Legal Marketing Market: Bill Crooks (Priority Search International)

by Catherine Hausman on March 23, 2016

Crooks Bill 2016Bill Crooks leads the Professional Services group at Priority Search International, where he is a partner.  Bill has helped shape the industry by placing more than 35 chief marketing officer or department head equivalents, and more than 400 other legal marketing professionals, inside AmLaw 100 firms over the past 15 years.

Bill not only places leaders but is a legal marketing thought leader himself.  He has written many articles and frequently speaks at industry events, including The American Lawyer’s Law Firm Marketing & Business Development Leadership Forum, where he discussed, “What skills do law firm leaders want in their CMOs, e.g., acumen, analytical ability, strategic or management experience?”

Bill talked about these and other questions, including the role of the recruiter and critical factors to consider when choosing a new firm, with our Catherine Hausman, in this edition of the Legal Marketing Market.

Q: How long have you been in the recruiting business, and what was your first job?

A: I have led the professional services group at Priority Search for 15 years, and our firm is over 35 years old. As for my “first job,” at the age of nine, my parents said to me, “Billy, if you are going to continue to play golf, you need to caddy.”  Eleven years of “looping” with the diverse personalities I met on the golf course was the foundation for my professional career.

Q: Does Priority Search focus primarily on retained search, contingency or a combination?

A:  Priority Search International offers standard retained and contingency search options as well as its proprietary “PrioritySearch” hybrid.  A “PrioritySearch” incorporates the advantages of retained and contingency searches while adding a package of benefits including candidate exclusivity, mitigation of financial risk and extended service guarantees.

Q: You have a loyal and devoted clientele. What is the secret to your success?

A: If you operate from the heart and focus on the success of others, everyone wins. Changing jobs has an impact on people’s lives and families so, like the pebble in the stream, it’s not just the individual who is affected.  I want to make sure candidates have a full understanding of what the challenges would be in the opportunity so they can make informed decisions.

Experienced recruiters have a firm grasp of the business and the culture of Big Law.  When working with a firm to conduct a search, before I even make a single phone call, I will have discussed and framed the priorities for the role and gained buy-in and agreement from multiple levels of the partnership.

Q: How do you know if an opportunity is the right fit?

A: It comes down to the experience of that particular individual – and whether he or she has been successful in a similar culture, under similar circumstances.  Most of the talented individuals I’ve worked with have a deep understanding of their capabilities, but law firms are at different points on the business development spectrum, so it depends on whether the firm is ready for what they have to offer.

Q:  How is success measured?  What is the new CMOs’ mandate? 

The evolved firms understand that it is not necessarily about ROI and measuring numbers. If it can be determined that the CMO helped to foster positive collaborative behaviors within the partnership, and further institutionalized client focused activities, the firm has an A+ leader in place. Standouts also have a high level of emotional intelligence. These are the “long termers” in our business.

Q: How do you know when you’ve attained that proverbial “seat at the table?”

A: When you are viewed as a trusted advisor in your area of expertise. Then you know you have added value, and are looked on as a resource. If a partner calls another partner in the firm and says “let’s have ‘so-and-so’ join us in the meeting” – then you know you’ve arrived.

Q: Can you develop a relationship with a recruiter before you start looking?

A: Yes, of course. We work in a very tightly knit industry and we all know each other, so confidentiality is important.  I am always open to having confidential conversations with potential candidates, to talk about their current situations and what they’re looking for.

Q: Is it wrong to work with multiple recruiters in a job search?

A:  Be upfront if you are working with other recruiters and be respectful of their time by letting them know where you are in the process of pursuing another opportunity.  Recruiters may be more attentive if you are working with them on an exclusive basis.

Q: What are the advantages of working with a recruiter as opposed to going it alone?

A: A recruiter can provide important context and background information about the search.  It’s very helpful, for instance, to learn what may have been involved in the vacancy.  Be wary of firms that forego using a recruiter to fill a top position because it might be an indication that the firm is in retraction mode and begs the question, “what else is the firm not investing in?” Another advantage of working with a recruiter is it’s often better for the recruiter to ask specific questions about resources and tactical issues, especially at the beginning.

Q: Where do you see opportunity for legal marketers this year?

A:  I believe there will be a lot of activity building out support on the litigation side of the fence.

Q: Where are you seeing the most job growth, in terms of job titles and geography? And what types of firms are likely to be offering these opportunities?

A: Larger platform firms are very active in NYC and DC right now at the Manager, Senior Manager and Director levels.

Q:  You have presented on the skills that law firm leaders want in their CMOs, “e.g., acumen, analytical ability, strategic or management experience.” Is the answer, “All of the above?”

A: Yes indeed. It is important for CMOs to provide thought leadership contributing to the overall strategic direction of firm, not a voice exclusively focused on the marketing and business development department.

Q: How should a candidate handle the initial round of interviews?

A: Start the discussion at around 10,000 feet. If they like you, there will be opportunity to probe further. If you get granular too quickly, they might infer that you are more of an “executor” than a “strategic doer.”  Most important is to be yourself. You want them to buy you, not what you think they want from you, or at the end of the day you’ll be miserable.

Q: Common mistakes?

A: Candidates usually talk too much. Be efficient in your responses. Your answers should be specific and complete.  I also advise candidates not to take notes in an interview.  It shows you are not listening.  The top leaders in our industry are champion “active” listeners; they give the impression that the conversation they are having with you is the most important thing going on in the world at that moment.

Q:  What are some of the top things a candidate should find out before making a move?

A:  The best recruiters will divulge as much as they can so the candidate can make an informed decision, but here are some guidelines:

  1. How long has the position been open? Has it been a revolving door?
  2. Are there clear, objective benchmarks for success in this role? Is there a significant level of buy-in at multiple levels of the partnership? If the firm doesn’t have a road map ready when a new leader comes in, the longevity of any new CMO is at risk.
  3. How does the firm encourage the partnership with regards to collaboration?
  4. What is the current status and structure of the department? Firms may – or may not – be willing to align resources with their benchmarks for success.

Q: What will the legal marketing department of the future look like?

A: Knowledge management, practice management and marketing will be considered one function.

Q:  What’s the best professional advice you ever got?

A:  My dad was a lawyer, but he did not encourage me to follow him into the profession. Years later, when I got into recruiting, I told him I’d be working with some of the same firms he used to work with. He told me, “Billy, when you get in there and start speaking with those partners, you square up and look them in the eye.  Tell them what you believe and why, because they are the best “BS” detectors in the world.”

Q: In addition to confidence in their knowledge and abilities, what should future leaders do to gain the experience they need to become CMOs?

A: Ask for additional practice management responsibilities; it is the future of legal marketing. Specialization in the marketplace has carried over to specialization within law firm practice and within legal marketing departments, so developing deeper knowledge of legal practice areas can be a significant advantage.  The substance matters.

Q: What advice would you give to firms and CMOs about managing Millennials?

A: The new generation in our industry prefers clear communication about career development and advancement. It’s also helpful to develop more short term recognition opportunities and to expand the title possibilities within the department.

Q: What do you like to do when you are not working?

A:  First, it has always been about spending time with my family.  It goes so fast. I am blessed with the best family a man could ever have hoped, asked, or wished for. Without them, and my best friend and wife Teresa, I would not be having this discussion with you today.

Second, I am a sports nut. Growing up in New England, it was always, “God, Family and the Boston Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins.” So one side of my sports den is devoted to New England. The other, which surprises people, is devoted to the University of Tennessee. One of my early mentors, Zollie Cantrell, was the General Manager for WDOD, a UT Vol Network radio affiliate in Chattanooga. He hired me over the phone while I was in Alaska selling radio advertising for KEAG (my first job out of college). Zollie introduced me to a stadium in Knoxville, TN that has 105,000 passionate fans clad in orange on Saturdays during the fall. It has been a family passion to this day.  We try to go to a couple of games each year.

Q: So you root for the New England Patriots and the Tennessee Volunteers. Which quarterback do you prefer, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning?

A: Our family had a clumber spaniel that lived with us for 10 years – named Brady.

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