Blog/Podcast: 5 Keys to Law Firm Innovation from a Lawyer Turned CMO

Law firm leaders, whether they’re managing partners or marketers, have to be in a constant state of improvement. They should always be on the lookout for industry trends, firm innovations and better ways to communicate.

Iris Jones, Chief Business Development and Marketing Officer at McNees Wallace & Nurick, has experience on both sides of the fence; she was a practicing lawyer before she segued into business development. Iris shared her wealth of experience on the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast. Here are some of the areas we covered:


  • Why listening is necessary for better relationships.

Attorneys today compete with so many equally capable competitors that it’s not enough just to be a good practitioner. They need to be good relationship builders, too – and that means relationships with prospective and active clients. Just because a client has retained you, that doesn’t automatically mean you’ll have a strong relationship. Trust and rapport need to be fostered over time.

One way to build better relationships? Hone your listening skills. Use the 20/80 rule (ask questions 20% of the time and listen 80% of the time) to ensure you’re really hearing people and not just what you’re saying. Listening to your client explain their opinions, needs and expectations in their own words will tell you more about their business than a Google search ever could.

These conversations need to be genuine and sincere. You won’t learn much from a client (or strengthen your relationship with them) through an interrogation. Instead, you need to create opportunities to spend time with them and have authentic conversations. Law firms sometimes spend millions of dollars courting their clients with events and fancy dinners, but over-the-top tactics don’t work for everyone. If someone would rather go to a Yankee game, you may not want to invite them to the Met.

  • Why many CMOs haven’t found their place in law firms yet.

Although marketing leadership has become established over the years, CMOs and other marketing professionals at large firms seem to be making more moves lately. Jones thinks this case of “musical marketers” is due to a disconnect between expectations and what CMOs deliver. For marketers to succeed, there must be clear communication from executives to eliminate any dissonance between what firms say they want and what they get.

Marketers can’t just be order takers, either. They need space to be innovative and creative. They need to be able to recognize the firm’s immediate needs and be bold enough to make sound recommendations – including recommendations that leadership may not want to hear. When marketers aren’t capable of doing this, whether it’s because they lack the necessary skills, or they haven’t been given clear expectations, it can lead to a breakdown in the relationship.

It’s no wonder that CMOs can easily feel undervalued. They may be invited into the room, but they aren’t always heard, and marketers must be included in the conversation if they want to deliver results according to the wishes of the firm. Communication and support, both financial and managerial, are key for marketers to succeed at law firms.

  • How marketing professionals can fix strained relationships with management.

If your relationship with leadership has gone off the rails, there’s always an opportunity to salvage it. The first step is getting candid feedback. Start with an approachable mentor or champion and ask them for advice about who else you should talk to at the top, perhaps the chair, managing partner or executive committee members. Speak to those folks and find out what you haven’t delivered on or been able to do and try to accept their criticisms with an open mind. Then, you can work on refining expectations and finding a solution.

Through this process, you may find out that the problems were just caused by miscommunication. Speaking with leadership gives you an opportunity to get everyone on the same page and work out a plan. If the issues are deeper than that, a solution is still possible – if everyone is willing to participate in it. But if you’re totally checked out and your heart’s not in these changes, it may be time to move on. Until you reach that point, though, any relationship can be saved with honesty and dedication.

  • Why teamwork is critical for first-rate client service.

Teamwork within departments is critical for the successful functioning and operation of the firm. However, even though law firms have been using client teams for 20+ years, there are still people who think using teamwork to serve clients doesn’t work. For many reasons, the industry has allowed attorneys to own relationships instead of firms, often to their detriment.

This mentality won’t fly anymore. First, because it’s not realistic to think that one person can address all of a client’s needs. They can’t, and limiting clients to one attorney means that other valuable business goes by the wayside. More importantly, clients are starting to demand teams, and ultimately the client rules. Generally, if three or more practice areas at a firm are serving a client, the firm is less likely to be terminated. When a client works with multiple attorneys, the relationship is deeper. This can’t happen if firms don’t have strong internal teams and aren’t willing to change their ways.

  • Why targeting law school students is a critical key to law firm innovation.

Teamwork is clearly the next logical step for law firms, but the traditional compensation system impedes lawyers’ ability to embrace it. Tradition is hard to overcome for people who have been in the industry for decades. Law firms truly looking to make a change can start with law school students, who have an entirely different approach to life and the practice of law.

At McNees Wallace & Nurick, Jones implemented Strategic Collaboration for Summer Associates, an award-winning program designed to foster teamwork among future lawyers. Through the program, summer associates work together to develop a presentation on how to best engage a prospective client. After a few weeks of research and collaboration, teams present their findings to the firm.

By working together in this program, summer associates are being exposed to a new way of doing business that’s not always seen in law school or at some firms. They see first-hand the value of teamwork and hopefully that lesson stays with them throughout their careers. The lawyers who observe the summer associates learn a valuable lesson, too: that collaboration works and should be an important aspect of competitive intelligence.

Click here to listen to Iris’ Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast episode: Building Better Client Relationships with Iris Jones, Chief Business Development & Marketing Officer at McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC. Make sure to download/subscribe.

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