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INSIGHT: Law Firms Should Focus on Business Development Hiring in Pandemic

July 9, 2020, 8:01 AM

Over the past three months we’ve seen some large law firms furlough and even lay-off business development talent, but I have also filled brand new BD roles and am actively working on newly-created BD director and chief marketing officer (CMO) positions. What’s the reason for this polarized marketplace?

I believe it’s because the large law firm world is now segmented into a number of different scenarios. Some firms are poised for success with the right leadership and practice areas, while others that are floundering believe that cutting expenses, even BD professionals, is prudent.

Most law firm leaders predict that competition for existing legal business will be exacerbated post-Covid. Does it make sense to invest in BD talent and resources to support your attorneys, or to eliminate them?

I recently sat down (virtually, of course!) with two CMOs to better understand what they are doing to support their lawyers’ client development in this new business environment. As a recruiter who has placed hundreds of marketing and BD professionals over the past 24 years, I wanted to hear what CMOs are focusing on and how they are deploying their talent.

BakerHostetler’s New CMO

Despina Kartson joined BakerHostetler as its CMO on March 2, days before businesses and law firms went remote. She took the role because it was an opportunity to have a seat at the table at a firm with growing offices and practices.

Kartson is excited to help the firm expand and, despite the pandemic, considers this a great time to join so she can, among other responsibilities, lead client development initiatives that are in alignment with the firm’s new, recently launched five-year strategic plan. She is working closely with leadership to help them implement the goals identified in the strategic plan and is excited to have real impact.

Taking on a new CMO role during the pandemic and in a remote environment may not sound opportune, but for Kartson this has proved to be good timing because it has allowed her to jump in with both feet.

She has been working closely with partners to better understand what current and potential clients need right now and how to provide them with the legal expertise that will help them during Covid-19 and the economic downturn. She also regularly collaborates with leadership on frequent, streamlined client communications.

As for her team, Kartson sees their role as making sure the lawyers are equipped with tools, including business development plans, that will allow them to focus on potential client needs. She’s also making sure that information and resources such as client intelligence data are easily available. She recommends that firms that want to focus on business development should prioritize getting a strong grasp of industry trends and understanding clients’ business needs.

Kartson predicts that in-person client events will be replaced with virtual webinars and meetings and that it is likely these changes will continue for the foreseeable future. This will require new ways of building client trust and relationships, an important function for marketing and BD departments.

Kartson is convinced that this is a good time for firms to invest in BD initiatives and make sure the talent is there to support attorneys. “If firms want to succeed long-term, they need BD talent to help them understand what clients need and to showcase their expertise. This will be even more imperative in the post-Covid business environment,” she told me.

Selendy & Gay and the Boutique Firm Experience

Josette Winograd has been the CMO of Selendy & Gay PLLC for nearly two years. After a dozen years of heading up business development at large law firms, she joined the newly-launched firm because she believed she could help them build a true business development culture where all attorneys could play a role in client development.

Winograd has been helping her attorneys identify issues clients are facing in a proactive manner. This approach includes anticipating and making recommendations for what clients need as their businesses are impacted by the pandemic. She sees her role as arming her attorneys with intelligence and client information so they get in front of the issues.

One of the silver linings of the remote work environment, Winograd said, is that attorneys have had an easier time getting face-time with both clients and referral sources. This has been a good time for her attorneys to reach out and set up Zoom calls to better understand what clients need and to discuss possible collaborations with other firms.

Winograd also believes now is the time for firms to invest in research and development that will support attorneys’ business development efforts. “With valuable client and industry intelligence, our attorneys can be more helpful because they are knowledgeable about what their clients need,” she told me. She’s also found that this a great time to offer relevant CLE training to in-house attorneys who need new knowledge to deal with the news challenges.

Selendy & Gay’s leadership is clearly invested in supporting BD—since March, Winograd has added two new permanent team members and four summer interns, all who working remotely.

Common Themes

Both my interviews had similar themes despite Selendy & Gay being a boutique firm with one office in New York and 65 attorneys and BakerHostetler being a 16-office national firm with 1,000 attorneys. Both CMOs and firms:

  • focus on providing their attorneys with client data and industry intelligence;
  • invest in BD and marketing talent;
  • view this as an important time to engage with clients proactively to better anticipate and meet their needs.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners

Author Information

Eva Wisnik is president and founder of Wisnik Career Enterprises, a training and placement firm for the legal community. Since founding the company in 1996, she has placed more than 800 marketing, recruiting, and professional development professionals into 86 of the AmLaw 100 firms.

To contact the editor on this story: Lisa Rockelli Gordon in Washington at lrockelli@bloombergindustry.com

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