Guest: Jennifer Johnson
Episode 61: Recalibrating Your Law Firm to Run Like a Business
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast. Today, my guest is Jennifer Johnson, CEO and founder of Calibrate Legal, which helps law firms position themselves at the forefront of the legal industry by placing sophisticated talent, engaging firm leadership and building cultures driven by meaningful data. Individually each is important; it’s the intersection of the three that is transformative. She’ll tell us more about the firm and its mission today. Jennifer, welcome to the program.
Jennifer: Thank you, Sharon, I appreciate the invitation.
Sharon: So glad to have you. So can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into legal marketing and what led you to launching Calibrate Legal?
Jennifer: Absolutely, it’s interesting the more people—yeah, I collect people for a living. My background for the company is in executive search, although we’ll discuss in a second how it’s morphed over the last few years, but a lot of people fall into legal marketing. I didn’t mean to, but here I am. Most people don’t know that it’s a thing until you realize that it’s a thing, so like most people, I fell into legal marketing. I thought I wanted to go to law school and I got a job in a law firm to sniff it out a little bit before law school and realized very quickly that I enjoyed working in the environment of a law firm, but at that point in 1998, everyone had their noses in books and legal-size yellow tablets and writing, and I just did not want any part of that, but I knew that I liked the environment and so I took an assistant position in HR actually, and a few months later, they said, “Hey, you seem nice. Would you run our law school training program?” Through that I became interested in marketing so that I could speak to the law students about the type of work that our lawyers do and it just morphed from there.
So I was inside a law firm for about six years and then I moved into legal marketing recruiting in 2014, and I launched my own business about 8½ years ago, and so the first 5½ of its years were focused specifically on executive search for law firm marketing, business development, and communications professionals, and then a few years back, we rebranded into Calibrate Legal and the idea is recalibration, a calibration of the legal industry, particularly law firms in helping them run their firms like businesses.
I was influenced by a person that I met several years ago, the Chief Marketing Officer of a Big Four, who shared with me his latest piece of work, which was a scorecard where they had taken all of the marketing team’s activities, lined them up with the firm’s strategies, and then sought and successfully proved the value that the marketing team had added against the strategy in terms of driving revenue and that got me thinking, “Why aren’t we doing this in law firms? We could do this.” And so, a few years ago, we sought out on that mission to begin helping law firm business services professionals behave more like businesses and sort of become owners of their business units and prove their value.
Sharon: It’s an admirable but big task.
Jennifer: One day at a time.
Sharon: Yes, exactly. So, your website describes the three areas that Calibrate focuses on, the talent, leadership and operations. Can you tell us what you do in each of these areas?
Jennifer: So on the talent side, as I mentioned previously, we do recruitment for marketing, business development and communications professionals and then we also work on recruitment assignments for professional development professionals as well as human resources professionals. We’ve done some learning and development placements, etc. So it’s really on the HR professional development and marketing. Those are really the lines that we serve on the recruitment side. Then on the operations side, it is working with marketing departments to help them operationalize their business, so really help them work more efficiently. Then on the leadership council side, it’s really working with law firm business services teams to help them really glue together as a team, find their mission and their purpose and their voice within their firms so that they can realize and prove the value that they add as business services professionals. That is a differentiator for us versus other consulting firms in our space and legal marketing spaces that we’re not targeting the lawyers. Our work is targeting the business services teams to help them behave more like [text missing here? Perhaps the word “or”? So it would read…..” help them behave more like or have an owner mindset…..” have an owner mindset within a law firm.
Sharon: Do you think that they’re getting it more today? I mean do you think it’s easier—first of all, are there more people who are interested in legal marketing when you’re recruiting somebody and also, do people in business services understand the importance of the ownership mentality?
Jennifer: Yeah, I wish that I could say that it’s turned into a wildfire of everybody getting it, but it’s not. It’s really one firm at a time, one group at a time.
Are more people interested in law firm marketing? Yes, but the caveat is, like I mentioned at the beginning, you don’t know about it until you know about it. If you think about business school curriculum, even undergrad business schools, it’s all B to C marketing; it’s consumer packaged goods; it’s advertising; it’s brands and they don’t teach professional services marketing as an option. So you don’t really know about it unless you know about it, but once people do know about it, they go, “Huh, I didn’t know that was a thing, how interesting.” We’ve been successful at bringing a number of people from outside of the industry into the industry and particularly in marketing roles. I wish that it was spreading in terms of that ownership mentality a little bit faster, but I think it takes people time to find their voice and to practice before they’re able to really stand up and say, “Here’s who I am. Here’s the value I can bring.”
Sharon: Yeah, it’s a slow process, but hopefully it’s something that will accelerate as the world keeps changing, and I think people realize they’re going to be left behind if they don’t sort of adopt that.
Jennifer: So many people say to me, “How do you get the seat at the table? I want the seat at the table,” and I say, “Well, you have to earn it,” and then what does that look like? The people who I know that have that proverbial seat at the table that aren’t lawyers are people who—they’re smart; they say smart things; they’re actionable and then they turn around and they get things done and that’s where you get repeat customers. You get the lawyers that come back and want to talk to you again about something that you might be able to solve for that maybe they didn’t know that they needed solving for and it’s bringing them new ideas that have a business strategy behind them that aren’t too difficult to overcome in terms of new or different. The people that come to the table with good ideas and then actually follow through on those, that’s where the value is and that’s how you get the seat at the table.
Sharon: Yeah, they’re hard-won seats, but important seats. So you’ve trademarked the term and I think it’s a wonderful term, “revenue enablers.”
Sharon: What are they? Who are they?
Jennifer: Well, revenue enablers in concept are every single person that works inside of a law firm, period. So every single person inside of a law firm, if you’re not a revenue generator, i.e., a timekeeper, then you ought to be a revenue enabler. That’s how you should think of yourself. You’re not overhead. Maybe you’re a non-lawyer, but not in a pejorative way. You are a key component of the business ecosystem and without you the firm wouldn’t be as successful. Everybody who’s serving a purpose to keep the business running, to move the business forward, they’re enabling revenue to happen. We think of the lawyers as the fee earnings and the revenue enablers are the infrastructure, the law firm ecosystem that makes the business successful.
Sharon: Do you see when you describe that to let’s say non-lawyers or whatever, do you see their eyes open up and say, “Oh” or do you see—
Sharon: It ends up straighter.
Jennifer: It is so fun. I have to tell you there are probably a dozen people that I know of since I got on—we really made revenue enablers a saying. I will say that there are about a dozen people in our industry that I can point to that use the word revenue enabler in their own bio or sort of their description on their Twitter account. It’s a regularly used term now, which makes me very happy. Anytime that I meet with lawyers, I talk about revenue enablers and they were like, “Huh, I never thought about it like that, but it’s true.” It’s been really widely accepted, and I haven’t ever had anyone argue with me about it.
Sharon: No, it’s great. The first time I heard it, I thought, “Oh, what a smart way to say it. That’s great.” Do you find resistance from lawyers to the term?
Jennifer: No, I don’t because typically the conversations that I’m in a place to have are where there’s a need surrounding revenue generation and there’s a need surrounding needing to do something different. There’s an open-mindedness to looking at what that next might look like and so I’m typically in a place where it’s open so I can throw that in there and they’re like pretty receptive.
I’ve actually had firms, particularly interestingly some of the smaller firms that I’ve worked with, where the partners will come to the meeting with me. So we meet with partners in advance or key stakeholders in advance of bringing like a first-chair CMO search and so I’ve had partners come into the room with me and sit down and say, “I really like the revenue enabler concept. It’s really smart.” So it’s been really, really widely accepted.
Sharon: That’s great. I can understand it, yeah, no, because it would make partners or whatever understand that everybody is a crucial component of the firm. It’s not just the timekeepers.
Jennifer: Right, well if you think about it in your own business—and I always try to do that. I’m a business owner; you’re a business owner and I say this to the partners; “We’re all business owners here. So if you look at it that if everybody has a purpose, what is the purpose? My purpose is this and somebody else’s purpose is revenue enablement.” And they tend to grasp it when you talk to them at that level.
Sharon: No, that’s a good analogy, yes. So you also talk about a data-driven culture. What do you mean by that?
Jennifer: Right, so it’s eliminating the highest-paid person’s opinion. It’s eliminating decisions that are made on emotion or hunches, and it’s empowering decisions to be made using data. In our marketing infrastructure scenario, it would be looking to let’s just say—I’ll take one example, which is maybe you’ve got a legacy event that’s been happening for years and years and years and it’s been just part of the firm’s DNA, but you happen to know that it’s not successful for whatever reason. There could be a number of variables, but you know that you’re spending a lot of money and the return on the investment just isn’t there. There are ways that you can go about collecting data on events or that event in particular that would allow you to make a business case to drop the event, and so it’s using data to tell stories and to bring to life issues that need to be resolved.
Again, we have like a lot of zoo animal acronyms, so one is HIPPO, which is Highest Paid Person’s Opinion and another one is ZEBRA, which is Zero Expertise But Real Arrogance. So there are a lot of HIPPOs and ZEBRAs in law firms and it’s really using data to counter the opinions of the HIPPOs and the ZEBRAs.
Sharon: Do you find that you work or maybe you’re recruiting IT people or—
Jennifer: Yeah, no, we focus specifically on marketing, communications and public relations professionals, and then also on human resources professional development and learning and development types. So we don’t place lawyers. We don’t place IT. We don’t do finance. It’s very focused on the marketing types and the human resources types.
Sharon: It just seems that you were talking about data and then you have to get into collecting data, and with marketing technology today, I just thought maybe that you would be encroaching or entering; you’d have to enter into that area.
Jennifer: Well, we definitely place marketing technology professionals and then we work to facilitate really meaningful relationships between marketing teams and IT teams. That’s a key component for this all to work, but today’s modern legal marketing department, say over 200 lawyers, they’re going to have a marketing technology person, or at least they should, who can lead the charge on that and really foster that relationship with IT.
Sharon: That makes sense. O.K. So Jennifer, where do you see the industry going? I mean it seems like you’re always looking ahead. In what you do, you really have to be looking over the horizon, but where do you see the future of law firm marketing and legal marketing?
Jennifer: Well, I will take a riff off of the book that I read a few years ago. The Susskind father/son duo wrote a book called, “The Future of the Professions.” I have a review of the book actually on our website and it’s an amazing book—and by the way, they’ve written a couple of books and I think their predictions have come true so far, so we’re waiting for this book’s forecast to come true. But what’s interesting about it is it takes you all the way back to the genesis, like where the professions began and what they were meant to do and how they were meant to serve, and then scrolls forward to now and how far of a departure the services of all professional services have come and it really looks at the emergence of artificial intelligence and what does that look like. I think that we have a real issue with access to justice. I think law firms are going to have to take a bigger part in that social responsibility of access to justice, and I think that frankly, corporations are going to force them to do that. I think that law firms who are behaving more like a business and less like a partnership of yore, of the 1950s or the 1960s, are going to be the ones who are going to come out on top in the next five years. I do believe that there are going to be a few firms that are going to continue to consolidate because there’s that sea of sameness. Lots of firms look exactly the same and it’s very difficult to differentiate, so I think that you’re going to find firms who are more pointed in who they are and who they’re not, and are going to rise to the top in the future.
Sharon: O.K.; hopefully a lot of that will come to pass and I would agree with you in terms of the law firm of yore isn’t going to be around in the next decades, I don’t think.
Jennifer: I agree. I think they don’t think that though, which is fascinating. It’s going to be fascinating to watch.
Sharon: It’s hard to fathom. It’s hard to fathom like firms who say, “Do I still need a website?” So Jennifer, thank you so much for being here today. It’s greatly, greatly appreciated and to everybody listening, that wraps up another episode of the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst and if you’d like to contact Jennifer, we’ll have her information in the show notes and if you like what you heard and you’d like to hear more, you can subscribe at iTunes or wherever you download your podcast, and please rate us. We’d really appreciate it. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest who can be a catalyst for moving your firm forward. Thank you so much for listening.
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