Memoirs of a Law Firm CMO: 5 Lessons Learned

Memoirs of a Law Firm CMO: 5 Lessons Learned

By Tori Whitaker
August 12, 2022 | 6-minute read
Marketing Management and Leadership Department Management and Motivation Content Type Article
Business Development
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The day the ice storm hit was the worst day of my career. It was February 2000, and I’d joined Constangy’s Atlanta headquarters a year before. Attorneys from all offices gathered in a hotel conference room that Sunday. I would have one hour after lunch to roll out the firm’s first marketing plan. I’d highlight the findings of my internal interviews and audit, results of a client survey, studies on our name recognition, a competitive analysis and more. I’d outline a whole promotional campaign.

But the hotel lost electricity as ice weighed down on the power lines. There we all sat, classroom style, as the chair talked in the dark from the podium, the room growing colder.

Surely, I thought, the power will come back on soon. I hadn’t eaten or slept in days; I was so nervous to present.

Truth is, my first year at the firm hadn’t gone swimmingly. During a local LMA meeting early on, a consultant and I introduced ourselves, and he said, “My condolences. It’s never easy being a firm’s first marketing director.” I was taken aback. But he was right — attrition rates, which averaged 18 months, confirmed this.

Then, there was the kind partner in my office who’d counseled me to start a CYA file — yup, a “cover your ass” file. Some were taking bets on how long I’d last. Old-school partners didn’t think lawyers needed marketing at all.

To me, this gig at the hotel was my hero or zero moment.

Soon the banquet crew served sandwiches by candlelight. Lawyers were getting restless, worried about flights or driving home safely. Four partners including the chair motioned me out to the dimly-lit hall. We would adjourn early, he advised, and I should stand in place at my seat and take 15 minutes to summarize the marketing program. But this topic was too important. I recommended an alternative. I had planned to visit our 12 offices anyway and present the whole thing to all staff. (We didn’t have Zoom in those days.) So when I went, I could inform the lawyers, too.

“No, just sum it up.” All four partners nodded.

I thought I was going to vomit as minutes ticked by. Finally, the chair called on me as servers swept away our plates. I rose.

“I can do this marketing presentation in the dark,” I began. “I can do it without a mic, without slides, without notes and I can trim it to half an hour. But I can’t do it justice in 15 minutes.” I then explained how I would come to their offices and present the full plan. I sat back down, thankful that no one could see my face burning red.

Had I actually done that? Gone against my directive? As people ambled out of the double doors shortly after, chatting, no one talked to me. No one even looked my way. I’d probably get fired.

The following morning back at the office, I requested a meeting with the chair and the administrative partner who’d one day succeed him. With much sincerity, I described the isolation I’d felt there my first year. Then I said, “If you were at trial representing your client and an ice storm hit, would the judge say to take 15 minutes and give your closing arguments to the jury? No time for evidence. No witnesses. Or would the judge postpone?”

These partners listened. If marketing was to receive buy-in — if we were to shift the paradigm for the future — lawyers across the firm had to hear the case.

When we concluded, the two said: “You have our full support. Our doors are open.”

This was the beginning of a decades-long relationship of mutual respect, trust and productivity.

Looking back, perhaps the ice storm wasn’t the worst day of my career after all. It might’ve been the best.

Lesson 1: Sometimes marketers have to take a stand.

Earlier in my career in marketing at a Big Six accounting firm, a seasoned rainmaker sat me down. “When I’m with a client,” he said, “I know they’re thinking, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ It’s not enough that two years before I saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars. What you’ll need to know is that this is what partners are thinking of you, too.”

Same thing applies at law firms. It’s not enough that the website was awarded first place two years ago or that proposal win rates have far exceeded industry benchmarks for eight years running or that the national event you spearheaded last fall earned wildly successful ROI.

Lesson 2: Lawyers are our internal clients. Always be ready to answer the unspoken question, “What has the marketing department done for us lately?”

Whatever comes next, you’ll steer the team. The bigger our firm grew, the more opportunities I had for mentoring newer marketers. It became the most rewarding part of my job . . . getting that glimpse that someone had promise, giving them a chance and watching them soar.

Mentoring others, however, comes at a price.

If staff leave the firm, they take experience and institutional knowledge, sometimes after many years. You’re happy for their chance to advance — though you’ll need to find a replacement (and then train them, invest yourself in them and help them assimilate into the culture).

It’s inconvenient. It can sting like a little betrayal, though it’s not. Still, as the leader, there’s emotion. To me, it was sort of like waving goodbye to my son when dropping him off as a college freshman. Bittersweet.

Yes, mentors help staff find their wings.

Lesson 3: Sometimes staff leave. Losing them can hurt.

Yet, I’ve enjoyed new staff coming in as much as the ones who left. They’re different but equally smart, eager, talented, fun, contributors. As managers, we keep the ship moving forward.

Lesson 4: No one is irreplaceable. (Not even you.)

Still, as a leader, there might be times when you are not just the best person for the job when stakes are high, you are the only one who can do it.

Seven years back, our firm grew by 20% overnight with a strategic acquisition of laterals. We added a name to the door, too — which affected everything from logos, to swag, to mastheads and the website. Our marketing group was given five months to prepare before it all went public, and we had nondisclosure agreements with suppliers coast to coast. I headed the task force of partners from both our firm and a few who’d soon join us, and we were to re-envision our firm brand, anchored by a new tagline and video. The reality was, if we didn’t reach consensus in this exciting yet delicate period, the deal could die. We made it happen.

At the end of the day, strong marketers handle great webinars, seminars, PR, RFPs, graphic design, sponsorships, etc. It’s a given. But not everyone has that undefinable, intangible quality needed to do such work at law firms. A partnership is comprised of many people who are our clients — or, our bosses — and there’s a bunch more striving to make partner someday.

Lesson 5: What really makes us successful in legal marketing is the ability to manage all of the personalities.

Tori Whitaker

Tori Whitaker retired in June 2022 as CMO of Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, the firm where she launched the marketing department 23 years before. She’s also a novelist, and her second book that shifts between the past and present, “A Matter of Happiness,” will release in November 2022.