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Legal 500’s Publishing Director: “Law Firm Partners: Stop being arrogant”

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I like the fact that David Burgess, Publishing Director of the Legal 500 series, isn’t shy of getting to the point in his post in Linked In relating to the role of marketing professionals at law firms, which could be seen as a brave move considering that Partners presumably authorise plenty of payments to Legal 500. In support of his arrogance accusation, he says:

Partners: Out of their depth when it comes to marketing?
Partners: Unaware of what’s around them?

A consistent barrier to progress in law firms is the unwillingness of partners to realise that the firm(s) has a whole range of people within it who are much more qualified than they are. Not in the law, but in marketing, business development, strategy, commercial awareness, branding (and the list goes on). And (I) don’t even think these are “support functions”. I still hear that from some firms, and from many that don’t say it, they certainly treat them as such. 

Has he got a point? David Burgess must be in a good position to know this, and other marketing professionals who have left comments on his post are certainly in agreement. If he is correct, law firms are not enabling marketing  professionals to do their job and promote the firm effectively, and marketing professionals believe that the blame for this is with the Partners.

But David’s post is just the drum roll for a campaign – CMO’s held a round-table meeting in New York to discuss how to resolve this stalemate situation by being “change agents” from within law firms, for example by coaching partners on marketing practices. Great idea, except it seems no law partners are invited, or perhaps they were, and they didn’t want to turn up? So not so much a round-table discussion, more a one sided plotting exercise?

There are plenty of people at law firms who have qualifications (and experience) in areas that Partners do not. If they were not recognised for the skills they bring to the law firm, I’m sure they would not be hired and their salaries paid for. And it would definitely be very unfortunate if these people make good decisions which are overturned by Partners, or they are not empowered to make good decisions that help a department or firm to progress.

Have law firm partners boxed-in marketer’s talents?

However, the strength of Partners is their versatility in being expert in more than their knowledge and application of the law. Good marketers and lawyers do have one key skill in common – excellent communication. Partners at law firms also often spend up to half their time on non-legal activities, of which marketing is a very key part. Are they dabbling in an area they know nothing about? Taking marketing at its simple definition of communication between a company and its consumer audience then Partners would have a pretty good understanding of how this works – seeing as this would have comprised about 90% of their professional lives for the past ten to thirty years.

The best Partners I have been fortunate enough to work with have (in addition to their intelligence and ability to be great lawyers) a natural ability to build relations with others, and they engage continuously in work and actions that secure their reputation, and the work and profitability of their department. In their day to day role as marketers and promoters of themselves, their department and their law firm, Partners may have also have racked up more practical marketing experience than the marketing professionals who work with them. So if they do a bit of “interfering” in marketing, I think they have a pretty good basis to do so.

So the key difference in law firms to other service industries is that the bosses really do know the tool of the trade inside out – and they hold confident opinions on whether marketing communications are fit for purpose. In other service industries, it may be more the case that the marketing/communication team have an untouchable hold on communication. That won’t be and will never be the case at a law firm.

Partners also have one eye on the regulatory framework concerning marketing at law firms in the UK – a subject not acknowledged by the round-table group. Law firms are not free to market indiscriminately due to Chapter 8 of the SRA’s Code of Conduct. This rightly brings a lot of caution and care into marketing efforts.

David also says that marketing, business development, branding, etc are not “support” functions. These are clearly all vital organs that are needed to make the law firm body function and survive, but they do and should work together to support the law firm achieve its overall commercial and regulatory objective of being a profitable and viable body that provides good legal advice and representation to its customers. Let’s not loose sight of the fact that this is what a law firm’s staff are employed to do by the Partners! Would you expect a marketing professional to be hired by the Partners if he/she denied at a job interview that the main point of their job is to support the owners of the law firm achieve their objective to survive and expand?

I think even a Managing Partner would regard the primary role of him/herself as supporting the overall objective of making sure their law firm can be profitable and achieve its function. Being employed in a supportive role does not mean or imply that a marketing professional has a lesser status, or cannot take the lead on a marketing venture, or take credit for vital progress to a law firm or department.

office fight
Disagreements – unpleasant, unprofessional and uninspiring!

An arrogant attitude is clearly not going to work, whether this is held by the marketing professional or the Partner. Collaboration is key, as is respect and understanding for what the Partner and marketing professionals bring to the table in terms of promoting the work of the law firm. Any marketing professionals could also be accused of arrogance if they think that they have nothing to learn from a Partner about marketing at a law firm, that they are not employed to support the law firm achieve its objectives, or that Partners should leave marketing professionals alone to do their job.

The most harmful effect of this situation is that if marketing professionals and Partners hold fundamentally different views about how they should be going about their work and managed at a law firm, this is going to create dysfunction and inefficiency, and the marketing strategy won’t achieve its potential. And if this difference in opinion or attitude isn’t addressed it will create a stagnant workplace where everyone becomes entrenched in their view, staff become disillusioned and a law firm can’t progress.

A rallying call to action based on shortfalls in progress at law firms is welcome – all Managing Partners acknowledge they need help from non-lawyer experts in areas such as IT, marketing and business management.  But any such effort needs to be in collaboration with the Partners/Directors and built on a understanding of their strengths rather than their weaknesses.

And perhaps we need more analysis and less grumbling – so lets have some case studies of achieving law firms, and what they did to initiate marketing efforts that worked, and maybe some statistics? We lawyers love to be wowed by all that objective stuff.

Legal 500 and marketing experts, thank you for raising this issue, but could we try this again please, perhaps removing the emotive language this time?

David Burgess’s quotation was sourced at 9.27am on 14 April 2016 from David’s Linked In post dated March 24 2016



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One thought on “Legal 500’s Publishing Director: “Law Firm Partners: Stop being arrogant”

  • April 15, 2016 at 10:45 am

    There are good and bad in all areas, of course. I have met managing partners who are superb and ones (and the question that they raise in my mind is how on earth the other partners acquiesced in their becoming the MP) who have seemingly no grasp of marketing and/or business economics at all. Interestingly, far more of the former are open to innovation and less certain of their own capabilities than the latter. They are also more likely to empower the people they hire than are the latter (and – though this is more gut feeling – far less likely to have attended any seminars etc on ‘leadership’).

    Indeed, the comment in the article that ‘Partners at law firms also often spend up to half their time on non-legal activities’ raises a big ‘WHY?’ in my mind, since the firm’s best route to profits is to let people good at non-law do non-law and lawyers do law. There’s no doubt that some time should be spent building relationships proactively (it is how I built my practice), but this is essentially a professional building their personal sphere of influence: it is not about marketing in the large, with segmentation analysis, targeting sectors, data analysis etc etc.

    I have met some really great marketers in law firms, but far too few. Many firms don’t regard it as a core function and employ people who are not of high quality.

    The constant moan I hear from marketers and others in support functions in law firms is that the firm gives them responsibility but not authority and that the partners seek unanimity and near perfection, which slows down the whole process and makes the marketers feel (rightly) undervalued: this is clearly not a recipe for success. Firms that persist with an hierarchical and status-dominated approach will not build the strong team spirit that gets stuff done fast and well.

    A last comment. As an ex-partner turned marketer, I am a bit surprised that firms still largely haven’t come to appreciate the subtext in their websites etc. How many firms list partners at the top, then the next tier , then the associates, then the trainees, then the legal executives and (or not) the support people? This (and other faux pas) tells the user a lot about how you value your people (or not)…as well as making it hard for people to find out who to contact if you don’t list your support people, which in turn wastes your receptionists’ (who are very rarely regarded as worth a mention) time.

    Ultimately, this is about governance and willingness to accept new ideas etc. The biggest danger facing many firms is that the rate of change is becoming fast and the market is becoming genuinely competitive. An unwillingness to innovate/change gives a poor prognosis for the firm’s health.


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