After going five months without a chief marketing officer, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius is poaching from Latham & Watkins to fill the void. Despina Kartson, who has served as Latham’s top marketing executive since 2004, will join Morgan Lewis on March 18, according to two sources familiar with the move.

Industry observers contacted by The Am Law Daily expressed surprise at Kartson’s decision to move to Morgan Lewis, while at the same time describing her as among the high-end legal industry’s most-respected CMOs. Some also said her arrival could help Morgan Lewis—a firm with roots in Philadelphia that has consistently ranked among the 15 highest-grossing firms in the country for the past several years—polish its profile.

"It’s a coup for Morgan Lewis," said legal consultant Peter Zeughauser, who says he has known Kartson for years. "Latham is renowned not only for its performance but for a strong marketing department. . . . It’s a shift for Morgan Lewis to bring someone in as strong as Despina. That’s a statement that they’re committed to building a significant marketing infrastructure and operation."

Reached Monday, Kartson declined to comment on her move before joining Morgan Lewis. A spokeswoman for Morgan Lewis had no comment, and a spokesman for Latham did not respond to requests for comment.

In joining Morgan Lewis, Kartson takes over a position last held by Michael Baltes, who left the firm in September after four-and-a-half years to become chief marketing and communications officer at Philadelphia-based Post & Schell. For Baltes, the then-newly created position—which combined Morgan Lewis’s marketing and communications departments—was his first at a law firm. His previous experience was almost exclusively in the education sector, including more than a decade at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Unlike Baltes, who was based in Morgan Lewis’s Philadelphia headquarters, Kartson will work out of the firm’s New York office at 101 Park Avenue. From there, she will steer the marketing and business development initiatives for a firm with 1,300 lawyers and 24 offices spread around the United States, Europe, and Asia. In 2011, the most recent year for which complete data is available, Morgan Lewis ranked 13th on The Am Law 100, with gross revenue of $1.16 billion. (By comparison, Latham—which boasts more than 2,000 lawyers in 31 offices around the world—ranked fourth, with gross revenue of $2.15 billion. The American Lawyer‘s early reporting shows the Latham’s gross revenue rose to $2.26 billion in 2012).

Kartson joins the firm in the middle of a growth spurt. With 44 new partners hired from October 2011 to September 2012, Morgan Lewis came in sixth in The American Lawyer‘s most recent Lateral Report on a list of firms with the most new additions. Of those, 20 came during and after the fall of Dewey & LeBoeuf last spring. So far this year, the firm has made at least nine partner hires in Boston, Houston, Irvine, London, New York, and Washington, D.C.

"It’s a very smart hire on Morgan Lewis’s part," says Melanie Bennet, the global practice leader of Major, Lindsey & Africa‘s law firm management practice, who was not involved in the deal. "As an outsider, it says to me they’re sending a signal that they take marketing and business development seriously. They would be on my radar as, ‘Let’s look at what they’ll be doing.’ "

Kartson joined Latham in 2004 from a position as vice president of business development at Bowne Business Solutions, a company that was acquired that year by business process outsourcer Williams Lea. Earlier in her career she worked in the technology departments of Cravath, Swaine & Moore and White & Case, among other positions.

Kartson took over Latham’s CMO job from Jolene Overbeck, who had left to join Shearman & Sterling. After subsequent stints at the Zeughauser Group and DLA Piper, Overbeck is now the CMO at Hogan Lovells.

Overbeck’s move in October 2010 came at a time of heavy churn within the law firm CMO ranks. As The Am Law Daily reported in April 2011, the flurry of moves signaled to some that the recession’s end had firms moving aggressively to raise their profiles.

Morgan Lewis isn’t the only Am Law 200 firm to hire a new top marketing executive since the start of the year. In early January, DLA Piper hired a new CMO in Barbara Taylor, who had previously served as general counsel of accounting firm and DLA client BDO USA. Troutman Sanders also hired CMO Maura Brandt from Miller & Chevalier in late January.

Firms still looking to hire a CMO position include Alston & Bird; Greenberg Traurig; Kaye Scholer; McKenna Long & Aldridge; and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, according to legal recruiter Stephen Nelson of the McCormick Group, who tracks such vacancies. Hunton & Williams also lost its director of marketing and development, Kim Perret, in October to Jones Walker and has not replaced her.

The positions often come with a hefty price tag: MLA’s Bennet says CMO salaries typically top out anywhere from $600,000 to $700,000, plus bonuses. It is unclear how much Morgan Lewis will pay Kartson.

The Legal‘s senior staff writer, Gina Passarella, contributed reporting.

Sara Randazzo is a reporter for The American Lawyer, a Legal affiliate based in New York. This article first appeared on The Am Law Daily at www.americanlawyer.com.