Candid thoughts from a COO, CCO and CMBDO

I’m driven by an innate curiosity about how things work and fit together for a synergistic effect. So, how different are the perspectives on legal marketing coming from a chief operating officer, a chief communications officer, and a chief marketing and business development officer?

I sought out the bright industry minds of Christy Walsh, Lara Hamm and Mike Mellor to hear their take. Christy serves as the Chief Operating Officer at Drew Eckl & Farnham. Lara holds the position of Chief Communications Officer at Jackson Lewis P.C. Mike is the Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer at Pryor Cashman LLP.

Our conversations covered a wide range of topics:

  • What is their “why”
  • What is driving change in the legal industry
  • What is their confidence level regarding elements of business plans
  • Where they would make investments to propel initiatives
  • How they define success at regular intervals
  • How they handle difficult personalities

Many thanks to Kevin Smith, Michelle Friends, Bryan Bazarte, Jim Jarrell, Lisa Saltsman, Patrick DiDomenico and Eric Fletcher for suggesting questions.

Q: What is your personal “Why” and what do you feel is the firm’s “Why”?

CW: Strangely enough, my why and my firm’s why are very similar — we are problem solvers. I like to identify the root cause of an issue to make sure that we are treating the actual problem and not putting a Band-Aid on the symptom. It’s about finding solutions to problems our attorneys didn’t know they had.

As a firm, our attorneys are driven to provide innovative solutions to our clients’ complex legal problems. They view each case as a problem to be solved as expeditiously and efficiently as possible.

MM: My personal why is helping attorneys to become more organized and intentional in their business development so they can lead more successful and fruitful lives. Without the right systems in place, there can be wasted motion and needless effort. Many of these issues can be avoided when attorneys have accountability, measurement and planning.

As a firm, Pryor Cashman hangs our hat on efficiency and transparency. The trust we build with our clients through our staffing model can be realized by the number of long-term clients who return to us, either as an extension of their in-house teams or, in many cases, as the sole attorneys for them.

LH: No matter your function, I believe intentionality and empathy will get you far. I have been fortunate to have inspiring mentors throughout my career, and I want to make them proud. I do my best to put my whole self into my career. I want to feel that I’m growing and challenged and engaged, and I want my children to see that in me.

Jackson Lewis’s why comes down to relationships. The respect the firm and our attorneys have for their relationships with their clients is truly unparalleled and it continues to impress me. The attorneys I get to work with daily genuinely love what they do and are incredibly focused on sharing that passion with the employers they represent.

Q: How do you see your industry changing? What’s driving the change?

MM: The value assigned to the marketing and BD function is increasing every year. It’s in the form of technology, larger headcounts; attorneys are waking up to the value that businesspeople and processes can offer. I am seeing a big push in data aggregation. By this, I mean firms are finding a single source of truth within the organization and making investments so departments and their people can communicate more effectively. This internal collaboration is yielding greater collaboration by attorneys on their matters. Clients are the recipients of this increased efficiency.

LH: The war for talent is real. From the communications lens, it says to me that both internal and external perception is more significant than ever regarding an organization’s ability to attract and retain talent.

There is a real demand to cut down on content that’s not relevant to specific audiences, has overly inclusive list serves, delivers too many emails and the like. People want to receive the information they want in the format they prefer, and that applies externally (the media, our clients and prospects, and so on) and internally to our people. Tailoring and curating is everything; cookie-cutter communications won’t cut it!

CW: Law firms have changed more in the last three years than they did in the last 15 years. The pandemic started the shift in workplace expectations, but with the competitive labor market, there is a continued push for law firms to update their traditional model. The biggest change to law firms right now is specific to the workforce around how people want to work and where they want to work. There is such a focus on work-life balance, mental health and wellness, and the ability to work outside of the traditional office setting. This is driving changes to real estate, office footprints, and the layout and amenities in offices.

Q: Looking ahead to the next three years, what would you like to accomplish that would give you the greatest sense of achievement professionally? Personally?

LH: I have never been able to completely separate professional and personal goals — maybe that should be one of my goals?! I’ve found that leading others to success is what makes me feel most accomplished. That takes the form of training and mentoring the people on my team and via attorney-focused projects, including media training and coaching. I sound like a broken record to everyone at the firm at this point, but my goal is to make sure they’re getting their 15 minutes of fame, then extending it for as long as possible.

I’m educating myself about various environmental sustainability efforts to make sure we’re positioned to make an impact in that space. We recently joined the Law Firm Sustainability Network, and I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues in reducing our environmental impact.

CW: Professionally, I would like to grow in my COO role and create solutions to the recurring problems in law firms. I have so many strategic ideas that are in our C-team incubator that if we accomplish a fraction of those, I will feel accomplished. Personally, I simply want to make sure I am present with my kids and remember to take vacations. So often, I get busy at work and forget that my time with them is fleeting.

MM: It’s a bigger seat at the table with certain aspects of the firm’s strategic planning — more at the drawing board, so to speak. As with my views on data aggregation, I continue to work toward that future-state analysis. Personally, I would like to be kinder, smarter and healthier. I work every day to improve the things that I value the most: my relationships with others and, as importantly, with myself.

Q: What element(s) are you most confident in regarding your business/plan to meet your goals?

CW: My ability to identify the problems that will have the greatest impact to the firm and create a strategic project plan that is easy to measure and actionable is the place I am most confident. My ability to create a team that can independently complete tasks while providing input to the whole is another one of my strengths.

MM: Ideal customer profile development and targeting are the areas where I feel most confident. I have spent more than 20 years in professional services defining value and identifying ideal clients and enjoy that immensely.

LH: I have an amazing team right now. They are energized, responsive and forward-thinking, and they give me confidence we’ll be prepared to tackle anything that comes our way.

Q: What element(s) are you least confident in regarding your business/plan to meet your goals?

MM: We are a lean firm and provide senior partner-level attention to all matters, and of course, the client comes first. Sometimes it can be difficult because we want to clone our partners to be continuing their new business pursuits. The opportunity for our team is helping an attorney navigate through the phases needed to close.

LH: If the last few years taught us anything, it’s that anything can happen at any time. I wouldn’t call myself Type A to a fault (I think I’d need to exercise much more frequently for that to be true!), but I’d be lying if I said I was truly comfortable with ambiguity. I like to know what’s coming so I can plan for it accordingly, and I don’t love surprises that can completely hijack business planning.

CW: Balancing strategic projects with the everyday “fires” that seem to arise when you are helping run a firm of this size is certainly a challenge. Add in a pandemic, a competitive labor market and historic rates of inflation, and it is a miracle that I have been able to accomplish anything strategic.

Q: If you had additional resources, which initiatives would you invest in, and why those?

LH: We have so many promising ideas floating around the firm that are media-pitch–worthy and it’s hard to take advantage of all of them. I would absolutely invest in a larger team. I also think intuitive, user-friendly tools and software, whether they are rooted in video creation/editing, design or streamlining the way we communicate internally, are going to be how we cut our clutter and reach people the way they want to be reached.

CW: A robust training and development plan at all levels of our firm would be my ideal initiative. I would like to create a plan that empowers new and existing employees to learn and progress along a career path that is conducive to their personal level of effort. While we currently have training in place, I truly believe I could create something magical.

MM: Two areas would be in unique content development/repurposing and in pure BD folks who can help originate business. Clients don’t want cookie-cutter alerts these days. They want a prescriptive approach that tells them what to do with the information you provided. Having someone to do that for clients would yield immense value. As mentioned earlier, having a pure business development person (some Am Law 50 firms have them) to identify, curate and bring matters to attorneys would be amazing.

Q: How would you define success (goals and KPIs) in your role 90 days out, six months out and annually?

CW: My KPIs are specific to projects and are defined within those project plans. Success for me is largely about accomplishing the strategic goals I identify at the beginning of each year and identifying the “wins” that I was able to accomplish during unplanned projects.

MM: All of these plans are dependent on the practice area, industries and issues we cover as a firm. As a group, I want to encourage intellectual curiosity, ownership and happiness generally, but we are very focused on increasing open rates, building our brand and positioning our practices to anticipate where the activity will emerge.

LH: I spent a lot of time at first on defining my philosophy in terms of how I wanted to manage my team, the best way to track our department’s goals, and how to figure out gaps and inefficiencies in our processes.

Now that we have defined goals and metrics we need to hit, I’m tracking our progress in different areas on a quarterly and year-over-year basis. I’m ensuring that I’m still collaborating with the other departments across the firm to remain aligned in the way we’re approaching our goals. One of the unique aspects of our team is that while we have our own initiatives to push forward, we’re also heavily involved in the implementation of projects from other departments from the communications and change management aspect, so we have to be in regular communication with many stakeholders.

Q: How do you support your team when dealing with difficult personalities? More so, how do you implement well-being and balance when you can’t control the people outside of your team?

MM: The one thing I learned during the pandemic is that people are unique, and you need to meet them where they are. A cookie-cutter approach to keeping your people happy isn’t possible. I strive to be creative in developing incentives and other ways to show appreciation and thanks. We try to keep things light to the extent possible and tend to issues early so they can’t fester. Keeping open lines of communication to what inspires and drives people is critical to success. Happy people make happy employees. I love the feeling when everyone is contributing, and we are clicking on all cylinders.

LH: Growing up, my mother frequently reminded me and my brother to consider someone’s intention rather than their resulting act. It’s stayed with me. Overwhelmingly, peoples’ intentions are good. I don’t know many people right now who don’t feel overwhelmed or crazily busy. Most people are trying to do a good job and to make their organizations or their clients or their families proud. I’m one of them! So, I try not to let the little things trip me up. I’m a huge advocate of the Habits of Mind, a framework for thinking that originally came to my attention via my children’s school. One of the Habits is “listening with understanding and empathy” — making an effort to perceive another’s point of view and emotions.

CW: The most important thing I do for my team is to let them know they have my support. Additionally, I problem-solve with them when we know there is going to be pushback from a difficult personality so they have the tools and responses necessary in the moment. Finally, they all know that I will step in with them (notice I said with and not for) to help defuse a situation. I lead by example so when we have an escalated situation, I ask them to join me so they can see how the resolution occurs and can potentially handle it in the future.

I always enjoy talking with people about ideas, exploring new perspectives and working to implement new possibilities. Drop me a line if that sounds like you.

Ryan King is Senior Vice President Public Relations & Marketing at Jaffe. Reach out to Ryan at rking@jaffepr.com or on LinkedIn.