Editor’s note: This is the first in a series examining how executive-level positions at law firms are changing to fit the industry.

The longevity of chief marketing officers can swing wildly among large Pennsylvania-based law firms. But as more firms seek to build their marketing leadership from the ground up, observers say the revolving door may be slowing.

Just six of Pennsylvania’s 11 Am Law 100 firms have held onto the same CMO for more than three years. Three of them—Ballard Spahr, Reed Smith and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius—saw the position change hands in the last year. Drinker Biddle & Reath has yet to fill a CMO vacancy.

Dustin Laws, a law firm management recruiter at Major, Lindsey & Africa in Philadelphia, said the tenures of law firm marketing and business development professionals have extended over the last five years. Until recently, he said, the average tenure was about two years, partly because lawyers and firm leaders did not understand the fundamentals of effective branding and business development, or they expected results too quickly.

Marketing leadership positions have also been short-lived in some instances because of firms competing for limited number of professionals who have marketing expertise and enough knowledge of the legal industry, said Wendy Taylor, former CMO at both Dechert and Reed Smith.

“There’s a small group of people who have the skill set to do that role,” said Taylor, now a senior consultant of business development at LawVision Group. Law firms often “cherry-pick” the best within the industry, she said.

The CMO landscape is changing, however, said Laws, “as we see a slightly different demographic of people moving up the ranks who are more tapped into their clients’ needs.”

Looking Within

Several area firms have recently turned inward to find their next CMO.

Ballard Spahr, which has seen two more CMOs come and go since Eileen Kenney left in 2013, promoted Amy Shepherd to CMO earlier this month from her role as senior director of marketing and business development at the firm. Morgan Lewis recently filled its CMO vacancy with Mona Zeiberg, a lawyer-turned-marketing director who joined the firm in 1997 and took on business development responsibilities a few years later. And Reed Smith last year promoted Sadie Baron, former director of marketing and business development for the global transactional business, to CMO.

Other firms that promoted CMOs from within in past years include K&L Gates, which named Jeff Berardi its CMO in 2006; Pepper Hamilton, which chose Dan Pulka from its own marketing ranks in 2013; and Cozen O’Connor, which put a lawyer in the CMO role in 2011, when litigator Lisa Haas took the lead on the firm’s business development efforts. Each of them remains in the position today.

“If there’s a strong internal candidate, there can be huge benefits to hiring from within,” Laws said. “They’re likely selected because they’re strong in that role or because the firm had been very thoughtful about succession planning.”

Shepherd, Ballard Spahr’s new CMO, has worked in the firm’s marketing department for five years. Before joining Ballard Spahr, she was in senior marketing roles at Morgan Lewis and Dechert.

“I think we will learn with Amy that being able to bring somebody up through the ranks, who has a deep understanding of the firm, will be a real asset to her tenure,” said Ballard Spahr chairman Mark Stewart.

Turnover Troubles

It’s not easy to fill lead marketing and business development roles at law firms, and vacancies can last from several months to over a year.

Marketing in the legal industry is unique, Shepherd said, because of the nature of law firm partnership.

“It’s a lot of masters to serve,” she said. “The best ideas don’t always go zipping right through.”

By climbing the ranks, Shepherd said she has been able to learn Ballard Spahr’s culture and build a rapport with the partners, giving her an advantage as she takes the lead in marketing the firm.

“You really have to strategically invest in developing those relationships across the firm,” Shepherd said. “I’ve spent the last five years understanding the landscape of the firm.”

Haas, of Cozen O’Connor, said her background as a lawyer and her history at the firm have served her well in business development. A CMO who comes from within a firm’s marketing department has credibility with the firm, and knows it well, she said.

But hiring from within can have its downsides. Laws, of Major, Lindsey & Africa, said a firm shouldn’t confine itself to hiring from within, even if it ends up making an internal hire. LawVision’s Taylor said some firms can benefit from an outside perspective and knowledge of what competitors are doing.

Taylor said she left her own Big Law CMO career because it had become difficult to balance work demands with her personal life. CMO and chief business development officer roles often require 24-hour-a-day availability, she said.

It’s a demanding job, Haas said, and it’s frustrating for both firm leadership and marketing leadership when marketing goals aren’t commonly shared.

Even with leadership’s full backing, it often takes six to eight months for a marketing professional to assess and adjust to a new firm before making real progress, Laws said. But firm leaders want immediate results.

“I think the expectation is we’re bringing this person in, and whatever the salary is … we want to see that impact pretty quickly,” Laws said.

Shepherd, of Ballard Spahr, is taking over for Mary Beth Hernandez, who recently left the firm for personal reasons. Stewart said the firm had been pleased with Hernandez’s work and is sad to see her leave, but feels fortunate to have someone prepared to step into the CMO role.

“Lawyers are not the easiest people to serve. They’re typically very smart, but they don’t know everything,” Stewart said. “It’s also difficult to get lawyers, particularly in matters related to their clients, to accept the role and support of nonlawyers.”

Stewart said he’s not worried about Ballard Spahr’s latest CMO transition. But generally, he said, turnover of any kind is disruptive.

In the end, Taylor said, it’s in the firms’ best interest to develop effective and durable marketing leadership, especially in a flat-demand market where growing revenue and attracting new clients are top priorities.

“I think you’re seeing firms put a lot of time and energy into figuring out what they want in this role,” Taylor said. “That can only lead to more stability.”

Lizzy McLellan writes about the Pennsylvania legal community and the business of law at firms of all sizes. Contact her at lmclellan@alm.com. On Twitter: @LizzyMcLellTLI

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