Editor’s note: This article is the fourth in a series examining how executive-level positions are changing at law firms.
In a legal industry plagued by flat demand, business development is especially critical. So it’s only natural that law firm leaders are placing a higher premium on business development professionals.
The chief marketing officer role has become widespread as law firm C-suites grow, and those professionals are gaining influence at their firms. But as their focus shifts from traditional marketing and toward business development, CMO roles are evolving, and more firms are hiring dedicated chief business development officers.
Dedicating a C-level role to business development is becoming more common, said Wendy Taylor of LawVision Group. The position isn’t that much different from a chief marketing officer, she said, and many firms have CMOs for whom business development is already a primary job function. But changing the title creates a clear emphasis on driving revenue growth, Taylor said.
“Usually there’s a reflection period when firms lose a CMO and are looking at bringing on a new CMO … there’s a lot of thought about the skillset they want this person to have,” she said.
At that time, a firm may rewrite the job description and look for a CBDO instead, Taylor said. Or, like Blank Rome and Ballard Spahr, they may combine the roles of chief marketing and business development officer.
Often a firm wants someone with a broad background that touches on both marketing and business development, Taylor said. But someone who has focused only on the marketing side, such as a public relations professional, may not be immediately interchangeable for business development leadership.
Harold Balk, the chief development officer at Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, said it would be difficult to make the switch to business development leadership with a background rooted solely in marketing. CBDOs have to understand sales, he said, noting that his background is unusual—he worked in sports sales for a number of years before he went to law school, then began working in law firm business development.
Melissa Croteau, who recently joined Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney as CBDO, said more firms see a need for business development officers to help lawyers—who are not always natural salespeople—do what’s necessary to promote their own practices.
“There’s less emphasis on branding and advertising and things like that, which were traditional marketing roles,” she said. “It’s much more of an external focus on the clients than internal in the firm.”
Croteau said the increased focus on business development comes at a time when clients want lawyers who know their businesses well, who look ahead and help build a successful business, rather than just provide legal services.
“Clients are crying out for lawyers that think proactively,” she said.
Taylor also pointed to client demand, but in a different respect. Demand is down and competition from non-law-firm legal services is up, she said, pointing to Altman Weil’s most recent Law Firms in Transition survey. And law firm leaders are noticing overcapacity because many of their lawyers do not bring in business.
“We’re seeing a lot more demand for business development coaching and training,” Taylor said. “With all the market forces and the challenges that firms are facing, it’s more important than ever to have someone with a strong business development background.”
A Joint Effort
Balk said law firms are taking a page from accounting firms when it comes to business development. Each professional service has a specific audience, he noted.
“You’re looking at less than half a percent of the population,” Balk said. “You can market to that audience, but not broadly.”
So it’s important to work more directly on sales, he said. At Eckert Seamans, Balk coaches lawyers on how to develop business, helps drive firm strategy and plays a major role in recruiting.
“It’s all about business development because that’s how you make money,” he said. “Under that umbrella are public relations, marketing and branding.”
Croteau, who oversees both business development and marketing at Buchanan Ingersoll, said it’s important to have those two functions working closely together. Marketing must be embedded in the practices as much as the business development team, she said, so they have an understanding of clients’ interests and needs.
When he first became chief development officer about seven years ago, Balk said, lawyers’ responses were not all positive.
“The initial reaction was, ‘We already have a director of marketing, why are we bringing in this person?’” he said.
But since then, he said, the firm has had its most profitable years. And he’s noticed that business development professionals may be more welcomed by lawyers than professionals strictly focused on marketing.
“Everyone thinks they know everything about marketing,” Balk said. “Business development is a little different. A lot of people don’t know how to develop business.”