Trust and the marketing department

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Timothy Corcoran’s excellent and essential new blog tracks and expands upon a provocative article at the AmLaw Daily called “How essential is a CMO?” As many large firms scale back their marketing spending or lose their Chief Marketing Officers, Tim finds both lawyers and marketers can share some blame. I was especially drawn to this dead-on observation:

BigLaw partners operate under the amusing notion that a flat governance model in which every partner is an equal owner with equal authority is somehow a rational business choice, when in fact it’s an inefficient, extraordinarily dilutive and disruptive structure that persists due to inertia.  To be clear, the partners can organize their sandbox however they want, but this scenario rewards senior marketers who have learned to please partners above advancing the financial interests of the firm.  Indeed, there are countless examples of experienced marketers from other disciplines stymied by the bizarre world of BigLaw.

As one CMO put it to me without irony, “Success in a large law firm is all about credibility, which means accepting that we don’t often do things the right way, we do them our partners’ way, but after about a year of serving their needs you should have built up enough credibility to gently make suggestions, most of which they’ll discard, but to survive you can’t try to do too much too quickly.”

Politics and personality do take on outsized importance in a large enterprise, such that the merits of any given initiative often take a back seat to figuring out which important people’s interests require catering or flattering. By effectively giving every partner veto power over business decisions, law firms make that situation a lot worse. Appeasement replaces innovation, expectations are lowered repeatedly, and pretty soon nobody has the heart to try anything new. It’s no way to run a business of any substantial size, and if non-lawyer ownership of law firms ever catches on worldwide, that might well be the beginning of the end for this model.

For the foreseeable future, though, the flat partnership structure is a fact of life.  But I tend to think the organizational model per se isn’t the problem so much as the fact that many lawyers seem incapable of letting other professionals do their jobs without interference or second-guessing.

Lawyers seem to come factory-shipped with the notion that they know better than you how to do things you’ve been trained to do. People who work with or for lawyers — secretaries, paralegals, marketers, recruiters, PD experts, consultants, and so on — can all relate eye-rolling stories of lawyers who really believe that their fleeting sentiments on a given subject merit equal consideration to what the trained professional in question has advised. It seems that only IT people escape this kind of treatment, probably because many lawyers are intimidated by anything more technological than a BlackBerry.

But marketing seems to get the worst of it. I’ve heard one business consultant, who has worked with professionals in numerous fields, say that nobody treats their own marketing people with as little respect as lawyers do. Many qualified law firm marketers are reduced to menial publicity tasks after yet another initiative of real substance has been stalled or buried. I’ve seen worthwhile legal marketing and branding campaigns snuffed out because one or two lawyers in the room didn’t like a particular tag line, image, or even colour scheme in an advertisement — even when it’s made clear that the campaigns are not directed to lawyers at all, but to clients.

Why are lawyers so prone to this kind of behaviour? Some of it certainly can be traced to the particular strain of arrogance that legal training seems to inculcate. Being a lawyer can operate as a kind of expertise multiplier, making a small knowledge base suddenly seem much larger. My English degree may be gathering dust in a closet somewhere, but I can at least remember Pope’s Essay on Criticism: “A little learning is a dangerous thing /Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring / There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain.”

But I think a lot of it comes down to trust — many lawyers are just plain reluctant to trust the opinions and instincts of people from outside the profession. One of the reasons lawyers invite a colleague into partnerships is that they trust the lawyer’s skills and acumen — a partner by definition is someone you trust without even thinking about it. I wonder if one of the reasons most ethics rules prohibit “non-lawyer” (a hateful phrase) admission to partnership is that lawyers can’t quite bring themselves to grant that same level of trust to those outside the bar. Yes, you’re qualified and diligent, experienced and savvy — but you’re not a lawyer, and that still matters for some reason. Few lawyers trust the merits of something they can’t authenticate through direct experience; most lawyers have never marketed; and marketing looks easy from the outside.

This is more than just an annoying quirk — this is a major obstacle to the efficient operation of legal enterprises of all sizes. If you’re constantly overruling or second-guessing or stymieing the best efforts of your qualified professional associates — if you just can’t accept that someone without a law degree knows more about a business management issue than you do — then you’re wasting time, missing opportunities and burning money. Law firms everywhere are doing all three, at a time when the importance of these professionals to the firm’s survival has never been greater.

Successful law firms have figured out that there are some things lawyers do very well and some things that other professionals do very well, and they delegate authority accordingly. Good lawyers do more than just hire a marketing or recruitment or strategic professional — they trust them enough to follow their advice and give them enough room to operate. Good lawyers have the  wisdom to accept that they don’t know everything and the confidence to yield control to those better qualified. Of course they consult with these professionals and raise concerns when they have them. But at the end of the day, there’s no substitute for trust and no disguising its absence.  If you don’t trust your professionals to do the jobs you hired them to do, everyone in the firm figures it out pretty quickly and behaves accordingly.

So the fundamental problem might not be that lawyers can torpedo or hijack a given initiative. The problem is that they do, often reflexively, without sufficient grounds. Few lawyers have the discipine and confidence to keep from wading into unfamiliar waters until they’re over their head. Law firm leaders need to keep improving trust between a firm’s lawyers and its other professionals, until the latter can maximize the firm’s value and effectiveness without having to constantly look over their shoulder at the former.

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