Through the 1980s, marketing was a four-letter word in most large law firms. By the 1990s, BigLaw had build marketing teams. One survey a couple of years indicated firms were spending 2% of revenue on marketing. Where is marketing today and how has it fared in the downturn? 

I found a great answer to these questions in an e-mail I received from my friend Steve Nelson of The McCormick Group, an executive search firm with a big legal practice. Steve is an astute observer of the legal market. He was previously a practicing lawyer and editor of the Legal Times. With his permission, I reproduce here an e-mail report that he sent in April titled “TMG’s Take…On CMO Vacancies”.

“Large law firms don’t appear to be in a hurry to fill vacant Chief Marketing Officer positions. Our unofficial scorecard has 17 CMO positions at AmLaw 200 firms that have remain unfilled since the first of the year or even longer. Some searches have been put on hold, while other firms have made the ultimate decision (at least for now) to go without a CMO at all.

Given that it’s a truism that business development should be the last area for budget-slashing in bad times, this says a lot about the state of marketing and business development in law firms today. About five years ago, some firms began to hire honest-to-goodness “sales” people to spearhead their business development efforts. But that trend never really took flight. Sure, law firms hired scores of so-called business development professionals, but in reality, they turned into business development support professionals, behind-the-scenes operatives who increasingly ended up handling RFPs, developing seminar ideas, and the like. At the same time, firms began to focus their CMO searches towards those candidates who had a proven record of building a marketing infrastructure.

As a result, in today’s economic climate, it’s quite easy for firms to see a quick and easy way to cut a half million dollars or so in personnel costs by either firing their CMOs, or failing to replace those who had left for greener pastures. In many cases, those professionals accomplished the goal of building the team and the process, but never got to use any of their strategic or visionary skills. Moreover, given the fact that law firms rarely want to have “nonlawyers” or even “non-practicing lawyers” on the front lines of client team and new business development initiatives, the nexus between these C-level executives and revenue generation became tenuous at best.

At this point, most law firms’ reaction to the economic crisis has been to focus on cutting costs, rather than building revenues. Normally, such a cataclysmic change might lead some to take bold steps to increase market share, but we’re not seeing it yet.”

Comments form any law firm marketing professionals?