Legal Marketing Market – Michael DeCosta (Caldwell Partners)

by Catherine Hausman on June 30, 2015

DeCosta, MichaelMichael DeCosta has helped shape the legal marketing profession for nearly two decades by placing many of the leaders in our field in their jobs.  

Michael is a partner at Caldwell Partners, one of the top executive search firms, where he leads the firm’s Professional Services practice out of its Stamford, CT office. 

Along with other executive recruiters, Michael has an interesting vantage point of the legal marketing industry as well as the legal marketing talent market.  His line of sight into law firm 2.0 has made him a sought-after speaker on professional services and legal career management, including the recent LMA Annual Conference in San Diego. 

In the first edition of our new Legal Marketing Market feature, Mike DeCosta shared his insights on our business with Catherine Hausman.

I heard that your presentation at the LMA Annual Conference titled “The New Operating Prowess Required of Today’s Marketing Leaders” generated a lot of attention – and anxiety – among attendees.  What was it about?

The overall theme is that law firms seek demonstrable operating prowess to ensure market responsiveness and agility from their marketing leaders.  Job descriptions are asking for financial and operating literacy such as the ability to read a spreadsheet, set a budget, manage headcount, work with IT, and automate business processes that are replicable and scalable. Today’s CMO must be equipped to set up and run a department that runs like a well-oiled machine. 

Is this a new development?

The emphasis on process management is not a new zeitgeist.  It’s been happening for at least 20 years, but the trend has accelerated coming out of the recent recession.  Most marketing and business development leaders are already aware of it.  They live it every day. My presentation covered things CMOs must think about now to prepare for the future.

Chambers rankings, article placements, speaking engagements and award nominations are important, but are not how legal services are necessarily procured; all that is not going to go away. Business development leaders still have to do everything else they are already doing.  Lawyers are starting to learn from their clients about how to show contextual value for their services, and CMOs have to learn to do the same. 

What is the reason for the changing dynamic?

Many talented people go into legal marketing because they are creative types – smart, good communicators who know how to promote, position, message and innovate. Charisma and likeability are still very important, and gravitas counts.  But potential employers want to know things like: Can you set up dashboards? Use CRM technology? Create a sustainable business pursuit methodology and manage an RFP and proposal generation process?  The emphasis is on mechanical and operational responsibilities, and that’s where the potential disconnect can occur for individuals who haven’t acquired these skills or rethought their own mandate in relative value. 

In light of these new realities, what can CMOs, or aspiring CMOs, do to be competitive in the marketplace and keep their skills top notch?

I don’t think everyone needs to get an MBA, but I would encourage ongoing education in the areas of financial operations, technology, general management, and relative pricing.  Those are relevant skills right now.  Think of it as an extracurricular activity or professional development. Several of my best candidates have acquired a Masters degree or graduate certificate in Law Firm Management.  There are some good programs out there.

Headcount is increasing, and so is the trend towards specialization. It doesn’t matter whether you attend a Harvard leadership program or take an accounting course at a community college, as long as you acquire the requisite skills to run a multidimensional department. 

What is the median job tenure for CMOs /chief BD officers these days? 

Length of tenure is increasing for a number of reasons.  Fifteen years ago, when law firms started looking for their first CMOs, they didn’t know what the mandate was. They just knew that they wanted one too.  After that first wave there was a lull.  During the Great Recession, as many as 25 of the Am Law firms went without a CMO at some point. Gradually CMOs came up with their own performance standards and metrics to show their value including: win percentage, gestation period for new business; budget and  headcount management, amount of revenue they touched, pricing issues resolved, and so on. 

Are CMO salaries rising commensurate with their new responsibilities and expertise? 

CMO salaries were in a huge bubble – even reaching seven figures; but after the recession, they fell back to earth. There are more people in the department today, so the CMO has to share his/her own wealth as opposed to being “an army of one.” 

What do you like best about your job?

I love the idea that I’m able to change people’s lives professionally. which impacts their lives personally. it’s very humbling, and it’s a big responsibility. Even though my fiduciary responsibility is to the client who is retaining me, I am also an advocate for candidates. There is no need to force the fit. I want what’s right for both sides. If I have been the honest broker, then the client is happy and the candidate is likely to become a future client. 

What do you look for when sizing up a resume and what advice would you give potential candidates?  

I look for a cadence of career tenure.  If someone is moving on every two years, experience is accretive, but it is forecasting to your next employer that you will probably leave again in a couple of years.  Five to seven years could be perceived as a good timeframe. But after that your voice may be tired, or you are getting too custodial, and should consider a move to a new platform to stay fresh and relevant.  But it’s always an individual story.  You can still be fresh after 20 years. 

What five pieces of advice would you give senior law firm leaders? 

1)      Take an inventory of your career. Each time you’ve completed a major accomplishment, write it down somewhere. Consider adding it as a bullet point to your resume or LinkedIn profile.

2)      Develop financial and operating prowess.

3)      Look at your department as an inverted pyramid – it’s not about you as an individual performer – you are only as good as the weakest link on your team.

4)      Manage relationships proactively every day and in every single exchange (partnerships are fickle).

5)      You must have ego and the absence of ego at the same time – the ability to project that you are a subject matter expert, so the partnership will respond to you in the way their clients respond to them. On the flip side, resist the need to take credit for everything.   Impart your wisdom so they repeat back what you just taught them. Lawyers will learn; they just may not want to be taught. 

You have become a thought leader by contributing a career column to “Marketing the Law Firm.” Do you follow any business thought leaders? 

I follow all of my candidates. I am in such a fortunate positon to learn from the best executives. At the beginning of my career, when I was a 25-year-old, I interviewed C-level executives twice my age for major corporations and organizations about what they would have done differently if they had to do it all over again. I realized how lucky I was to be listening to them. Since then, I have learned that the best leaders never take themselves too seriously and they prioritize work/life balance.

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