A fundamental flaw infects law firm marketing and business development. It drives up costs, it drives down effectiveness. It feeds the churn that plagues the function. Serial CMOs such as me are brought in to fix it, but our best efforts are rarely enough.

Call it the Business Development Fallacy.

Partners are under crushing pressure to bring in business—the only surefire path to success. Firms, eager to justify their marketing spend, are hot for business developers who feed top-line revenue. Headhunters are quick to validate, eager for a thick cut of the action. Not so fast.

The business development rush is a rational reaction to a decade of depressed demand. But let’s not get out over our skis. Business development is a squishy concept. Is it sales? Is it sales with a checkbook? Is it strategic partnerships? As one observer put it, few more ambiguous words have been spoken than, “I do biz dev.”

That goes double in Big Law. Firm leaders, determined to break out of the revenue rut, are in a business development hiring surge. But there is a yawning disconnect between what firms want from the function and what they get.

They say they want business developers with a strategic, client-centric mindset to go shoulder to shoulder with partners and move the revenue needle. What they get are marketing generalists insulated from buyers (except when pinning on name tags at client events) and smothered under a haystack of scutwork so deep they can’t find the needle, let alone move it. That’s the crux of the business development fallacy.

There are exceptions. They are, however, few enough and far between enough that they prove the rule: Look too closely and Big Law business development looks a helluva lot like marketing.

This is different from “real” companies, where business development (sales) is distinct from marketing. At law firms, the functions are mashed up. Business development is distinguished not by dollars-in-the-door prowess, but by proximity to practice leaders. By any other name, however, it’s an elaborate species of sales support.

Much ado about nomenclature? No. There are real consequences to dishing up business development goulash. Nor is it a matter of bad faith. Firm leaders and business development professionals are earnest in their efforts to get it right. But it’s hard to ignore so many of the wrong people doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons.

No wonder business development staff, who are perfectly positioned to drive business success, gaze longingly over the fence at neighboring firms where they’ve heard the grass is greener.

It’s not. It’s still crabgrass any way you cut it. How did we get here?

Big-firm marketing is an odd little subculture. It has grown, in fits and starts, since the U.S. Supreme Court held in its 1977 landmark case, Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, that tradition and ickiness are not reason enough to bar lawyers from promoting their services.

From there, things moved forward at a snail’s pace. The dead weight of tradition, laden with ironclad good-old-boy relationships, held fast. Jump ahead 25 years, and firms were still dipping a toe in the water. Maybe an assistant helped put on a client event. Maybe a discrete PR firm whispered to reporters. Maybe.

That’s when I came in. A nonpracticing lawyer, I had been with ALM for 15 years. I knew some legal marketers, but I knew next to nothing about what they did. Still, firms were bringing in real people and paying real money. Recruiters had taken note and were descending.

I asked one of them to find a global firm remaking marketing. A Magic Circle wannabe firm fit the bill. It had a new chair, a new CMO, and a strategic consultant—classic signs of do-over mode. It had picked a branding maven as CMO. She’d had successful stints at a top agency, and in corporate America, but she didn’t know much more than I did about legal marketing.

Refreshingly, she did know what she didn’t know. She’d inherited a decent first-gen marketing team, but it was dead women walking. They were rebuilding, and any fool knows teardowns are easier than renovations.

You’ll have the chance, she said, to do something special: develop a business development function embedded within the firm’s global business units. I was enticed.

As we talked, her phone rang. She looked at the number. Her face tightened. “I have to take this,” she said, mouthing the word “partner.”

She started to speak, but the partner on the other end was having none of it. Finally, she got a word in. One word.

“Understood,” she said.

She laid the phone in its cradle and looked at me. She seemed to have aged. She shook her head and forced a smile.

“Fucking holiday cards,” she sighed.

I should have known then that this business development thing might not be what it appeared.

As my career progressed through four big firms, I became a fixer without a real fix. I brought in shiny new people and got undue credit for getting them to do things right. But I wanted them doing the right things, to paraphrase biz guru Peter Drucker. That proved disappointingly difficult.

I developed a strategy. I ladled on the best support money could buy to mitigate the worst time-sucks. I focused on troublesome areas such as business intelligence, RFPs and pitches, event administration and copywriting.

It was never enough. Sisyphus would recognize the challenge. We were rolling a massive Chambers guide up hell’s hill only to have it fall back again. On my watch, business development morphed into drudgery.

Bleak, right? Not really. There’s actually more reason for optimism today than ever.

Big firms get a bad rap. Industry consultants never tire of bleating from the cheap seats about firms’ aversion to change. Hogwash. Spare us the shopworn references to Kodak and Clayton Christensen. These are not startups burning other people’s cash to build billion-dollar unicorns. These are going concerns flying the plane and fixing the plane at the same time.

To be sure, the business development fallacy is real, but the very squishiness of the enterprise is also a strength. Under a big tent, there’s room for many acts. And some of them are showstoppers.

At a CMO roundtable not long ago, the GC of a Silicon Valley tech company chided us for futzing with our websites instead of fussing over our clients. He then launched into a rhapsody about client relations superstar Catherine Zinn, then at DLA, now chief client officer of Orrick.

“No partner,” he said, “is as important to me as Catherine.”

Those most engaged in next-level business development, such as Zinn, are those most engaged with clients. They’re way past hanging lanyards or attending the obligatory client panel at LMA events. That one-on-one engagement is the wellspring of their success.

Client-focused professionals are raising the bar. Not long ago, you could count the industry’s sales pros on one hand—nay, one finger: Steve Bell of Womble, the self-styled Neil Armstrong of law-firm sales. Now you need both hands and your toes: There’s Hans Haglund, chief marketing and business development officer of Blank Rome; Carl Grant, Cooley’s business development super-connector working the Northern Virginia growth corridor; and my own firm’s Christian Berger, a Dallas-based private equity dynamo. And that barely scratches the surface.

Elsewhere under the tent you’ll find Toby Brown, chief practice management officer of Perkins Coie, who engages clients from the pricing and LPM side. (Check out the LegalSpeak podcast featuring Toby and Adobe legal ops director Lisa Konie.) Ropes & Gray has built a stable of client relationship executives to bring focus and creativity to key accounts. There’s much more.

Is there a long way to go? You bet. Is there reason for optimism? Damn right.

It is, as Bell might put it, one small step for a business developer, one giant leap for business development.

Joe Calve is chief marketing and business development officer for McGuireWoods, a global firm with 1,100 lawyers across 23 offices in North America, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at jcalve@mcguirewoods.com.