Roundtable: What’s a JD Got To Do With Law Firm Marketing

What’s a JD got to do with marketing? Nicholas Gaffney (NG), member of the Law Practice Today Board, asked four law firm marketing professionals to discuss how having a JD affects their approach to marketing, and how law firm marketing has evolved.

Our panelists are: Pearl J. Piatt, Director of Communications, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP; David McCann, Senior Manager of Marketing and Communications, Snell & Wilmer; Ritchenya Dodd, Marketing and Business Development Manager, Blank Rome LLP; and, Brian Colucci, Chief Business Development & Marketing Officer, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP.

NG: What do you like about your job?

Pearl Piatt (PP)—Gibson Dunn: I work with very smart people, and every day brings a new challenge.

David McCann (DM)—Snell & Wilmer: I have a passion for strategic communications and the role they play in helping attorneys and the firm drive tangible business results. At the core of this enthusiasm is my experience in brand design and development. Getting above all the industry noise and platitudes to identify and capture what differentiates our firm from the competition in a clever and meaningful way is always a challenge—but it is one that motivates and inspires me.

I also enjoy the ever-changing demands and challenges of my role. No two days or assignments are ever the same. Each day provides opportunities to employ different skill sets, develop new ones and uncover solutions to increasingly complex issues.

Ritchenya Dodd (RD)—Blank Rome:  I like that my job is never the same for long. Legal marketing and business development have evolved rapidly over the last decade, and to be effective, you need to be constantly updating your skill set and re-thinking strategies to achieve your business goals. I enjoy collaborating with attorneys to help make their marketing efforts more effective—it’s a really nice feeling when you help someone succeed. In addition, I enjoy working with legal and public policy issues.

Brian Colucci (BC)—Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton:  I have the privilege of working with a lot of smart and genuinely interesting lawyers. Many of our technically trained IP lawyers, for example, have had entire careers in the sciences, computer industry or academia prior to entering the law. I think we also have a strong culture here of collegiality and respect – our partners genuinely enjoy working with one another and practicing in this environment.

NG:  Did having a JD help you get your job?

PP: Initially, yes. Having the credential on my resume is a plus.

DM:  I definitely believe my educational background helped differentiate me from other candidates. I know from experience that the marketing function is quite different depending on the industry in question. Having special insight into an industry’s target audiences, key issues and unique opportunities is a true competitive advantage and one that I utilize every day in helping my internal clients achieve their objectives.

RD:  I would assume so. My boss is a lawyer, and one of the things lawyers have often told me is they feel frustrated when marketing professionals don’t understand their practices.

BC:  I don’t think my JD helped me to get my current job, but I’m sure some would consider it a differentiating factor. I think in some cases, it would be difficult for someone who’s practiced a long time to make the transition into this kind of work. In my case, I never practiced, but I do have a solid understanding of the law and how lawyers think, which is very helpful. It also helps to have a basic understanding of things like procedure and other basic legal terminology. Our clients are other lawyers (primarily in-house), so it’s very helpful to know what they consider to be persuasive and it’s easier to put myself in their shoes.

NG:  Do you believe you relate to your firm’s attorneys differently than non-JD marketing professionals do?

PP:  No.  I think that credibility is based on experience and knowledge, and how you communicate with your constituencies.

DM:  Shared experiences and philosophical similarities help establish rapport among colleagues and peers. Experiences such as law school and related education help me understand how lawyers are trained to think, approach issues and resolve conflict. This insight is invaluable in working with our lawyers and practice groups on a variety of marketing and business development activities.

RD: Yes, absolutely. Understanding an attorney’s practice means I can speak in their language—they don’t have to translate concepts and terms. This allows me to quickly gain an understanding of their needs and goals. I can draft proposals and a wide range of marketing materials, and can play a substantive role in planning events. Knowing how lawyers think also can ease communications. For example, lawyers are trained to be issue-spotters, so when you submit a draft to them, they often come back with questions. Some marketing professionals get frustrated at being questioned in matters in which they feel they are the expert, but questioning things is what lawyers do. You have to be ready to provide reasoned answers for your recommendations. In addition, it’s important to understand the pressures involved with billing time. When I need an answer from an attorney, I try to send an email that is a short and to the point—with the action item(s) stated upfront.

BC:  Briefly, no. In fact, I’d say that most of our lawyers don’t even know that I have a law degree. I think many assume that I don’t and of course it’s not something that’s easy to advertise. That said, I think it’s no harder for a non-lawyer professional to relate to our attorneys – the key is being able to understand what they want and provide great client service. Many actually appreciate different perspectives provided by those who have done more ‘mainstream’ marketing or have MBAs.

NG:  Is there a downside to having a JD in your position?

DM:  While there are some overlapping skills, the practice of law and the marketing of legal services are very different disciplines. If there is any downside to having a JD in my role, it is the occasional blurring of the lines. I am not a lawyer. I am a marketing professional. My job is not to try cases or negotiate transactions. It is to provide sound marketing and business development advice and counsel. By remembering this reality, I provide the most value to my clients.

RD:  There are a couple of downsides to being a marketer with a JD. You’re a little bit of a fish out of water—you’re not a “real” attorney, and you may not have the cache of someone who comes from the business sector. You have to earn your credibility.

BC:  I don’t think so. I would say that in the hiring process, while I’m interested in JDs, I also give serious thought to whether or not they would be adequately and/or appropriately challenged in a marketing and BD role. For example, my job often requires ‘rolling up your sleeves’ and getting involved in projects at a level that many lawyers wouldn’t be comfortable with.

NG:  What are the positive or negative aspects of an enhanced understanding of the legal system and its terminology?

PP:  For me, there are no negative aspects, only positives. Your legal education provides a certain comfort level that gives you a head start over others who have a steeper learning curve.

DM:  While it is an overused expression, I believe there is real value in the idea that knowledge is power. Any information that helps you serve clients more efficiently and effectively is a positive. While an enhanced knowledge of the legal system might not be critical in achieving stated objectives, it can often be the difference between a good campaign and one recognized as excellent. In addition, I am fascinated by the law and its application to a wide range of complex social and political issues. Attorneys appreciate this enthusiasm and it is reflected in the relationships I build with them and the quality of the work we produce.

RD:  Having an understanding of the legal system and its terminology allows me to take complex legal concepts and create readable copy. The potential downside is that because you understand the jargon, you can find yourself adopting too much legal-speak in marketing copy. You have to learn to be a good editor!

BC:  I find this to be the most helpful aspect of having a legal education. I’m genuinely interested in the law and I’m a true believer in the role that lawyers in practices such as ours play in building businesses and enforcing the rules that make our system the best in the world. Most lawyers share this passion as well and they appreciate it when you’re as excited and interested about what they’re doing as they are.

NG:  Share an instance (or instances) when your legal training was helpful to the completion of a project or task.

PP:  When I work with lawyers on case descriptions, having the basic legal knowledge allows me to ask the right questions.

DM:  I recently led a long and complex branding refresh initiative. The effort involved multiple offices and very detailed criteria. Success would ultimately be based on the ability to drive consensus across all the key decision makers. To this end, it was imperative that I “get inside their heads.” In other words, I had to leverage my legal training to think like a lawyer and make a compelling argument. I framed the pitch for our idea in a manner that I felt would resonate most effectively with those stakeholders. I anticipated their questions, possible concerns and reservations. I proactively addressed those issues as part of the presentation. While such an approach did not guarantee success, it ensured we were in the best possible position to achieve the intended result.

RD: One of the areas in which a JD is most helpful is when I am putting together pitch materials. Sophisticated commercial clients are looking for law firms to be extremely responsive to their needs. You have to be able to understand the differences in types of deals within a specific sub-practice area, for example. The attorneys who are presenting the materials need to have confidence that their marketing staff has the understanding to compile the right experience.

BC:  I think it’s been most helpful for developing strategy as it relates to litigation. For example, we are often asked to present our qualifications and recommendations for particular pieces of litigation. It’s easy for me to take an initial strategy and play devil’s advocate – asking questions that I think a client might ask or anticipating possible scenarios. It also helps me to clarify language and to know when I need to be careful editing – for example to be sure that in editing for clarity I’m not changing an important legal term or concept.

NG:  What advice would you give to JDs considering a move to law firm marketing?

PP:  If you have any desire at all to practice law, be persistent in your job search for an attorney position.  If you are unsure about whether you want to practice law, give it a try before considering other options.  Once you switch tracks to non-lawyer positions, I think it would be very difficult to go back to practicing law.  If you are ready to consider alternative careers, but still want to use your legal education, law firm marketing is a great option.

DM:  There is a direct correlation between passion and success. I pursued a career in marketing because it provided me with the opportunity to explore my strengths and interests. I did not settle for it or select it as the best alternative to some other career pursuit. Anyone with a JD considering a move to law firm marketing needs to understand, via informational interviews or discussions with others in the industry, exactly what is required in the field and how his/her background can bring value to a firm and its attorneys. Yes, the practice of law and legal marketing are different in many ways. However, they are both demanding and intense. Success in either requires talent, applicable skills, drive and determination. As in any career endeavor—do not wait for someone to hand you an opportunity. Define it and own it.

RD:  I would advise JDs to think about why they want to make this move. Once you go down this road, you can’t go back to practicing very easily. Is it because you have an interest in legal marketing, or is this just an alternative because it’s tough to find a legal position? As much work as law school is, having a JD alone doesn’t naturally translate into success in legal marketing. Depending on your area of interest within marketing/business development, you may need to acquire some additional skills. I also would advise someone considering a career in legal marketing to think about what distinguishes them as a potential marketing/BD professional. Did they practice law in a particular area? This may give them an edge in business development positions focused on this practice. Do they have a communications background/skills?

BC:  I look at resumes from a lot of lawyers whenever we post manager or higher-level positions. Many will indicate that the candidate is looking to ‘step back’ or to use their legal education in a less demanding way. This job, done properly, is extremely demanding and challenging and can be every bit as time consuming as an associate or partner role. We pull in all-nighters, we have brutal travel schedules, we’re on conference calls at odd hours and we’re expected to generally be on call all the time. So this job is not for the faint of heart or for someone who’s looking to ‘dial-back’. We have to keep up with our clients and move at their pace. You also don’t want to position yourself as someone who’s not going to do anything other than strategize with lawyers – you need to have the ability not only to strategize but to execute. If you don’t have the ability to get your hands dirty and you don’t know how to analyze and present data and communicate persuasively, then a law degree is of little use. I will not hire someone who doesn’t have a firm grasp of the tools we use for analysis and persuasion, for example Excel, PowerPoint and various Web-based technologies.

NG:  Is there a question on the topic of lawyers in law firm marketing that you would like to answer that I have not asked? If so, please do.

DM: Are legal marketing professionals with a JD more likely to succeed in certain areas of the discipline? If so, what are they? There is no set formula for determining success in legal marketing and business development. Law school and the practice of law help refine, among other things, writing and analytical skills. However, people bring existing talents to any pursuit. The valuable professionals are those who bring the most to the table with respect to talent, ideas, creativity, initiative and desire to learn. Marketing professionals who possess a JD offer a wide range of skills that can help law firms succeed on a number of levels. Recognizing that opportunity is just the first step. Leveraging it is the key.

RD:  The question I would ask is what is the optimal mix of JDs/ other professionals within a marketing department? The answer, I believe, is that while it is important to have some folks who have JDs so they can effectively communicate with the lawyers and make sure the substantive materials are accurate, it’s equally important to make sure a law firm’s marketing department contains professionals with other backgrounds. Effective marketing requires professionals who have business experience, creative skills, strengths in technology, event planning expertise, etc. I am extremely grateful for the members of my marketing department who have these skills!

BC:  If you had the choice to go back and get an MBA or a JD, which would you choose? I would probably get an MBA – I think it gives you credibility with lawyers and they respect you as another professional and you have the added ability of really understanding how business people think. That said, for MBAs entering this line of work, it’s important to spend some time getting to know the industry and basic legal principles.

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