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May 19, 2009 12:57 PM

How Essential Is a CMO?

Posted by Zach Lowe

We typically see a lot of turnover among marketing staffs in the Am Law world--including turnover forced by recent layoffs--so Edward Schechter's eight-year tenure as chief marketing officer at Duane Morris was somewhat unique, especially in Philadelphia. But that tenure is over after Schechter's resignation (effective this week), sources tell the Legal Intelligencer (subscription only), an Am Law Daily sibling publication, that the firm may have forced Schechter's hand. 

Schechter told the paper he had been thinking about resigning for a while, and that he felt he had nothing left to accomplish at Duane Morris. The firm didn't have a CMO before it hired Schechter eight years ago, and he built up the marketing department basically from scratch, the story says. 

There were two obvious changes at Duane Morris that might have pushed Schechter out, but he and the firm denied that either played a role in his departure. The firm laid off several marketing staffers in August 2008, a few months after John Soroko succeeded Sheldon Bonovitz as the firm's chair; Bonovitz was regarded as a marketing innovator, the story says. 

Soroko says the firm plans to fill Schechter's position but that it will take "great care" in doing so. In the meantime, Duane Morris will go without an official CMO. Fox Rothschild, another Philly mainstay, has been without a CMO since August, when its head marketer left for Cozen O'Connor, the story says. 

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I do not believe that a chief marketing officer (CMO) is an essential position for a law firm. This view is especially true during America's current economic slump, which has resulted in hundreds of lawyers being laid off. The fact is that many CMOs at law firms have also been laid off or have resigned.

Whether a firm has a CMO or not, what is critical in these economic times is that firms pay careful attention to their relationships with their clients. Knowing what their clients need and expect, and perhaps even anticipating those needs, will help a firm retain clients and grow with them. This long term relationship-based marketing will help prevent clients from moving to the competition.

I think the question isn't about whether or not a CMO is needed, but rather how a firm is going to intentionally create and manage to an effective business strategy, enable, support and consistently implement effective client and business development at the go-to-market levels within the firm, and manage its top-to-bottom reputation and awareness across traditional and digital media platforms. Whether you call it chief marketing officer, chief business development officer, chief strategy officer,chief client development officer or chief revenue officer, someone has to lead these processes from an operational perspective. It is highly unlikely that the managing partner, COO or executive director is going to have time to take these on.

I would agree somewhat, as a former CMO, that the position is not "essential" at a law firm, especially when many firms are not ready for someone at that level and don't utilize them appropriately. However, I would totally disagree that the statement is "especially true during America's current economic slump." If anytime, a CMO is more urgently needed now!

Silly question to the say the least. Can't generalize and put all CMO's in the same bucket. The more strategic, client focused CMOs are vital to improving the top-line of a firm. Problem is, many CMOs in law firms are generic and really don't know much about marketing.

Essential? I guess it depends on whether you want your firm to grow over the long run and aggressively seek new business by activating your human and technological resources in order to realize new business later. If a firm's focus is in the present, a CMO is not essential. It really is an internal big law debate and understandably so in this economy. Personally, I believe marketing strategy has never been more important to the future health of large law firms.

It's my sincere hope that more of our competitors decide that a CMO is not essential!

Call the position anything you'd like, but if firms don't have a senior-level marketing strategist at the table, they don't have a complete table. Although this article isn't about saving money, but rather a departure and taking time to hire the next right person, it would be a mistake for any firm to short it's success strategy by eliminating, laying off or diminishing this role. This competitive environment is the best time to make sure firms are positioned as positively as possible so that when the economy loosens, the firm is primed for a call to the table of its clients and potential clients. A senior-level marketing strategist is the catalyst to this kind of positioning.

The title of CMO is not what is essential. Having a senior level marketing professional who can balance strategic/ tactical aspects of the job is.

Too many CMOs (IMHO) are more concerned about their titles, proving their equality to the equity partners, and protecting their salaries, than challenging the status quo and moving their firms forward.

Ha Ha @ Bill Vannerson!

I concur - please dear competition ... let your marketing staff go!!

Bill, love that spirit! Agree with Tom that often it's a matter of a firm not giving the CMO the support to do their job. I find, even in Big Law that partners want to run their own business so to speak. They want to hire help to manage their ideas. Many CMO's, or good CMO's come in with ideas, processes, and strategic vision that isn't about just management, it's about navigating the firm through the channel of the client's voice. I believe a CMO should be the voice of the client across the firm. I like what Martha is saying. And, not only in times like these. That's the essence of marketing in a law firm and the job of the CMO -is to hear, objectively, the voice of the client and translate it for everyone involved in delivering the service. Not a small task.

While that may sound a bit abstract, successful corporations do it every day. I'm not surprised that they do not demand it from their law firms more often.

For a firm to benefit from a CMO, there has to be shift in how marketing is viewed within most firms. If marketing is viewed as support and not as a strategic asset, then most talented CMOs would be wasting their time and the firms financial resources. You don't need a CMO if he or she is only going to manage sponsorships, RFPs and collateral. I also believe firms need to be more open to recruiting marketing talent from outside the industry as opposed to placing such a high value on whether a candidate can adapt to firm culture and partner politics.

Do you people live in the real world? Of course a CMO is essential to a law firm, like jet fuel is to an airplane that you want to keep aloft.

Without a CMO, a firm's lawyers will go back to simply billing time as their revenues gradually shrink. With no one to prod and support them in business development, the firm will die.

Regardless of what you call the lead marketing role, someone needs to take charge of a firm's overall marketing & BD strategy and make sure the firm's efforts are aligned. Firms spend so much $$ on Web sites, branding initiatives and other bells and whistles, but the ones that succeed in the long run are the ones that are smart enough to know exactly where to invest their marketing resources--and why. This takes more than an ability to print out a spreadsheet; it takes a sophisticated understanding of business analytics, a laser-like focus, and the leadership skills to sell and implement the strategy.

If not for the archaic rule prohibiting lawyers from sharing revenue with non-lawyers, we would be talking about a much more interesting title: VP of Sales. Marketing is not selling. Marketing is about branding, strategy, and setting the plate for a salesperson (a.k.a. attorney under the present rules)to go about client-getting activity. Since many law firm partners fail to distinguish these terms, the expectations for marketing pros are unrealistic. They are paid like VPs of Sales, but can't produce what a sales professional would produce. This is what lies behind the constant turnover of law firm marketing personnel. What law firms need, quite candidly, are sales trainers who can work one-on-one with attorneys to help them sell within the opportunities and limitations presented by their individual personalities.

This conversation raises the broader question of what law firm staffing is necessary generally. With lawyer to secretary ratios ranging from 2 to 6 and IT spend % of revenue from 3 to 7%, law firms are all over the map on support functions. Why should it be any different for marketing? How many firms consciously decide what support is truly appropriate and then how best to provide it? Seems to me that most law firm staffing is idiosyncratic and an accident of history.

Love the discussion. My experience suggests law firm leaders don't have a clue what a seasoned CMO can contribute. But even as a long-time supporter of the legal marketing profession I acknowledge that we have to step up, too. An effective CMO isn't one who makes no ripples and pleases the partners, even those without a shred of marketing savvy. An effective CMO grows the top and bottom line.

CMOs are not essential. Neither is growth. Firms content to stand still can nuke the marketers and then either have the lawyers do what Marketing did or not do it at all. Status quo and moving backwards are, after all, strategic options that might appeal to some.

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