In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel goes On Record with Deborah Farone, founder of Farone Advisors, LLC, to discuss best practices for personal business development for lawyers and other professionals. Deborah is the author of Best Practices: Marketing and Business Development for Law Firms, which is a book published by PLI and based on more than sixty interviews with successful law firm leaders and marketers, general counsel and innovators in the profession. Earlier in 2022, Deborah was inducted into the Legal Marketing Association Hall of Fame. She also is a fellow of the College of Law Practice Management.
During the past two decades, she carved out a niche by distinguishing herself as the chief marketing officer of two of the world’s most prestigious law firms. Prior to diving into legal marketing, however, she worked at a global management consulting firm, Towers Perrin, now known as Willis Towers Watson. She’s also well-versed in the work of public relations agencies like that of Furia Rubel, having worked at Ketchum Communications.
How did you go from working in-house at a law firm to founding Farone Advisors?
I was fortunate. I had a long shelf life. I was at Debevoise as their CMO for 14 years and then Cravath for 14 years. I had been at an agency, I had been at a consulting firm, and I thought the one thing I hadn’t done was consulted on my own. Although when you’re in-house, you’re constantly consulting the people that you work with, I thought this would be something that I’d want to do as my next step. At the same time, I was thinking about it, PLI asked if I would write a book and I thought, “That’s great. I’m going to consider the book my first client.” As it happened when I launched, I ended up getting some law firms calling me and developed clients at the same time. It just worked out.
You try to set yourself up for success in marketing. You make sure that you are always developing contacts. I tell the lawyers and the consultants that I work with that you never know where that next opportunity is going to come so you want to make sure you’re doing everything that you do with your whole heart and with full intent of making sure that you’re doing it professionally. I was very fortunate in that I ended up getting these initial clients and I did work for some great firms, including Gunderson Dettmer and Dechert and a few others right off the bat. I was very fortunate. If that hadn’t happened, I would’ve happily spent my first year writing a book.
Gina Rubel: It’s nice to be able to write a book and to have that opportunity. This is what I like to tell clients all the time, whether you’re writing a book, writing an article, when you talk to others, when you quote others, there’s not only more validity, but you’re building a better relationship with them. Knowing you, everyone, and I’ve read your book, everyone in the book had so much to add. I recommend to our listeners and readers that if you’re in legal or even professional marketing in this space, it’s so worth reading and really understanding how other people think.
Deborah Farone: I feel the same way about your book, too. It really is a must-read. And you’re right, I often will tell the people that I work with if you’re going to write an article, think about who you can quote. Who is it that you want to get to know? Who is it that is influential within your sphere in which you’re working? That can help build terrific relationships.
What are some of the lessons you learned from your book interviews?
It was great to see things that we’ve always been taught really being applied. A perfect example was Barry Wolf at Weil Gotshal. Barry believes that you need to wow your clients, and obviously that’s something they do at Weil Gotshal because they do phenomenally well, but he would talk about wowing clients, whether it was to a group of partners, whether it was to a group of associates, whether it was to staff, at every juncture he had the opportunity to. This idea of communicating, communicating, communicating, and having an idea of where you want to go is so vital, but I really saw Barry put it into action, which was great to see.
Another great lesson I learned was from Bob Gunderson at Gunderson Dettmer. He taught me and I spent a lot of time with him in the process of writing the book. They focus on startup companies, and they do it phenomenally well. They don’t do other kinds of work that are not startup related. So, they’ll represent startups, and they’ll represent venture capital, and they’ll represent the venture capitalists and the various funds, but they stick with that world. There’s something to be said about sticking with your knitting and doing what you do well, and there are other firms like Orrick, where if you talk to them, they will also say, “This is something that we do.”
Mitch Zuklie says, “We have two or three areas that we are really focused on and that’s where we’re going to focus.” There is a certain magic with knowing those areas that your firm is going to focus on and doing that very, very well. There were lots of lessons that I learned both about marketing and about business and seeing those theories that really, we’ve been told that work really put into action.
Gina Rubel: I love that, and I encourage all our listeners to get a copy of your book, read it and read not only your wisdom, but all the lessons you learned from the many, many people that you had the opportunity and I’m sure pleasure to interview.
What inspires you to work with women in law?
I’ve always been interested in helping individuals market, and as I’ve been doing this, I’ve noticed that women very often, have not been invited into the important pitches as often as their male counterparts. By doing that and by excluding women in that way, women haven’t had the same exposure to role models that men have had. Not only the role models that they meet on a pitch, but the actual partners who are rainmakers in their firm. I love the idea of helping women by giving them the tools to understand how to market and how to do those things that they would’ve learned from mentors, or they would’ve learned from role models had they been included.
The same thing is true for all minorities. I was at a New York City Bar Association program a little over two years ago and we were talking about how a number of the people in the audience who were minorities felt they were invited into a pitch, but after the pitch happened and the business was won, they never saw the client again. And what could they do?
I handled new business pitches at two large firms. I had never even heard of that happening. I thought these people are invited in on a pitch, whether they’re women or minorities, and believed, of course they’re going to work on the matter. I hope that at the firms that I worked at, they were, but there are many places where they’re not, and my question is, how can we give those folks the keys to be able to develop their own business in the meantime and gain their own confidence? I’ve loved working especially with women and minorities. It’s something that we all can do, and we all need to give back whatever tools we gain.
Gina Rubel: It’s so important today with 50% of people in the workplace being women and a very large percentage being minorities. It’s changed. When I went to law school, it was 50% men and women. When my dad went to law school and graduated in 1971, he had two women in his class and few people of color. Just from the perspective of history, it’s time to give everyone the tools. My husband has a saying, “Give people the rules and tools they need to succeed,” and I love that because… and when I say rules, it could be things like how to manage your personal brand, which I know is something you do, and the tools to do that.
Why is there an interest in personal branding?
It’s an offshoot of what we’ve been doing with branding. My firm has done strategic plans for law firms, and we’ve also done practice plans for law firms. Personal brand looks at the smallest subset of branding the individual. It’s important today, more than ever, because with more people making lateral moves from one firm to another, and with firms becoming these incredible places that are an amalgam of various lawyers, lawyers owe it to themselves to establish a personal brand.
What are some tips for lawyers to establish their personal brands?
I always believe that strategy needs to come before tactics. So, to develop a strategy, you need to look at your personal brand as it is today and then figure out where it is that you want to go. Look at your LinkedIn profile and by all means, improve that. Spend a little time each week looking at LinkedIn at a minimum. Make sure that your profile is not only concise, but reflects who you are as an individual, what makes you different, what makes you unusual, why someone who you are communicating to should hire you. Look at your profile across all social media and your bios and figure out how it is that you’re being perceived.
I suggest that when people are really looking at personal brand that they work with an outside consultant, because I think they need an outside perspective. I don’t think the days exist anymore where you can rest on the laurels of being at a great firm. Being at a great firm is wonderful. It removes some of the questions that you might get from a GC or from a board of directors that knows of your firm and knows of their brand, but personal brand is also vital. It’s how you reach out to people, how you have relationships with people. There are lots of things that you can do, but it starts with looking at your own strategy and developing some tactics.
Gina Rubel: I agree with you wholeheartedly on having someone else outside of your family even, outside of your normal professional sphere, look at your bio and your profile for that matter, because the one thing we miss is that we don’t know how everyone else thinks and what everyone else perceives. What one of us might perceive as completely professional or we might use language that we think is inclusive, there could be words that are triggers. There could be words that identify implicit bias. It’s not just hire someone. There’s a reason. The reasons go deep, and we don’t know how we come across. The hardest thing we do, and even in communications, the hardest thing for you and me to do is write our own bios.
Deborah Farone: Absolutely. We need an outside perspective. And even if you can’t afford an outside coach or consultant, it’s important to think about your bio and all your materials from the view of your client. Think about your typical client over the last five years. Produce a persona, figure out who those people are and what their needs are and read your bio and all of your material from their perspective; not from the perspective of what you have to sell, but of the perspective of what they are going to need to buy. Flip the way that you’ve been looking at it, and then think about what your objectives are and some tactics to be able to achieve that.
You mentioned that you write strategic plans. Should people and/or law firms write their own strategic plans?
No. It’s political enough when you have an outsider helping you, but some of the decisions that need to come up in a good strategic plan are going to be controversial. So maybe you decide that you are going to focus in on three practice areas and the fourth practice area is wondering, “Well, why aren’t I getting the bigger piece of the pie for marketing dollars this year?” And some of those discussions are just better had with an outsider.
I work with a terrific guy who does the finance side when we’re doing a strategic plan, and some of these decisions not only are controversial, but they involve deep dives into not only profitability of practice areas and industry groups, but also profitability per partner, and really looking at what the partner is bringing into the firm and trying to make those hard decisions about where potential profitability is. And they’re just hard conversations to have.
Gina Rubel: I equate corporate strategic planning, which is different than writing strategic communications plans, but corporate strategic planning to seeing a doctor and having the doctor look at all the different aspects of one’s health. So, think about a company as having health, whether it’s your financial health, your emotional health, in other words, the health of the people, all those things, and it’s not just the financial health of the firm. It’s the practice groups or the industry groups, it’s the individuals. It is important to get that outside perspective because sometimes it’s the leaders who are creating an unhealthy culture and they can’t see it.
Deborah Farone: Right. Someone who has had the experience of doing this for other firms is going to know that variable C is very important, more important than variable A because they’ve seen what it can do in the past. Using someone who has had experience with other firms does help. The other thing that firms can do themselves, which is important, is practice planning. It helps to have someone from the outside, but to put together an annual plan to be able to tell your practice where they’re going and get everyone to agree on it at the beginning of the year is helpful. The one complaint that I get from partners at law firms is they’re not quite sure about what’s expected from them and where their practice is going. There are some easy steps that law firms can take that will make a big difference in doing that.
What holds some people back from rainmaking? We were talking a lot about women and minorities or protected people in protected classes. I want to ask you about women. What holds women back from rainmaking?
There are two main reasons. The first is not knowing how to do it, whatever the it is. They haven’t seen the role models time and time again do the asking and they don’t feel comfortable, and it feels like putting yourself out there and you may be rejected and they’re not quite sure how to ask for the business, which is one of the reasons I role play with a lot of my clients. We really take real world situations and do that role playing. But I think without mentors and without seeing precedent, which lawyers are so interested in seeing, it’s very hard. So, there’s this big not knowing.
Then again, it’s the fear of rejection. We’ve all read the Larry Richard’s material about resilience and people are concerned about being rejected. If you find a partner or a lawyer at a firm who has sales in their background, they’re much more likely to be resistant to that. They are more apt to be out there and realize that “Yeah, you don’t win everything. And do you know what? If you don’t win something, it’s not the end of the world,” or it’s not necessarily a binary decision whether someone’s going to hire you or not hire you. Even if someone doesn’t hire you, it doesn’t mean that they’re not going to five years from now or that someone who sat in on that business call might become GC someplace else.
These are long-tail decisions, and when lawyers realize that and they realize that the fear of rejection shouldn’t exist because there is no such thing as rejection in a world where people are constantly networking and constantly moving, that dissipates. Sometimes it’s just getting people past that fear and giving them, as your husband would say, the right tools. People need the right tools to be able to do these things.
Gina Rubel: I love that and when I finally found that nothing in business is personal and really accepted that, I owned that. Like you said, there’s really no such thing as rejection. It’s just not the right fit at the moment. Something will shift and change, and if it ever is the right fit, it will come back. And that’s really one of the things I’ve learned as a business owner and I’m sure you feel it as a consultant, as well. We also don’t take all the business that comes our way. It’s not always the right fit. And it might be because we just don’t have the bandwidth or it’s not a cultural fit or there’s somebody else that we think can do it more strategically or better now. And so, it’s just fascinating, if you take all that emotion out of it, how much more we enjoy our work.
Deborah Farone: Absolutely. It’s true. Some of it is a numbers game and I think especially when you’re starting out as a partner at a firm or with your own business, you are going to have a number of rejections. I remember the first new business pitch I was asked for where someone wanted a document and I was pitching against a number of firms, which I now no longer do. I’ve learned that that isn’t a game that I necessarily want to play in, but you would write these very long pitches and you may get it, or you might not get it. It’s a little bit of a question of do you want to participate or not? That’s the first important question.
I faced this in-house as a CMO. You don’t necessarily want to pitch for things that the firm is not capable of doing or that are not going to be advantageous to the potential client, might not be the right fit, and you must get very good at saying yes/no when you’re given those opportunities. So, you want to find the right work for you that’s going to be enjoyable, where you really can make a difference, where you love your clients. You must look for those opportunities and those are the ones that you’ll do really well.
What are some of the trends you’re seeing in the legal industry?
People are focusing now more than ever on keeping their associates happy and their partners happy at their firms, and they’re struggling with the whole work from home environment. I do see them doing more training, as you probably do. They have to be very intentional about training because people are not in the office five days a week. I’ve seen video training on business development, I’ve seen video training on presentation skills on Zoom and how you adapt for that. Training overall, I think anyone who is involved in it has had to make it a lot more interesting and compelling and realize that adults don’t think on one wavelength for more than 12 minutes, and so you need to break it up and make it a kind of a fun presentation, even if it’s the driest of subjects.
Training has been changing dramatically. I also see the rise of personal branding that is something here to stay, and lastly, I’ve seen a huge uptick in the use of social media and LinkedIn, which is a positive. We all talk about pooh-poohing technology and that maybe it’s the end of the world that kids are on their phones all the time, but it can be used to the advantage, especially for the legal community, to get out there and to get their opinions known and also to be able to network in a time where we’re not necessarily still seeing people as much face-to-face.
Do you see an uptick in the trend in developing and implementing marketing strategy across law firms?
Absolutely. They’re taking it much more seriously. They realize that this is an expense, but it’s an expense that you have to have in any kind of a business. You can’t just say, “Oh, we’re going to have a marketing department because that’s what our lawyers want, and they’ll help them market when the lawyers need it.” You really need to have a marketing department that is proactive, that works directly with the partnership, which is strategic, that identifies trends, identifies opportunities, focuses on business development strategy, all those things. And firms are taking it a lot more seriously. I think they’re really developing strategic plans for the firm, but also working in conjunction with the marketing department to make sure that those things really get done.
How do we shift the mindset from expense to investment?
It’s revenue generation. I just spoke with a firm about a CRM system, this is a London-based firm, and why they needed a CRM. And we talked about it, and I said, “These are business questions. These are not marketing questions, in the classic sense.” All of these things are part of helping the business grow. We were also excited a few years ago, big data, and big data is great, but it’s what you do with it. So, I think it’s very important for marketers to really sell back to the firm and use those quantifiable results to say, “This is how many people we’ve reached, and this is where these clients are coming from, and this is why it makes an impact.” And although it is hard to show ROI in professional services, and it’s something I’ve seen people struggle with for the last 20 years, I think it’s important to at least have those metrics to be able to sell the story as a marketer.
Gina Rubel: I agree. If you’re having a conversation about why you should have a CRM and somewhere else in the firm, somebody is saying marketing doesn’t work, CRMs can help. If you think marketing doesn’t work and you’re not measuring it, then stop saying it doesn’t work because it’s like saying, “I have high blood pressure,” but you’ve never taken your blood pressure. It makes no sense. There’s no evidence that it doesn’t work, and that CRM is just a foundational tool. Going back to that example of tools and rules or rules and tools, it’s a tool that allows you to not only measure, but to do it better every time.
What’s the biggest problem with law firm marketing departments?
It’s twofold. It’s resources and respect. Those two things are tied into one another, because you can’t get someone to do something without the proper tools and without leadership behind it. When you have a leader of a firm who is not a champion of getting out there and developing business or a champion of marketing or a champion of communications, it almost doesn’t matter how hard you try as a marketer or as an outside PR firm if they’re not believing it and they’re reticent, because as marketers, we’re advocates, but we need the tools. We need the resources, we need the technology, especially, to get these things done. A lot of marketers end up trying to market with their hands behind their back and it just can’t be done.
Gina Rubel: And if I might add, they need the information, which means having a seat at the table. They need to be given trust.
Deborah Farone: Right. And we’ve seen a huge difference between the firms where the CMO has a seat at the table and the firms where the CMO is really relegated to back-office work. It makes a tremendous difference. Also, the chairman needs to be a role model. The chairman needs to be out there networking and knowing people’s names on the administrative staff and walking office to office. I’ve seen chairmen who are like that, and I’ve also seen chair who stay in their office all day and just wait for the appointments to happen. And we know which is more effective and more useful. It becomes very clear where the problems stem from when you look at a law firm. Maybe it’s just from doing this for a long time, but asking the right questions, you can clearly see where the blind spots are.
What can people do today to get out there and network themselves, virtually or in person? What are some things that you would tell them that they should be doing?
What a great question. Well, I think the first thing, and I only coach about, I don’t know how many I can handle, but six individual lawyers. I just don’t think I have the bandwidth to handle more than that a year. But what I usually start by telling them is look at who you’ve made new business presentations to over the last two years. Have you stayed in touch with those people? Have you linked in with those people? Have you had a conversation with them? Look back and see your history of pitching. Also look at who you’ve won. Are you staying in touch with those people? Do you have a regular system to be in touch with them? Whether it’s calendaring it, whether it’s a tickler file, whatever works for you, and different things will work for different people. But I think that’s an easy kind of takeaway.
And the other thing I would do is make sure… with LinkedIn, it’s a funny situation. I was at a PLI presentation right before the pandemic and I asked the audience members, mainly lawyers at law firms, “How many of you have been on LinkedIn this week?” And very few raised their hand. And then I turned to the general counsel who I was next to on the panel and asked him, “When was the last time you were on LinkedIn?” And he said, Five minutes ago.” He said, “I’m on every day. I meet someone, I want to check them out.” So, the tip is to be on LinkedIn. More GCs are on than ever before. And even if you’re not going to write original content, comment on what people have written and add your contacts in and use the little bell on top to make sure that you’re tracking the companies that you’re interested in. So, there’s a lot that can be done, but those are two easy-to-implement steps.
Gina Rubel: That’s fantastic. Many lawyers say, “Oh, I don’t need to be on LinkedIn.” And it’s especially in corporate, and yet the GCs are looking to validate them, to see who they’re connected to, see what kind of content they share. And if I might add, make sure you’re sharing things that are of value to others, not just yourself. For me, I went to law school, and I remember the typical bio started with the word ‘I.”
From the perspective of how to share the value that you bring to others, how can lawyers read their bios differently or write their bios differently so that they’re demonstrating that?
I would consider why clients or potential clients hire you. Is it because they’re in trouble? Is it because they want to create a company? Is it because they want to protect IP? And I would write it with that in mind and lead with that. Why do companies want to hire you? And maybe that means starting with a quote, maybe that means focusing on those clients and really articulating why it is that they hire you.
TURNING THE TABLES
Deborah Farone: I would love to ask you what trends you’ve been seeing, because you are really on the ground with your clients, seeing what they’re doing as far as PR. What have you been seeing?
Gina Rubel: From the industry perspective, the biggest thing is associate and talent retention and acquisition. Whether you want to call it the great resignation or… there’s a shift. There’s a big sea change as a result of the pandemic. Mid-sized firms are having a very hard time keeping talent that’s being recruited out by big firms. Big firms and mid-sized firms are having a hard time retaining diverse talent who are getting recruited out by their clients. It’s really fascinating. There’s an important shift in personal and professional development for the associates, for the partners, for the diverse members of your firms, and creating cohorts where people within a diverse community can have dialogue and feel safe, so creating those safe environments.
Another big trend we’re seeing is a focus on behavioral health and providing the resources that people need coming out of… I say coming out of with a caveat, I don’t know that we’re out of a pandemic. We’re at a different phase of managing life with a new virus out there, but everything has changed. One of the biggest trends we’re seeing is flexible work environments and how to have that and yet still be the kind of managing partner who goes “office to office.” How do you do that and what are the tools and ways to do that differently? So those are some things we’re seeing in trends, which from a PR perspective means a greater reliance on digital media, a greater reliance on things like getting engaged on LinkedIn, not just having a profile. I agree with everything you’ve had to say.
Learn More & Connect
Deborah Farone has had the unique opportunity to play a role in developing the best practices in professional services marketing by working with the most respected and most demanding lawyers in the world.
Deborah is the author of the best-selling legal marketing book, “Best Practices: Marketing and Business Development for Law Firms” (PLI 2019), a work based on more than sixty interviews with successful law firm leaders and marketers, general counsel, and innovators in the profession. Heidi K. Gardner, PhD, Distinguished Fellow, Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession, has called Deborah “the leading expert in law firm marketing. Not only has she studied this complex topic from the peak of the legal profession, her research into what works and what doesn’t is priceless for anyone interested in growing their business.” The book is carried by bookstores of the United States’ highest ranked law schools, including Harvard, Yale and Columbia.
Over the past two decades, Deborah has carved out a niche by distinguishing herself as the chief marketing officer of two of the world’s most prestigious law firms, Cravath Swaine & Moore LLP and Debevoise & Plimpton LLP. Prior to diving into the legal marketing profession, she honed her business development and communications skills by working at the global management consulting firm Towers Perrin, now Willis Towers Watson. In her early days, she worked both in the new business department and as an account executive at Ketchum Communications.
Deborah has been involved in the corporate and academic arena. She recently spoke at McKinsey & Company’s legal department and, on the academic side, at the University of Pennsylvania’s Carey Law School, Cornell Law School and Fordham Law School. She has served as an adjunct Assistant Professor on the faculty of New York University.