C-Suite Confidential: An Interview with Geoff Goldberg, Chief Advancement Officer of McCarter & English LLP

by Catherine Hausman on September 18, 2014


C-Suite Confidential features interviews with chief marketing officer and director level members on significant trends in our industry, as well as their insights on leadership and law firm management from their unique vantage point. For this edition, Catherine Hausman visits with Geoff Goldberg of McCarter & English.

Your title is “Chief Advancement Officer.” Is that an accurate description of your role at McCarter & English?

It accurately describes my role in promoting the advancement of the firm holistically – my job is to help the firm become more profitable and effective as a business. That includes helping to decide what business to develop (and what not to), how to go about it, and how to price it. I work closely with other firm leaders on advancing our business goals, including associate development, pro bono, technology, and finance.

How closely do you work with the MP on setting firm strategy?

Very. We meet regularly and I attend all of our practice group leader meetings and report to the Executive Committee at their meetings every month. That seat at the table is new; law firm leaders are increasingly looking for strategic guidance from us. That’s partly due to their increasing awareness of the value we can provide, and in part because we actually provide a lot more of it than we did when I got started in legal marketing 15 years ago.

Does having a law degree make a difference?

Most of my peers don’t have a JD, and I am no better than they. But it helps me be more effective at my job, because the lawyers see that I understand things from their perspective and it shortens the learning curve. That translates into influence.

How has your background in the U.S. Military helped you in working with lawyers and law firms? [Note: Geoff enlisted in the Reserves in college. He was activated in the first Gulf War and had to repeat the first semester of law school because he missed finals.]

Lawyers tend towards what I call “random acts of marketing,” but they can be much more effective with the mission-oriented approach that military guys like me take. I see business development activities as a means to an end – “what do you want to achieve and how do you get there?” In the Marines, every order has five parts. The first three — Situation, Mission, and Execution — are directly applicable to what we do for our law firms: “This is where we are,” “This is where we want to be,” and “This is how we get there.” The situation could be a growing legal need that our competitors are meeting, and the mission is to increase our piece of that pie. So we sit down and lay out the steps we need to take to achieve that.

What is the most important leadership lesson you have learned in your career (military or civilian)?

Lead from the front and take care of your team. Take care of your people first, so they’ll be better able to take care of everything else.

You got your start at global law firms but spent the past 8 years in leadership roles at mid-sized firms. Is this your sweet spot?

I like mid-sized firms because I can have a real impact. It’s tough to make much of a difference at a mega-firm. Of course, the real credit lies with the firm’s leaders, who recognize the value my team and I can provide, and support us in our efforts.

What is your team working on this year that you are most excited about?

We are working on a revitalization of InterAction – we’ve reintroduced it and are integrating it into the lawyers’ regular workflow. That starts a virtuous cycle, making the data more valuable and making our culture much more collaborative. Next fiscal year we hope to launch client service interviews and associate training and mentoring, which I’m very excited about. I enjoy helping younger lawyers get started in developing their own business relationships. It has such a positive impact on their careers, and it’s so much harder to do the longer you wait.

How do you keep your team motivated?

Through humor, beer, and esprit de corps. They have hard jobs and I try to mentor and support them as much as I can. If I do nothing but make their jobs easier every day, we’ll succeed. Most of the team is here in Newark, New Jersey but we have three in Boston, one in Hartford and one in Philadelphia/Wilmington. I try to get out to those offices every few months and we bring everyone together once a year for a two-day retreat.

What qualities or skills do you look for when you hire?

Compatibility, because you get more out of people when they like each other, and life’s too short to spend so much of it with people that don’t make you happy. I’ll hire a less-qualified person if I think they’re a better fit for my team, because that esprit de corps is so important. And if they’re a good fit, they won’t be less-qualified for long. I also look for skills and strengths that add to our overall capabilities, and people who I can learn from. Three of my staff members have MBAs, some are data crunchers, some are strong writers, and others are good at research, and so on. We learn from each other every day.

What three trends do you think will have the most impact on how law firms do business in the next 10 years?

The #1 trend I see is a return to the focus on client development and the primacy of individual relationship building. #2: Increased focus on industries, which aligns our efforts with how our clients see themselves. #3: The rise of legal project management, which goes hand in hand with AFAs. Law firms and clients (it’s a two-way street) will get better at pricing based on what the work is worth.

What do you think has changed the most since you entered the field 15 years ago?

We are finally getting the lawyers to recognize that it is about the client and not about them. It’s the benefits vs. features distinction that consumer products companies figured out years ago. You can see this in the evolution of marketing materials. Instead of “We’ve been in business since the Pleistocene Era and are 11-time winners of the ‘God’s Favorite Law Firm’ award,” you’re seeing, “We understand your company’s needs and here’s how we can help.”

How do you spend your time away from the office?

I’m a lifelong mountaineer and am passionate about rock and ice climbing (to go up) and telemark skiing (to get down). I have a one-year old boy, Maximo, so that has slowed me down a little and now I enjoy biking in Central Park during the week and longer rides in the Hudson Valley on the weekends. My wife and I are also big travelers and we try to get out of the country at least once a year. She’s from Argentina so we go there every other year or so to visit her family (and to ski in July!)

What are you reading?

I recently went back to the classics and I’m reading all of the books I somehow missed in school. I just finished The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, I recently read The Iliad, and in the course of one year I read all of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories and most of his novels.

Who do you follow?

I read Tom Kane’s blog. http://www.legalmarketingblog.com/ He comments on everyone else’s posts so it’s a good summary. But I get most of my news from “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart and “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver.

What was the best advice you ever got?

“Never believe your own BS.” I got that advice from a public relations mentor when I was working for a real estate company. Keep it real and stay focused on what is important to your clients.

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