified skill set. It is increasingly common for résumés to list business degrees. Experts in niche areas such as social networking are in demand.
Firms sense a need to bridge the gap to the business of law, Helm suggested. “Business acumen and experience [with marketers] are vitally important for a firm’s success,” he said.
Added Gary, “People [in marketing] are being hired left and right from outside the legal circles.”
People are being hired left and right, period. Meszaros’ staff has more than tripled in size since she signed on.
At Alston & Bird, when Bryant arrived in 1999, she captained a team of three. Today, it stands at 30, with the greatest buildup occurring in the past five years. “We are never lacking in activity,” she said. “Ever.”
D’Urso recalled underestimating “how lively and fast-moving this environment was going to be” when she gravitated from a Big Four accounting firm.
The economic environment has ratcheted up the pressure on firms to observe the bottom line, which falls heavily on the marketers and business developers.
Nonetheless, D’Urso said, “It is absolutely exciting.”
Illustrative of how the old mold is broken in legal marketing, no two marketers explain their reshaped jobs identically. They are project manager, communicator, strategist, voice of the firm — and often, many or all of the above.
Or, as one marketing person indelicately put it, “I pimp for my lawyers.”