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Episode 86: Gaining A Voice at the Table with Christina Buensuceso, Director of Business Development at Eversheds Sutherland LLP (U.S.)

Sharon:      Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast. Today, my guest is Christina Buensuceso, Director of Business Development for the U.S. arm of the international law firm Eversheds Sutherland. Trained as a lawyer, Christina has nearly two decades of law firm marketing experience with a significant portion of that in the energy space. Today, we will hear more about her experience and her perspectives on law firm marketing. Christina, welcome to the program.

Christina:  Thank you, Sharon. I’m so, so pleased to be here.

Sharon:      Delighted to have you. It’s so great to talk to you. It’s been a long time.

Christina:  I know.

Sharon:      Can you tell us about the career path that led you into legal marketing?

Christina:  Sure, so before I start I have to—this is a law firm podcast, so I have to do a legal disclaimer. I will just say that all the views that I share here on this episode are my views and do not reflect the views of my law firm or of any of my colleagues, so let’s go with the disclaimer out of the way. My career in legal marketing as your great intro stated, it’s been about fifteen years and I have worked with two law firms. Both global law firms, primarily in the energy sector space, but I’ve covered a lot of different practice groups and I was with my first law firm for eight years working in their New York office as well as their Los Angeles office. I’m now based in Atlanta, Georgia and have been with my current firm going on seven years.

Sharon:      So, you went to law school—I remember we talked about this a long time ago—you went to law school and then said, “O.K., that’s great. That was interesting, but now I want to do something else.”

Christina:  The transition of going from training to be a lawyer to being a marketer was for me actually pretty—it made so much sense to me. I’m sure from the outside looking in, there are others like my parents, perhaps, who are like, “Why would you spend three years and all that money to get a law degree and not to practice law?” But marketing and communications has always kind of followed me throughout my career path and there’s that old saying, “Sometimes the path chooses you. You don’t really choose it,” and I do feel like marketing and communications, branding, positioning, storytelling, that’s all been a path that I don’t know that I even actively chose; it’s always been there, and I’ve always enjoyed it. I have a knack for writing.  I love communications. I love storytelling. I love the power of all of those things and the ability to convey to an audience and to market what the strengths are of the law firm I’m working for and so when I was in law school, I knew pretty quickly that practicing as a lawyer might not be for me. I’d always had an interest in journalism. Even before I went to law school, I debated going to journalism school.

So, by my second year of law school, I sought to work in an intern capacity. I sought to work with people who had been lawyers or were still lawyers, but who were journalists now. I interned at ABC News with Cynthia McFadden. I interned at NBC News with Dan Abrams who I think now is at ABC News, but both of them had been lawyers in their past careers before they made the turn into journalism and I thought, “O.K., that sounds like a really interesting path and so maybe I should seek that out and just see what I could learn from people who had made the switch,” and when I graduated from law school, I literally fell into legal marketing. I was thinking what are some of the opportunities out there, options out there for someone like who likes writing and marketing and communications, but who has this law degree and I stumbled onto the Legal Marketing Association website and I thought, “That’s interesting that there’s a whole career and a whole industry group that has all of these things that I’m looking for, that welcomes people who have an interest in marketing and communications and also kind of this affinity for the law,” and so that’s how I fell into legal marketing. I literally just kind of took my communications path or marketing path and it just led me to LMA.

Now, I should say prior to going to law school, I had been in public relations. I had two years of PR for a small agency in New York and my accounts were FINTEC accounts, financial technology accounts; I also did some economic development, managed an economic development account. So, like I said, it had always kind of been there, this path of PR and marketing.

Sharon:      Wow! And so, did you do these internships while you were going to law school?

Christina:  Yes.

Sharon:      Oh, my god!

Christina:  Yes, so I found a way and my school gave me credit—I think one was a credited internship and one was not for credit, but I did find a way to get some credit for one of the internships and it was fascinating to see it. Again, I didn’t intern at the in-house counsel’s office of these networks. I interned on the production side. So, we were writing stories, putting stories on air. We were doing all of the things that I’m sure production assistants would do when they’re first starting out in broadcast journalism.

Sharon:      Wow! I must give you a lot of credit for thinking and following through. So many people—anyway, I do give you credit. It really is inspiring. Do you think the energy space found you? You say that like communication to the energy space found you.

Christina:  I’m sure your listeners would say like, “Great, but what we took away from this is that sometimes you just luck into it,” but yes, in a way the energy space found me. I had never ever thought about forming any kind of specialty in the energy space. When I went into my first law firm in New York, I was a sponge. I said, “Put me with whatever practice groups or sector groups or regional jurisdictional focus groups you want. I’m interested in all of it,” and thankfully I got assigned. One of the many groups that I was assigned to work for or to assist was the project finance group at this law firm, and a majority of the projects that this group worked on were energy projects, your conventional energy, oil and gas-type projects, but also very exciting in the mid 2000s, renewable energy, wind plants and solar plants and all of the renewable energy sources that we’re so kind of familiar with now, but were really just starting in 2006 when I was getting into the legal industry.

Sharon:      How did you find your first law firm job?  You just answered an ad or what?

Christina:  I went to the Legal Marketing Association website—like I said, I stumbled onto it. I don’t know if Google was around at the time. I can’t even remember, but I went into some search engine and probably put in keywords like “marketing,” “lawyer,” “legal,” “communications,” just all the keywords that I knew described me and my interests and somehow I got onto the legal marketing website and there was a job board on LMA, as there still is, and I saw a few positions in my area. I was living in New York City at the time and I thought, “Oh, well, this is perfect.” I had no idea that this existed. I just had no idea and then when I got to that first firm and they assigned me to various practice groups—I mean I covered securities, corporate, Latin America—I covered so many different areas. I personally gravitated towards the energy sector group or the project finance group that was there which predominantly worked on very big renewable energy and other energy projects. I just found it so fascinating, the work that they did, the people that were in the industry. The people that were in my practice group were lovely to work for and then the people in that industry are so interesting and continue to—it’s an industry that just continues to fascinate me.

Sharon:      You must have seen tremendous changes in energy since you started in the beginning, I mean energy in terms of things have become—I don’t know—wind just seems to be more accepted or whatever. I mean it’s not the big thing once—not that the world has all changed to wind, but it’s not like, ‘Oh my god, wind! What are you talking about?”

Christina:  Yeah, I think conversation is getting more interesting and you are hearing people on mainstream America talking about diversifying their energy resources. It’s not so novel anymore to hear about wind and solar—

Sharon:      That’s the word, novel, I’m sorry—

Christina:  Yeah, it might still be really novel to hear about hydrogen or to hear about carbon capture and utilization technology. I mean there are definitely some really interesting things happening in that space as there will always continue to be I think, but yeah, you’re right, the conversation is getting more mainstream now to talk about these things, about diversifying our energy sources and what does the energy transition look like and is clean energy the path of the future for all of us.

Sharon:      Wow! So, tell us about your role at the firm now in business development for the U.S. firm.

Christina:  At Eversheds Southerland, sure, yeah. I don’t know if I mentioned that that’s the firm that I’m working for, Eversheds Southerland. So, the business development team is part of what we call our client and practice development group within the firm and so within CPD, you’ve got a business development sub-team; you’ve got a marketing sub-team and a communications and PR sub-team. PR team is also the team that handles all of our rankings and award submissions and that’s such a labor and so they should win a gold prize every year for everything that they do, but the BD team I would say acts as a hub for each of the practice and sector groups that they support. So, the BD manager’s the one who’s got the most oversight in terms of how much PR is in our strategy, how much marketing is in our strategy, how many events and conferences and industry gatherings, how much does that play into our practice or sector group strategy and then there’s the business development side of it.

Sharon:      So, is business development at your firm—call it sales? And then you have a marketing department because terminology can mean different things?

Christina:  Right, so we don’t call it a sales team, but it is a business development team as opposed to the marketing team that is—the marketing team would oversee events, collateral development, brand, design and adhering to the brand guidelines. So, development of all those creative assets and digital technology would fall into the marketing team as well, whereas business development—and we could call it sales.  We tend to call it client relationship development.

Sharon:      Right, I realize that nobody likes the word sales, but—

Christina:  I love the word sales. I think I used it as at new association orientation the other day because I want to reclaim that word. I don’t think it’s a dirty word. I really think we’ve got to reclaim that work as marketers because at the end of the day, we’re all salespeople, no matter what we do, whether we’re lawyers or some other kind of service provider. That’s what we’re doing. We’re selling.

Sharon:      Right, so like for instance give us an example of the phone calls you’re going to—I usually would ask what meetings do you have, but what phone calls do you have today that sort of will give us the sense of what you’re doing?

Christina:  O.K., well probably not today. It’s not today, but something that’s always top of mind for me is one of the key client accounts that I run and so that is a global key account for a global energy company and on the team that runs it, we’ve got two partners in the U.S. and two partners in London and then myself in the U.S. as kind of the business side and I have a counterpart in London and so the six of us are focused on this key account I’d like to say 24/7. It would be nice to say 24/7, but we’re focused on this key account almost all the time in terms of are we servicing the client to the utmost of our ability, in what ways could we be doing a better job of servicing the client, what are the engagements that we’re getting with this client and are there opportunities to diversify the kind of work and the kind of assignments that we’re getting and really penetrate the client, not just in one particular service line, but in all of the service lines that we offer. We have many meetings on that key account and that’s a meeting that is always top of mind for me. I’m always thinking at the start of the week, “O.K., what do I have for that key account this week and what should I be thinking of?”

With a key account program, our business managers are empowered to make their own relationships with the client and I think the legal industry—it’s been shifting, but I think it’s really interesting to see how the decisions at the client side are being now with a mix of GC’s and deputy GC’s and in-house counsel, but also the legal op side and the business side and so I think it’s interesting when you get more business people on the client side who are making purchasing decisions for their organization. They want to speak with other businesspeople. So, that gives us as the business team for our team a seat at the table on having those discussions.

Sharon:      How interesting! That is so different. That is really different.

Christina:  Yeah.

Sharon:      And you’re right. It’s still in its infancy, starting. I’m thinking a few years ago, people were talking about it and really it was call it novel then, but I just think that’s so interesting I mean to have—and there’s more opportunity to integrate.

Christina:  Well, I think what’s really interesting about the legal industry and how purchasing decisions are being made is that the client, from my perspective, seems to be looking at so much more than just the service. Of course, they want good legal counsel. That’s the top thing that they want. They want good legal guidance, good legal counsel, but then they‘re also making decisions based on how that service is delivered, how it’s priced, what kinds of support mechanisms or infrastructure, technology can we, the law firm, put into how we deliver the service, the legal project management tools, can we staff a legal project manager onto the assignments. So, there are all these other components that are being taken into consideration by the clients when they’re making a decision as to whom they’re going to hire, and I think it’s great. I think everyone wins out when those kinds of qualities are being assessed in terms of the kind of law firm they’re going to hire.

Sharon:      It seems like that’s the opportunity to differentiate yourself because everybody is going to say, “Well, if you’re here at the table, if you’re a law firm we’re considering, then you know your legal stuff, so how are you going to differentiate yourself?”

Christina:  Yeah and I think what’s interesting—I’ve done a few client feedback interviews in my time at Eversheds Southerland and I did one—it’s been a couple of years now because I didn’t travel last year—but a couple of years ago, I did one and it was interesting in that the client—we got high marks on our work product, very high marks, high marks across the board with our responsiveness, our professionalism, our ability to communicate, all of that, but there was one—it was like a bill or an invoice that had gotten misdirected to the client, like it wasn’t even supposed to go to that client and something kept happening where the client kept receiving the bill and it really left a sour taste in that client’s mouth about our service offering and so it’s interesting when you’re thinking about the whole client experience and what each of us at the law firm has to bring to that client experience and the lawyer brings his or her expertise; the pricing people bring their expertise with pricing; legal product management, business development, marketing, we all come together to deliver this client experience to the client and if one piece of it is off, all of it kind of is off. All of it has to be on and so like I said, of course of primary importance is the work product, but it was interesting to me that the client was like, “You guys are so great, but we kept getting this invoice. Like what’s going on over there?”  We did so much work; we did so much interesting, complex legal work for this client and all he could talk about was this invoice that he kept getting which just goes to show like every part of the client experience is important. Every part of it is important.

Sharon:      It sounds like what you’re doing—you have a seat at the table.  It sounds like things have changed, not only so much in the energy space, but I’m thinking about from you entered legal marketing. What you’re talking about would have been unthinkable, “What do you mean you’re integrating these areas into a client team?”  Anybody who’s listening to you—people didn’t listen to marketing then. I’m just seeing how it’s so interesting; you’re such an important part of what’s going on for the service normally.

Christina:  I really hope that it continues to move in that direction, and it has taken a long time and I know what you’re referring to. When I first got into the industry, there was this—I guess this perception—I didn’t have this perception, but it was something that I felt. No one said it; no one articulated this feeling that was pretty palpable throughout the industry of you’re either a practicing attorney or you’re a non-attorney or you’re non-something and I hate being a non-something. It sounds like non—

Sharon:      You’re a cost center—

Christina:  Of course, yes, exactly, you’re a cost center. Look, we’re all in the business world.  We understand there are cost centers and then there are revenue generators, but I do think that the industry is getting so interesting now as we’re moving into new forms of service delivery. You’re seeing more alternative legal service providers. You’re seeing clients get really savvy about how they hire and whether they hire or whether they keep it in-house, whether they build their own structures in-house to be able to do a lot of the work and so I think it’s given our profession and other administrative professionals who support lawyers a voice at the table.

Sharon:      Do you think the fact that you are a lawyer or that you understand all the lingo—I mean anybody could learn the lingo, but does it give you more credibility?  Does it make a difference do you think?

Christina:  I think probably on the credibility side it does unfortunately or fortunately. I’ve struggled with—here’s a real-world example: I’ve struggled all these years going on however many years I’ve been in the industry now with whether to put Esq. in my e-signature because I am a lawyer. I maintain my bar license in New York. So, I have every right to put Esq. at the end of my name and I’ve spoken with other marketing professionals who also have law degrees or who have MBAs as to whether they put some kind of accreditation at the end of their name in their e-signature because we are working in an industry where everybody is so highly credentialed. All the lawyers you work with are so highly credentialed and I think having some sort of credential attached to your name does set the tone for the conversations that you have with attorneys, yeah.

Sharon:      I’m wondering—yeah, do you have to walk into a meeting with let’s say a marketing business development meeting with lawyers you haven’t talked to before and say, “Hi, I’m a lawyer?”

Christina:  So, to close out that story, I’ve never put Esq. at the end of my name or in my LinkedIn profile. I’ve never, ever put Esq. I don’t think I talk about often how I am a lawyer or that I went to law school. I know I don’t for a fact because I was in a conversation with one of the partners I support about maybe six months ago and I’ve been working with this partner for seven years and it was only then that I mentioned in passing—it wasn’t like I was consciously trying to make a point—but in passing I think I said something like, “Oh, you know, when I was in law school” and he was like, “What? You’re a lawyer? Well, wait a minute,” as though something had shifted there in that I’ve been working with this person for seven years. I’d like to think that he thinks the world of me, but something else shifted there and like, “Wait a minute. I didn’t know that you spent three years getting your J.D. Now, I can—” So I do think that there’s something about having credentials, whether it’s a J.D., an MBA, any kind of professional degree credentials, I do think there’s something about having that and how that helps set the tone for the kinds of discussions that you have.

Sharon:      Has that made you think again about whether you should put Esq. in your signature?

Christina:  Like I said, this has been an ongoing debate I have with myself. I don’t. I hope that the work that I do speaks for itself and at some point, if the attorneys I support, the attorneys I work with find out that I’m a lawyer, they go, “Great, wonderful,” because I don’t think you need the credentials to do what we do. I do think it helps level the playing field and set the tone for the discussion, but I don’t think it’s necessary to have these credentials. I’m someone that likes to overcentralize. Yeah, I have a tendency to doubt myself and doubt my own capabilities sometimes and I think, “Well, if I go and get licensed in this, that will show that I am meant to be here. I’m meant to be at the table,” but I don’t think those credentials necessarily are needed.

Sharon:      You can learn the lingo once you go along in law firm marketing and there are some terms that you always have to ask, what does that mean?

Christina:  Always. It’s all the acronyms and it’s like, “Oh my goodness, I should come out with like an acronym dictionary with all the acronyms out there.”

Sharon:      But in a sense people don’t hire us and I’m thinking of marketers at larger firms like your firm. They don’t hire us for our legal launch. They hire us for business acumen, for strategic perspectives and that sort of thing as opposed to did I get a law degree.

Christina:  Right.

Sharon:      But I think having a law degree gives—I personally think gives you a much stronger credential, that’s all.

Christina:  Yeah, I agree with you and like I said, just setting the tone and making sure that your attorneys understand that you’re qualified to be here. I do think it helps for that, but when you get into the guts of what we do, I don’t think—

Sharon:      You’re not using it every day. You’re not going back to your desk.

Christina:  No, not all and I think where it’s been most helpful is understanding that lawyers aren’t trained to be marketers. Unless the legal curriculum has changed at law school in the fifteen years since I’ve graduated—at the time, no one was training law students in how to be a salesperson, how to market their services, how to market themselves, market their services, market their firm. No one was training them on that. I don’t believe that anyone still is. There might be some law schools out there that have that as part of their curriculum, but I think it’s the rarity as opposed to commonplace. So, I think having a law degree and being surrounded by lawyers and having friends who are lawyers is understanding that they need help to figure out how to position themselves, how to brand themselves and how to convey to the market what they can offer. They need a lot of assistance with that.

Sharon:      Do you think there’s been increase in acceptance among lawyers that “Yeah, I’m a lawyer, but I don’t know everything?”

Christina:  I think there’s been an increase in terms of understanding that it takes more than just good legal acumen to succeed as a lawyer. I think that line of thinking is starting to grow, at least within the lawyers that I know. They’re great lawyers; they’re sharp; they’re intellectually bright; they’re so capable, but I think a lot of them understand that it takes more than just that to be a successful lawyer and to bring in business and to develop and maintain client relationships because at the end of the day, it’s a person-to-person business; it’s a human relationship business.

Sharon:      Right, O.K., I mean that’s a lot.

Christina:  It’s a lot. It is a lot. We do a lot of business development coaching at my firm and I work with associates; I work with partners and it’s interesting. The questions haven’t veered too far off in all the years that I’ve been working with lawyers. It’s, “Well how many times is too much to call a client? Am I annoying them if I send them four e-mails or five e-mails?”

Sharon:      I’m not laughing at the questions. It’s just that they haven’t changed. They really haven’t changed.

Christina:  They don’t change. They want the same kind of guidance and lawyers want a hard and—I mean we’re all good with dealing with nuance and I think lawyers are very familiar with working in the gray zone of things, but when it comes to marketing, they want to play it safe. “What do other law firms do? Have they done some sort of thought piece on that topic? Because if they have, maybe we should one too.” So, there’s a lot of room in this industry for people who are creative and want to do different things and can sell and convey those ideas to the attorneys they work with.

Sharon:      I’m just thinking, I mean it’s that fear of being first where you want to be first, right?

Christina:  Absolutely.

Sharon:      Because I’m sure you’ve had a lot of experience in this and we know with young graduates or people who are interested where you were fifteen years ago, let’s say in the field. What are you looking for when you’re hiring somebody in law firm marketing or business development, whether they went to a law school or whether they just graduated with a marketing degree or whatever it is? What characteristics are you looking for?

Christina:  In terms of hard skills, someone who is a great writer, great communicator. I think that right off the bat is very important and then in terms of soft skills, the ability to build consensus, share their ideas and then build consensus because the way that a law firm is structured, you kind of got to get buy-in from a lot of people for your idea to take hold. It’s not as though you can convince one person and then it just works. Your initiative launches and the whole firm jumps on board.

Sharon:      Falls in line.

Christina:  Exactly, so I think it’s about—I’m looking for someone who has creative ideas but understands that this is an industry that does move a little slowly in terms of how it changes and that the structure of a law firm is such that you need to build consensus. Partners are all shareholders of their firm, so you’ve got to their buy-in—plural, partners’ buy-in on whatever your creative ideas are, but I think someone who’s got creative ideas, someone who’s willing to think about how to position the firm differently, how to make the firm stand out. I also think someone who’s curious about the service that we deliver. You don’t have to be an expert in the law, but just curious about what it is that we do and who we do it for. So, to get engaged in the industry news of that sector or practice group that you’re supporting is really important.

I think any business development or salesperson out there needs to be an expert almost on what it is that they’re selling. So, for us, we’re selling the services of our attorneys and I think it’s very important to understand what those services are, who are we selling them for, what makes my attorneys’ services any different from others, what are some of those interesting angles that allow me to position my firm in a different way and then what’s going on in the industry. It ties back to how I kind of got into energy. I just find it fascinating, but I found it fascinating because I had the opportunity to dig into it. I supported that group.

Sharon:      What is it that you find fascinating about energy?

Christina:  What don’t I?

Sharon:      What about energy was interesting?

Christina:  I became interested in it because it’s something that affects all of us, so I could understand it. When I first got into the legal industry, I was working with certain groups, certain practices that were just—it didn’t have real world application to me, whether that was a securities offering for a client or a major transaction, joint venture, transaction strategic partnership. It didn’t have a real-world application to me, whereas, once I got involved with the energy practice or sector groups, I could understand it; I got it. It was like, “Oh, this particular project may not affect me per se, but it affects the energy ecosystem. It affects the entire energy ecosystem and so I understood it. I could understand and visualize the large capital-intensive projects that we were working on. I could visualize what a wind power project looked like. I could if I wanted to get in my car and go drive by them. There were plenty in southern California. I’ve taken road trips through Texas where it’s just endless wind farms. That’s initially just kind of what got me into it was just that, oh well, this is interesting because I get it as opposed to like some leveraged buyout transaction or securitization that I just couldn’t quite understand. This was three-dimensional for me and then as I got into it, I found the industry dynamic. It still continues to be really dynamic in terms of what’s happening, the projects that are happening and the different energy sources that are cropping up and it’s weird to say, but the kind of energy that’s within the clean energy space in particular is really interesting. You go to any clean energy conference and it’s a mix of techies and greenies and financiers and lawyers, and it’s just an interesting dynamic field.

Sharon:      You make it sound interesting. It was always interesting. You’re right. I guess the fact that you really can get your mind around it as opposed to some of these securitizations or leveraged buyouts or that sort of thing, yes.

Christina:  Right, look, like I said, I worked with all sorts of other practice groups and do so now, but I think energy will always have a special place for me. I just find it endlessly fascinating.

Sharon:      Especially with what’s going on in the world and in Texas today and all that.

Christina:  Exactly, real world applications, yeah.

Sharon:      Yeah, well Christina, it’s so good to talk to you. I could talk to you for another hour or two, but thank you so much for being here today.

Christina:  I’m glad I had an opportunity to do this.

Sharon:      We hope you apply what you learned here today to propel your firm forward. If you have questions or want even more resources, go to Berbay.com and as always, thank you for listening.

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