CMO Forum – “Marketing is Not a Department.” Robert J. (Bob) Robertson Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, LLP

by Catherine Hausman on January 26, 2016

Robertson Bob 2016Bob Robertson’s career has touched nearly every aspect of business development and marketing for nearly every size of firm across a broad range of practices and geographic markets.  Bob, who served as NYLMA chapter president in 2005, is currently the Director of Strategic Business Development at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft.  He leads a team of more than 20 legal marketing professionals and is responsible there for developing and executing a global business development, marketing and communications strategy.  Bob had previously been the CMO at Greenberg Traurig.

Bob remains a familiar face at NYLMA chapter meetings and is active in the CMO SIG. He recently moderated the panel on “Legal Marketing Goes Global: Maximizing International Success for Your Firm.” In this interview, Catherine Hausman gets Bob to share the secret to his longevity in the profession, and his perspective on current trends and challenges in our industry. 

What was your first job and how did it lead you to a career in legal marketing?

I started my career as an analyst for a retail holding company in Chicago (at the time the country’s 11th largest retailer with $5.4 billion in sales) that operated a number of retail businesses – from supermarkets and craft stores to hardware and automotive supply chains. I was tasked with monitoring developments in retailing and I put together a monthly report for senior management that discussed competitor news; new store prototypes; marketing and promotional innovations, as well as demographic and economic trends impacting the future of the business.

From there, I worked for a retail consulting business focused on strategic planning and positioning, and moved up the ranks as part of a national department store’s executive training program. Along the way, however, I realized that I wasn’t happy with my career and thought about going to law school. So, to test the waters, I took my decade-long career completely off track and became a paralegal, ultimately ending up at a San Francisco law firm that eventually became Thelen Reid.

How did your time at Thelen prepare you to become a CMO?

I had the good fortune to work with a practice group chair who provided me with the incredible opportunity to be, in essence, his “right hand.”  He was aggressively building a national labor and employment practice and was also tasked with running and building that firm’s Los Angeles office. By working for him, I was exposed to every aspect of practice management and the business of law. Not only did I support him by working on his matters, but I also worked on projects involving partner recruiting, practice group and office business planning, marketing, pricing, as well as a host of other management concerns. That on-the-job education afforded me a very personal understanding of how lawyers actually work; and it tapped into the strategic planning and marketing skills I developed in my earlier retail career.

Fortuitously, as well, one of his key clients had embraced the DuPont Legal Model, a pioneering approach to managing legal services that is essentially the precursor to much of what we hear about partnering, legal project management and sourcing today. My job was to interface with the client and manage a good deal of the operational aspects of the program and, by doing so, I developed a very early understanding of the changes impacting the delivery of legal services that are very much in play and on our minds right now. All of that led to a broader role as the National Proposals Manager at Thelen – a position that allowed me to draw from my experience just as preferred provider programs were starting to blossom, and firms were starting to be asked to market process and infrastructure as well as their capabilities.

What are the most pressing challenges we face as legal marketing professionals today?

All firms are facing the challenge of responding to, and evolving, in light of a changed and changing marketplace for legal services. As marketers, we are consequently challenged to understand how best to market our services in this new landscape and to constantly define and evaluate how best to support our respective firms. Many firms are also struggling with differentiation and how to position themselves in this new environment; a challenge which requires vision and clear, unbiased thinking. This is a period of great change, so what worked in the past may no longer work as effectively (or at all), and being forward thinking often involves a certain level of risk.

Everyone talks about creating a business development culture. How do you actually implement one?

Becoming a firm where business development is part of the DNA – where business development permeates the entire firm – requires that everyone, from legal assistants to partners, understands that they have a role in the process. A partner I once worked with understood this well and was fond of saying that “marketing is not a department.” That sums it up.

One way to create a BD-focused culture is through hands-on training. People learn by doing, or by participating in a process where they get to observe the nuts and bolts. At Greenberg, for example, we held an exercise for associates that required them to work collaboratively across offices and practice groups to pitch a model client. We gave them about an hour of best practices and tips, provided them with access to all of the firm’s business development resources and our own coaching, and required them to present to the imaginary “client” in front of their peers and senior lawyers who provided them with real time feedback. The level of engagement was amazing and the lessons learned made a real impact.

At Cadwalader, we expose associates to the pitch process early on and they often assist with meeting preparation, pitch books, and monitoring along with our business development team. Our practice managers and analysts are embedded within our practice groups – they sit with them. Something so simple is actually very important because it demonstrates that business development and marketing isn’t an administrative department on a random floor somewhere in the building, but an integral part of what our lawyers are doing every day.

Finding the right talent is so important. How do you hire?

Our group reflects a mix of experience, backgrounds, and perspectives.  Typically, I hire people who are articulate, thoughtful, and hard workers. Most have a legal background, some don’t. A recent hire came from the financial services sector. Most important is someone who is smart, has presence, is emotionally intelligent and can build credibility and trust with the lawyers.  That is what it takes to succeed in this field.

How is culture important to success?

I believe that cultural fit is critical to success. Over the years, I have seen many talented, smart and successful marketers – often superstars in their prior firms – fail or quit suddenly in response to a lack of alignment of their own values and expectations with the culture of the new firm that they joined. It’s very important to do your research and not be swept away by the momentum of the recruiting process or the prestige of the position that you are being considered for. You owe it to yourself to really assess the interactions you have had as part of the hiring process, gather some outside perspectives and make an informed decision that is true to what motivates and inspires you as a professional.

What are some early leadership lessons?

I learned from my mentor, a trailblazing CMO whom I worked for early on in my career, how to be flexible about presenting your ideas, to always take the long view, and to be resilient. If you take things too personally or are caught up with being right all the time, your career won’t go very far and you won’t be any kind of leader. In our roles, we can only really lead by embracing a service perspective.

Essential traits for successful law firm leaders?

Other essential traits for law firm leadership include a curiosity for, and knowledge of, the industry as a whole, an understanding of how law firms make money, and the ability to understand and articulate the client’s perspective. It’s also critical to develop positive relationships within the firm at all levels. And it helps to have a sense of humor and not take yourself too seriously.

The ability to read a room is also an important skill that you develop over time. When you walk into a meeting you might need to reposition your agenda, so you have to be quick on your feet.

How do you keep up with the rapid pace of change in our industry?

I am always learning, either by attending conferences and roundtables with my peers or speaking with industry thought leaders such as Paul Lippe, and finding ways to hear from clients whenever possible. I always question our approaches and often wonder, “Can we do this better?” [Author’s note: Lippe is the founder and CEO of the Legal Onramp, a Silicon Valley-based initiative founded in cooperation with Cisco Systems to improve legal quality and efficiency through collaboration, automation and process re-engineering. He is also an ABA Journal columnist and he coined the term “the new normal.”]

How do you apply what you learned in retailing to marketing a law firm?

In business, data analysis is essential in order to direct marketing spend and brand awareness is constantly being tested and measured. In retail, marketing has a daily report card that reflects how effective it is, and there’s accountability and a passion for understanding and responding to the customer/consumer. I am always investigating and evaluating resources and tools that can provide analytical insights on the legal market and can help us measure the effectiveness of the work we do.

Why is it important to be involved in the LMA?

When you are starting your career, LMA provides you with exposure to people, ideas and trends in the industry, that are outside of your own firm and your immediate perspective. If you get involved and volunteer, you will make friendships that will last your entire career – and you will be a source of support for each other in good times and bad. At the CMO level, even though theoretically we work at competing firms, we are very collegial and sharing ideas is not proprietary.  We all understand that the key to success for a new initiative lies in its implementation and each of our firms is unique in that regard. We bring ideas to the table, share our perspectives and continue to educate and support each other.

What do you like to do when you aren’t working?

I love theater and recently saw a great adaptation of Zola’s “Therese Raquin” with Keira Knightley that was exceptionally thought provoking and entertaining. I love movies too – and yes; I am a big James Bond and espionage fan – and I read books about quirky historical topics. I just finished “Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present,” and Norman Davies’ “Vanished Kingdoms” about states and nations that were once very important but have faded away from our memory. I also have a travel bug and spent time in Spain last summer. If you were looking for me, you would probably find me in a medieval cathedral or sitting in a local restaurant enjoying some excellent jamon and a good bottle of wine from Ribera del Duero.

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