Big Law CMOs Need to Be Like Machiavelli

Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito.

Are you Machiavellian….enough?

He who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation.

— Niccolo Machiavelli. “Chapter 15”. The Prince

Before writing The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli was consul to the powerful of Renaissance Italy. He saw firsthand how city-states rose and succeeded or failed. Modern law firms, especially those in the upper ranks of the profession, resemble the principalities of the Renaissance period Machiavelli explored: The princes, while powerful, ruled at the pleasure of their stakeholders, the next tier of royalty. Likewise, managing partners lead because of the tacit agreement among the non-leadership partners —and, of course, the continuing support of a firm’s clients.

Machiavelli was valuable to the princes: he was willing to provide them unvarnished, and occasionally unpopular, advice about how they could effectively carry out their duties. A successful legal marketer can play the role of consul, who, much like Machiavelli, is willing to dispense hard-earned advice to firm leaders. CMOs, do you know how to do this? I promise you have the skills and experience you need.

Today’s CMO has made the long, slow climb through the often- treacherous plains and fjords of what Bruce MacEwen calls “lawland.” The average tenure for a law firm CMO or CBDO (or whatever title you give to your senior most marking/bd professional) is going up. This means: 1.) Law firms are getting better at recruiting the right people; 2.) These professionals are better at thriving in “lawland” than earlier generations of CMOs; and 3.) The CMOs are actually enjoying their jobs.

Here are a few practical tips for seasoned CMOs on being consul to managing partners that I have seen work in my nearly 18 years in legal marketing:

Set the tone. One of the most important audiences for the firm’s marketing message is the current lawyers and staff. CMOs: volunteer to write the first draft of a message the MP can send internally. Or help craft the speaking points for an upcoming speech to the lawyers or staff. Managing partners: bring us in, let us hear what you are thinking about presenting. Be open to our ideas. It is our job to help you look good and sound great.

  • Broker relationships. Make sure your MP is aware of as many of the folks on your team as makes sense. You hire good people; your MP needs to know that. He or she will inevitably be asked by a partner, “Why is the Marketing Department  so big?” The best answer from the MP is, “I know many of them personally, and I think they are doing essential jobs.” MPs: make time to meet with the larger marketing or BD team. You likely will find some of your firm’s strongest and most knowledgeable advocates.
  • Make media friends. CMOs: you or your PR team knows all the local and national editors and writers in your sector. Organize opportunities to connect them with your MP, who should be your firm’s best spokesperson. MPs too often are presented like Fabergé eggs, rarely taken off the shelf, handled only by professionals and viewed at a distance. The best journalists want to get to know your MP, preferably without PR people in the room. We all fear the potential “gotcha” questions, but that fear is usually unwarranted. MPs: please be willing to spend some of your time pursuing this sort of relationship with the media. Listen to your CMO and PR folks about how to graciously deflect when necessary and make yourself available for short, one-off calls with writers and editors. And please do not be concerned that your partners might think you are in the media too much. If you are representing the firm well (which you will), your partners will take pride in the firm’s rising profile.
  • Meet the boss. Talking with clients is the single best way for you to help build business across the firm. It is time-consuming and sometimes slow going, and some partners drag their feet on setting up the meetings. But client feedback is gold. CMOs: help your MP identify the highest-value clients to meet. And if you are just getting a list of the top 50 clients as your guide, you are not doing your job. There are massive opportunities for your firm deeper in the client base. While it sounds counterintuitive, meeting with the highest revenue-producing client might not be the best use of the MP’s time. No doubt we need to make sure our most dedicated clients know they are loved. However, that Global 1000 client for which the firm is handling just one area of work (with solid realization and a history of timely payment) could be a gold mine of potential business. The MP has the keys to help unlock this relationship. But MPs should realize these meetings are not sales calls; they are about the clients. Here are a few ways  to make these meetings successful:
    • Do your homework. Gather internal and external third-party information about the clients.
    • Meet with the key relationship partners well ahead of the meeting to gather informal and anecdotal information along with the facts and figures.
    • During the meeting, keep the conversation focused on the client and their needs.

Afterward, brief your partners and let them take it from there.

CMOs who use this tool successfully help their MP provide the highest and best service to the firm. I am also a strong advocate for larger and more broad-based client satisfaction efforts. But nothing compares to the impact of the MP personally meeting with the firm’s clients.

  • Get out of your lane. CMOs: you are typically creative, non-linear thinkers and highly sociable optimists, nearly the diametric opposite of most law firm partners. Offer your MP unsolicited thoughts on how to approach a challenge. You may not be a pricing expert, but you know how to package a pricing proposal in ways that most accountants cannot. Without asking, write the executive summary for the gargantuan RFP everyone has been slaving over. MPs: welcome the unbidden, even ideas you might eventually reject. If we as CMOs are not occasionally suggesting a course of action you find too hard to swallow, we are not doing our jobs. We are resilient; even after rejection, we will come back to you with more ideas over time if we know you are willing to listen.

CMO colleagues, I am advocating that you be Machiavellian in the best sense of the word and serve as consul to your managing partners. CMOs: you are your MP’s best advocate. MPs: you have a great adviser to help you keep the wind at your back. I wager there are many MPs out there who know this and are happily leveraging their CMO’s special talents.

Author Information

Murray M. Coffey is Haynes and Boone’s Chief Marketing Officer. He is an 18-year veteran of legal marketing and previously served as CMO of Jenner & Block.