"This is the single hardest position to hire, period," says John Lamar, managing director of the Alexander Group, a retained executive search firm. "The terms 'marketing' and 'business development' can mean so many different things to different people that firms might see a CMO as either the coming of a great messiah or a waste of money. Of course, most firms fall in the middle."

At any given time, a number of law firms are conducting searches for candidates to lead their marketing, business development and communications efforts. There isn't a predictable cycle, but on average 5–10 percent of the Am Law 100 are looking for a CMO, Lamar says. While firms often take six to nine months or more searching for the right person, the legal industry has a spotty track record with CMO retention.

Industry experts agree that success hinges on firms getting all their stakeholders — partners and professional staff — together on the front end to make sure they are on the same page about the key objectives for the role. "I would be concerned about firms that have a knee-jerk reaction to searching. You hear about churn in these roles — in some cases one to two years if you're lucky," Lamar says.

But I see some positive signs both for firms and candidates. More and more, firms appear to appreciate the need to establish concrete key performance indicators for the role and communicate those to the partnership. This helps candidates better understand what is expected of them and how they will be measured. It can also help protect a CMO from being pulled in too many directions by individual partners as they assume the role.

Clients, Clients, Clients

While each firm might articulate a CMO's objectives differently, a pervasive trend is that firms want someone who drives revenue and profitability. This is reflected in the increasing use of "BD" or "client" in job titles, such as chief business development officer and chief client officer. It is also evident in CMO job descriptions that define the role's primary objectives as acquiring new clients, growing fees from existing clients and increasing profitability.

In fact, most CMOs I speak with want to focus more intently on clients and profitable growth, but they also need to juggle many other responsibilities across the marketing, BD and communications mix — not to mention the effort they need to put into developing and managing their talent. CMOs are therefore well positioned to see how all the different components of marketing, BD and communications should come together to achieve revenue and profitability results.

"Identifying clients of strategic importance and helping to grow their size, strength and profitability across the platform is the most meaningful opportunity most CMOs have to directly influence sales and the firm's financial performance," Zimmermann says.

What About Marketing and Communications?

As client development and profitable growth move to the top of the list, I fear that some firms are starting to see areas such as marcom and PR as "hygiene" activities that are not directly attributable to revenue generation and therefore not top priorities for their CMOs.

These firms may not fully appreciate that a broad range of marketing and communications plays an important role in enabling deep client relationships. For example, thought leadership, traditional and social media coverage, rankings and client events — just to name a few — all contribute to shifting the perceptions of a firm and potentially increasing consideration of its lawyers, among both current and prospective clients. The key, in my view, is for firm leadership to align this broad range of activities toward a common set of business development objectives.

By contrast, companies tend not to look at "BD" in the same way that law firms do. "Corporations usually have marketing, sales and communications as distinct functions," says Laura Saklad, chief administrative officer of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP. One of the reasons that CMO positions are hard to fill and turn frequently is because of the range of demands on their time and vast skillsets they need.

"It's hard for one person to perform at the highest level across all these areas," Saklad says.

As a result, Orrick broke the traditional CMO responsibility into three distinct roles: chief client officer, head of global strategic marketing and chief communications officer. All three report to Saklad and work closely with the firm's chair. "We're finding that these three roles, collaborating closely with partners in senior leadership and with one another, are able to really drive meaningful progress," Saklad says.

So You Wanna be a CMO?

I think it's a good time to pursue a law firm CMO role. With all of the change and upheaval in the industry, firms need to focus on strategy and respond to changing market conditions. This isn't just about competitive positioning and desired growth, it's about survival. More than ever before, CMOs are at the table or even leading their firms in strategic planning. The pressure can be intense and the rewards substantial. But like building anything of quality, it takes time and requires patience.

"It doesn't happen in a few months," Lamar says. "It's like turning an aircraft carrier. It could easily take 12 to 18 months to show traction."

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