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Episode 64: Teaching Lawyers to Think Like Business Owners

Guest: Kimberly Rice, President and Chief Strategist of KLA Marketing Associates

Episode 64: Teaching Lawyers to Think Like Business Owners

Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast. Today, my guest is Kimberly Rice, founder and head of KLA Marketing Associates. After serving in marketing management at several large law firms, Kimberly founded her own firm, which works with law firms and other professional service clients to maximize the return on their marketing investment. She practices what she preaches in terms of being a rainmaker. She is an author, speaker and blogger and has her own podcast. She’ll tell us about her experience working with law firms and what she sees as the highest priority elements to focus on today. Kimberly, welcome to the program.

Kimberly: Thank you, Sharon. I’m so delighted to be here talking about some of my favorite topics with such a lovely friend as you.

Sharon: It’s great to have you. Can you tell us about your career in legal marketing and how you came to found KLA Marketing Associates?

Kimberly: Sure, I’d be happy to. Honestly, I fell into legal marketing in 1991, when I relocated from North Carolina to southern New Jersey. I was looking for some type of career that would maximize my gifts and talents in communication studies and marketing, while working in a fast-paced environment. I was five years out of college, and I started my legal marketing career at Saul Ewing in Philadelphia. At the time I joined the firm, there were about 140 lawyers, and then eight years later when I left, it was 250 lawyers. Although I didn’t have the title, I basically led the program for numerous years, outlived two marketing directors, and that started what has now become almost a 28-year legal marketing career.

I spent 18 years in-house, as you mentioned, at three different regional firms, and at my last stop was chief marketing officer for a 110-attorney firm in Philadelphia. I grew weary of reporting to a management team that did not understand the value, the role and the imperative of investing in business development as an institution, at the practice area and even almost down to an individual lawyer. After 18 years or so in-house, I made a conscious decision to step away from that law firm life inside and start my own firm, KLA Marketing Associates, so that I could help more people—of  course, my people are lawyers in law firms; they’re professional services firms—to help them understand sales and marketing and business development as a business model.

Sharon: I understand how it can be draining when you’re trying to show people the light. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do and what KLA Marketing Associates does? What are the gaps in law firm marketing that you saw that prompted you to go out and say, “Well, I want to fill these?”

Kimberly: Certainly. KLA Marketing, when I started—it’s interesting, when I founded the firm in 2008, I envisioned that we would be an outsourced, full-service marketing department for firms that did not have any in-house marketing staff or professionals, and/or to be a supplement of outside experts to complement the already in-house legal marketing professionals. We’ve done that, and we continue to serve in that role for law firms across the country, where we engage in assessments and audits to see what’s happening within the firm. Where we see needs, almost like a marketing doctor, we diagnose and recommend, and then we lead and manage the business development and marketing programs, but it has evolved over the years. While we have a good-size team across the country, we are a virtual national business. We do develop websites and lead social media and digital marketing programs; that part relatively runs itself. But where we have accumulated tremendous experience in our talent and our team, we’ve become more focused on teaching lawyers and professional services providers to become and think like business generators and business owners. Which is to your point, Sharon, one of the huge gaps from when I entered in 1991 to today, is that lawyers and other professional services like financial planners, accountants or engineers, they don’t see themselves as business owners, despite the fact that when they’re in private practice, they are indeed business owners, because if someone stopped giving them the business, they would have no job as such. Have you ever run into this?

Sharon: Well, it’s their own business, right?

Kimberly: Right, but they don’t think of it that way when they’re inside of a firm and they’re receiving a regular paycheck. I’ve surveyed for as long as I’ve been in this area. One of the questions that I ask every lawyer that I come in contact with, whether at a bar association event or a potential prospect client meeting or even in a new client intake, is, “Can you think back to when you graduated law school, took the bar, passed and started your first private practice position, what did you physically feel capable of doing?” As an advisor, I don’t ever ask a question that I don’t usually know the answer to. Without equivocation, the answer that I’ve received over all these decades is one of two things: either not much or nothing at all. I just hold up the mirror for people because, number one, I think it’s malpractice for schools of higher education, like law schools or other higher degrees, that they’re not teaching the practical, what is necessary to do your job and to develop your business. I’ve been around and around and around with various law school faculties on that, and I’m pleased to see that there’s some movement and advancement, but not nearly what it needs to be.

The fact is that the lawyer in this instance has to recognize that they’re starting from ground zero, that if they don’t start developing the marketing mindset and thinking like a business owner, they do so at their own peril the next time the next recession comes around. I lived through several when I was in-house, and I saw and was part of management meetings where they would pass out the huge Excel worksheets, and you could see these big red marks along the particular lines of lawyers that were being terminated. They were very vulnerable because they didn’t bring any business in and they were actually costing the firm money, not even covering their own overhead with their billables. As I did back in the day, I still see this as a huge gap that law firms are not addressing, despite the fact that we went through one of the greatest recessions in 2008-2010 that now puts the client in the buyer’s seat. Every attorney should be some type of business generator, but they think, “I went to law school to practice law, not to be in sales.” That is a huge conflict, and it’s a huge gap in what the market demands versus what the law firms are indulging the lawyers to experience. They argue that they have institutional clients and it’s only with various changes, whether it’s succession planning or economic cycles, that could take those institutional clients away, and then you’re left with lawyers—and I’ve coached many of them—that had no business of their own and were very vulnerable.

Sharon:  Right, so is that part of what led you to found the Women in Law Rainmaker Forum? Did you see more of this among women?

Kimberly: Yes, it’s interesting, Sharon, with KLA Marketing Associates, I’m using all of my in-house legal marketing experience and coaching and training capacities with lawyers, both male and female. I started noticing a huge need with women lawyers, that they certainly encounter many more challenges than their male counterparts just because they’re female, which we all know is extraordinarily unfortunate and not fair. We can name all the words of the gender pay gap and the gender inequities, but it still exists. It’s at full-fledge existing, even sexual assault and discrimination.

So I saw the need to gather women lawyers into what we call roundtable masterminds to, number one, show them that they’re not alone. Being an attorney in a law firm can be a very isolating experience, depending on the culture of the law firm. Sometimes, that law firm culture is such that you view your next-door neighbor as a competitor, which is very unhealthy, very unfortunate, but it nevertheless still exists. I founded the Women in Law Rainmaker Forum, where groups of women lawyers can gather in a safe space and identify what the challenges are that impede them or obstruct them from developing the career of their dreams, by charting their own course. Women have a much narrower box to live in than their male counterparts do in law firms, and as a consequence of that, it has been extraordinarily rewarding and gratifying for the forum graduates, per se.

The forums are comprised of five to seven women—and I’ve expanded this beyond legal services—but five to seven women business owners or professionals. We meet for two hours, four times over three months, usually in person or virtually, depending on how the groups are organized. We identify certain issues that the group wants to address, whether it’s business development or leadership, whatever their goals are, and we usually have a list to choose from. I’m the coach and the facilitator, and then we have a lot of peer mentoring, interactivity, and homework, and it really helps the women bond with other women lawyers who may or may not be in their firms. It helps them make connections. We’ve seen business be developed among the women. It’s just an extraordinary resource that can be very transformative in the development and the path of a woman in her professional journey.

Sharon: I can see how it would be very important, bonding and just knowing that others are going through the same thing and trying to navigate the same challenges and hurdles.

What do you mean by women have a narrower box? Yes, we have to have children by a certain time, but what do you mean by a narrower box?

Kimberly: A narrower box, I would say that particularly—and you just mentioned it—women, anatomically, are the ones who bring life into their families, and so some women push that off until their later years. I have a colleague who just had her first child at the age of 50. God bless her; she owns her own firm; she’s established an amazing national reputation, and now she’s going to the next phase. But those women who fall into the 29 to 35 age range of childbearing, it’s very real when they go out to have their child and their family leave. Some people are expected to stay in contact. Men don’t experience that. Yes, there’s paternity leave, but so many men don’t take advantage of it, because of the perception that they’re somehow weak or they’re henpecked or whatever that is. I’ve heard that from many, many male lawyers, and women do not enjoy the same privileges that some of their male colleagues do. For example, from a historical perspective, you have mostly white males who have started firms. They have other white males that come in and mentor under them, and they’re the ones that are out on the golf courses; they’re the ones that the older males gravitate to, the younger males, and vice versa. Perceptually, it’s easier for white males, and males in general, to develop business than women, because women are not given those extra privileges through the old boys’ club or the men’s network. Having a women’s initiative program in law firms is relatively new. It’s been around for maybe 10 or 15 years, but from a historical perspective, males have dominated the legal profession through all of these centuries of having legal services. Not only do women have biological timeframes, but also, if they are out on leave, I’ve seen them be penalized as far as being taken off partner track. They may say they’re going to work some flex time, but then it ends up that the workload gets thrown upon them, and they don’t get compensated for it. There are some real challenges and I say that women operate in a much narrower box because, primarily, it’s still a male-dominated profession, despite the fact that there are more females who are graduating law school than males in the last three to five years at least.

Sharon: Yes, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens there. Also, when you say firms do have women’s initiatives, I think the successful and long-term ones are few and far between. I think that’s the key.

Kimberly: Yes.

Sharon: There are some that are just lip service. Some are more than lip service, but they fade after a year or two. It sounds like the Women in Law Rainmaker Forum definitely has its place, unfortunately or fortunately.

You’re also the author of “Rainmaker Road Map: A Step by Step Guide to Building a Prosperous Business.” What prompted you to write the book, and what are the key points you’d like readers to take away from the book?

Kimberly: Great question and I’d love to share this, Sharon. In all my years of working with law firms and lawyers, we have developed and refined a few principles that we know to be absolutely true to building a prosperous business. I use those words very purposefully because I’ve seen many lawyers, as I’m sure you have, have a practice in a law firm or have their own practice and it’s not profitable. Somehow or another they’re not keeping the books properly or they’re not measuring the right things, and law firms are notorious about not measuring the right things.

Number one, I wanted to get everything—not everything, but many of the principles and proven methodologies that we have worked to refine over the decades—I wanted to get it all in one place because my team and I, this is our guidebook of how we work with our clients to help them develop, grow and sustain existing clients, new clients and leadership. It’s across the spectrum and many different principles, so the takeaway is that there is no one path to prosperity. One of the things that used to make me shake my head when I was inside a law firm and there were dozens of practices, is that you would have a commercial real estate lawyer go speak to someone in the labor and employment department at one of their lunches, and they tell all these war stories about how they “built their book” or how they got clients, but what was never spoken about is that, as marketers know, you must target your message to your appropriate audience, and what works in one area of practice will likely not work in another area of practice because of the demands and the triggers from the legal services needs. That’s not anything that lawyers ever hear about in law school or in-house, unless they have a dedicated training program, and not even guaranteed at that.

So we developed over time—and this is included in the book—is that we know that in a professional services business, there are three pillars to building a prosperous business: relationship building, number one, reputation enhancing, number two—because you could be the best at what you do, but if the right people don’t know about you and you’ve not developed this reputation or personal brand, then likely you’re not going to be called on for your service—and thirdly, contact management. I did a lot of analysis some years ago and was thinking about all the business development and marketing tactics that I saw being done in-house and that I took from my own marketing career, and I created pie charts for each of those three pillars. I found that every business development and marketing tactic that I could think of, and that my team could think of and identify, fell within one of those three pillars. That’s the basis of what firms, practice areas and lawyers should base an integrated marketing and business development plan on.

I go into a lot of detail into those three pillars, how each of those three different segments or demographics, whether it’s institutional at a firm level, at a practice area level or an individual attorney or professional services provider, how they should think about their business and consider developing their business development plan with these tactics, depending on what they’re wanting to accomplish. When you ask an attorney, “What is your goal?,” oftentimes they’ll say, “Just to make more money.” Well, that’s not a plan. They resist planning and then they do these random acts of marketing and they get frustrated, and they go through periods that they don’t do anything. One of our goals of publishing the book was to bring a somewhat transparent and maybe even a simple approach to building a business that is integrated, focused and cohesive and that can be scaled to any service business. It really begins with those three pillars of relationship building, reputation enhancing and contact management. The takeaway is there’s no one and done. It’s an ongoing process as long as you’re a business owner. There are many paths to prosperity, and it is an investment of time and resources over the course of your business life cycle.

Sharon: So very true what you’re saying, and I was thinking it’s simple; it’s just not easy. It’s very straightforward. Each of those pillars you talk about takes a lot of thought, takes a lot of time and effort, but it’s not that it’s complicated or that you need to be a rocket scientist. I suppose in terms of building reputation, that was one of the things you had in mind when you launched your own podcast, “The Secret Sauce Marketing Tastings.” How did you come up with that name and what do you want to achieve through the podcast?

Kimberly: Years and years ago, one of my promotional specialists and I, we were trying to strategize on a clever, fun specialty product that we could give to clients or when we participated as exhibitors at various legal conferences. My contact—her name’s Jodie—showed me these bottles of hot sauce, because I was always talking about the secret sauce to marketing success, which in one sentence really communicates the core essence of building a prosperous business. It reiterates what the book outlines, in that the secret sauce to marketing success is the consistent, persistent, massive amounts of action over a prolonged period of time. I say that like a broken record all the time because what I found over all this time is that clients are not consistent in their ongoing business development efforts, whether it’s the lack of planning or the lack of follow-up or the lack of contact management. They do not engage in it consistently, and then, likewise, they’re not persistent. If they met someone at a conference and there were some synergies and they should get together for coffee, and they reach out and they don’t get a response back, they’re very easily disappointed, and they don’t continue to follow through when there could be money left on the table. The massive amounts of action speak directly to those three pillars of the relationship building, reputation enhancing and contact management, in that relationship building is targeted networking and organizational involvement. Reputation enhancing is, of course, speaking engagements or any kind of publishing or digital marketing, and contact management is e-mail marketing, communications programs, etc.

To grow a prosperous business, it’s imperative and necessary to have a sprinkling of some—not all, depending on your practice—but some of these marketing tactics going on at the same time on an ongoing basis. One of the first things when I explain this, when I’m doing CLEs or I go inside firms and we’re doing business development training, is I get pushback. It’s like, “I have no time to do this,” so we start talking about priorities, how to systemize and automate some of these tactics, how you can leverage the skill sets of your legal assistant.

So the Secret Sauce Marketing Tastings podcast, the objective and mission are to bring together functional experts, disciplined experts from across the country who underscore and support the fact that there are multiple tactics or multiple areas of focus that must be present to build a prosperous business. We talk to business strategists, women business leaders, PR strategists. You and I are going to speak on my podcast very soon. I love to bring great minds together for the benefit of our listening audience, for educational and informative processes to help them think in a different way than what they were trained on. Their academic journey doesn’t include thinking like a business owner or developing the marketing mindset, but these skill sets and mindsets are absolutely non-negotiable if you’re going to go on to be a prosperous business owner.

Sharon:  In today’s world, absolutely. That makes a lot of sense. I’m sure it’s a little overwhelming to lawyers or other professionals because it does take a little bit of everything consistently. The keywords, as you say, are consistency and being persistent and tenacity. Those are really what drive success as opposed to pure talent, because, without those, talent can go by the wayside.

Kimberly: One of the things that I say is competency is the cost of admission.

Sharon:  Yes, definitely true. What do you see as the key trends in legal marketing and business development? What should law firms or legal marketers be looking for around the bend?

Kimberly: I think that we’re in a very interesting time. I don’t know if you’ve been seeing or following the mental health matters article series that Law.com has been publishing on a periodic basis. One of the latest articles that I read was that law firm leadership is recognizing the high-stress, high-anxiety profession that legal services is. Of course, it doesn’t have to be, but there hasn’t been much, if any, attention paid down below the lawyer ranks. When I was in-house for all those years, you were either a lawyer or a non-lawyer, and it was very real about the treatment that non-lawyers received. I have war stories and have lived to tell them about being marginalized, condescended to, dismissed, etc., but it seems from what I’m seeing and reading and talking to colleagues in firms about, is that there is some recognition on the part of law firm leadership or lawyer governance team of the value and the distinct experience of legal professionals, what they’re putting forward to help drive strategy. That’s very exciting to me, as someone who sat at the management table and was dismayed at the lack of understanding of how to run and grow a business. That’s number one, I think.

When I was in-house for all those years, my team was kept very, very small regardless of the need or the number of attorney clients that we serviced. There seems to be some growth in those areas, that law firm leadership is maybe being forced to recognize that being a publicist, a trainer, a webmaster, an event planner and a copywriter, these are all distinct skill sets. Like I said, when I was in-house, I was all of those things. I don’t think I did them all perfectly. I certainly learned a lot and I had a lot of wonderful outside resources, but it’s quite unfair to expect one or two individuals to have any meaningful impact when they’re being pushed into areas that they don’t really have dramatic experience in.

I see that firms seem to be scaling up the number of legal marketing professionals in-house and that they’re having a greater impact and voice, which is tremendously uplifting seeing where we’ve come from, and hopefully, that’s where we’re going. It’s such a tremendously competitive landscape, legal services is, and law firms that refuse to recognize the talent and the wonderful knowledge bank that they have in their non-legal professionals are really missing the boat. So I’m very heartened to see this.

Sharon: That’s a fabulous trend. It can really make a difference and because it’s so early on, the firms that really embrace it, that recognize exactly what you’re saying, will have the competitive advantage for a long time. At the rate law firms change and embrace new philosophies, they’ll really have a competitive advantage, and in such a competitive landscape, it’s hard to find those little things that put you ahead.

Kimberly, thank you so much for being here. To everybody listening, that wraps up another episode of Law Firm Marketing Catalyst. If you’d like to contact Kimberly, we will have her information in the show notes. If you like what you heard and would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest who can help you move your firm forward. Thank you so much for listening.

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