Beyond the Bar: 4 Lessons from an Unconventional CEO
By Amy Nouri
January 25, 2024 | 7-minute read
Business of Law Business Structures and Trends Content Type Article Additional Options Content Level: Essential Firm Size: Small Firm Size: Medium Firm Size: Large
In 2012, when Pepper Hamilton hired Scott Green, CPA, a Harvard Business School graduate — but not a lawyer — as its chief executive, it was so momentous that it was covered by Forbes. Twelve years later, a professional with a career outside of law at the helm of a law firm is slightly more common, but still far from commonplace. According to ALM, through fiscal year 2022 just three of the AmLaw 200 had a chair or managing partner-equivalent without a law degree.
Yet some law firms are finding success in appointing business professionals to lead their firms; in fact, Husch Blackwell has now done so twice. In 2018, the AmLaw 100 firm named Paul Eberle, a former entrepreneur and business owner, to the chief executive officer (CEO) role; in February 2024, he will be succeeded by Jamie Lawless, whose experience spans legal operations and professional services.
While large law firms tend to get the headlines, firms of all sizes are starting to see the benefit of engaging leaders with business training and practical experience. Case in point: The founding partners at JVAM, a 15-lawyer firm in western Colorado, launched their firm with a business professional, Jonathan Delk, as their day-one CEO.
Delk, who had most recently served as the director of business operations at another Colorado law firm, has a story of particular relevance to legal marketers; he previously worked in digital marketing and has heavily invested in intake.
He shares his perspective on being a law firm CEO without having a law degree as well as advice for legal marketing and business development (BD) leaders in the interview below.
Accountability Can Mean Answering Phones
While every chief executive must lead with accountability, Delk notes that in the small-firm setting, the role may be a bit more hands-on; he does not have officers or directors leading business functions like marketing, human resources or finance.
“I imagine my role is not quite as evolved as a large-firm CEO because I am literally the buck stop, right?” he says. “Everything stops with me, and I have to take ultimate responsibility for everything that’s going on in the firm.”
He describes that first and foremost, it’s about business continuity and empowering the timekeepers to focus on the profitable delivery of legal services.
“If I need to sit at a public-facing desk or pick up the phones and do intake and reception work, I will, to ensure the firm is preserving its key revenue generation, which is billable hours,” he says. “And avoiding non-essential distractions to attorneys and paralegals.”
Building a Brand Takes Operational Support
As legal marketers know full well, a brand is more than a logo; it’s an organization’s core identity. Delk takes seriously the commitment of a brand and works to consistently implement the JVAM brand promise throughout the organization, down to telephone scripts.
Delk notes that when JVAM launched in August 2021, they had to be intentional about crafting its brand. “We were a new firm and we had no branding, no name and no reputation, save for the names of the partners who founded us,” he says. “We had to get creative about how to build the brand, and how we do it in a meaningful way.”
The firm decided to base its identity in the marketplace around a common pain point: lawyer availability and responsiveness.
Delk, as a former marketer, recognized that this kind of brand promise would require both a strategic approach and business investment — if the firm promised responsiveness but didn’t deliver, its reputation would quickly go from nascent to negative. Therefore, Delk launched an initiative to institutionalize responsiveness, which included:
- Switching from a virtual receptionist to in-house staff, with multiple redundancies in place.
- Implementing metrics to monitor how many calls each staff member takes to ensure the workload is evenly distributed.
- Training staff to act as advocates for current clients who may reach the main number.
- Developing protocols for new prospects with a focus on “solving the problem.”
“We’ve put a huge emphasis on this, and it’s been very fruitful,” Delk says. “It allowed us to control the narrative on the intake, and to do what everybody who is calling a law firm is trying to do: solve a problem.”
For example, JVAM may receive a call from someone searching for estate planning. Often, these prospects may plan to call around. JVAM has scripts that guide the receptionists to take the information, then promise to get back within two business days to confirm whether the firm can represent the caller. Additionally, receptionists will tell every caller that if the firm cannot take them on as a client, they will provide a referral to someone who can.
“In taking this approach, we are able to solve the caller’s problem,” he says. “They don’t have to go searching for a new firm down the line. By designing the intake process this way, by taking the time to be so detailed in the client experience at the very start, we create relationships.”
The JVAM brand is built on the premise of “closing the loop,” so it must be staffed and managed according to that directive.
“We always close the loop, period,” he says. “We do not leave people hanging. If someone calls during business hours, we call them back within the hour. If somebody calls over the weekend or overnight, we call them back within the first hour of the next business day. If someone fills out an online form, we follow up within the first half of the day of the next business day.
“By having the proper staffing to be proactive and responsive, we are inserting ourselves in the selection process for attorneys. By inserting ourselves and solving the problem of selecting an attorney, we create immediate allegiance and satisfaction because we’re taking the burden off the client.”
Culture Must Be Tended as Much as the Bottom Line
Fostering a positive culture is a business imperative for today’s law firms, as it will determine how successfully they can recruit and retain top talent. Indeed, in Major, Lindsey & Africa’s Culture Survey, culture outranked compensation as a reason lateral partners chose their new or current firm.
Part of Delk’s duties include an intentional approach to culture that stems from the firm’s recognition that retention and organic growth will boost profitability as well as morale. To that end, he surveys the team in addition to informal check-ins, monitors compensation and perks at peer firms and works to foster collegiality through special events like ski days, as well as the day-to-day routine.
“These are things you can’t put a dollar figure on, but are things that ultimately keep your revenues consistent,” he says.
While snowy outings may be less accessible for firms located outside Colorado, there are helpful takeaways from Delk’s approach, which balances the quantitative (surveys and compensation data) with the qualitative (in-person conversations and recreational activities).
Marketing Can Be Great Training for the CEO Position
Delk worked in digital marketing while he completed his master’s in business administration (MBA), after which he went into law firm administration, focusing on financial analysis and analytical skills. He says the marketing experience was an important complement to his work in finance — and one that could be helpful for other aspiring law firm leaders.
“I don’t see a reason why a marketing background couldn’t be the best situation,” he says. “You’re focused on growth, client experience and team member experience.”
However, he cautions that the CEO role requires a solid foundation in finances, accounting, operations and more in addition to marketing. His advice: learn everything you can.
“You’ve really got to increase financial acumen because like it or not, you could be the world’s foremost creative but if you don’t know how to responsibly manage the numbers, it’s going to be a real difficult task to matriculate into that role. Build up enough knowledge and capability to go toe-to-toe with the savviest person.
“I would recommend doing this in other areas too, like human resources and IT. While marketing is a fantastic and important part of the legal aspect, and if it’s your north star, you can undo all the great things that marketing can support and grow if you’re not focused on the general health of the business.”
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