Structuring Your Firm’s Marketing Function

Many of my client firms don’t have a marketing professional on staff. Instead, they have a group of lawyers who are doing their darndest to make the best marketing decisions for their firm. 

They want to know the best practices for marketing decision-making and work flow systems. There are many good models and I’ll offer a hybrid of what I’ve seen work well. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but should provide you with some foundational elements to build upon to suit your firm’s culture, size and needs. But for a mid-sized firm with established practice groups, or at least the notion of groups, some planning will go a long way to managing your marketing budget and non-billable time, while advancing the firm towards its business goals.

The marketing function in any business follows the directives set out by the firm’s leadership. It follows, it doesn’t lead. That’s not to say marketing doesn’t initiate ideas, concepts or strategies, but the lion’s share of the effort maps directly to the firm’s goals so that all efforts and spending is strategic. These goals can be set out in a strategic plan, or shared in a hallway following a management meeting – either way, avoid a scenario where the marketing function is making these decisions for the firm. For that reason, let’s start at the top.

Executive/Management Committee 

This group oversees the practice and business management of the firm. Think of it as a Board of Directors and if every member of this committee holds a distinct position, marketing would be represented at the table. This “Marketing Partner” has demonstrated marketing savvy, a thriving practice, the respect of the partnership, an open-mind and is keen to continue learning about marketing. This person should, for instance, have a working knowledge of social media, belong or attend Legal Marketing Association, or other marketing professional development, events.

As a side note it’s worth mentioning that the most successful Managing Partners – who closely resembles a CEO running a multi-million dollar business — also have a strong understanding of business management and how the marketing function is an essential element to success.

Marketing Committee

The Marketing Partner needs a committee to support the mandate of the firm’s marketing and business goals. The marketing committee is the engine, but not necessarily the only worker-bees. Committee members should be from all facets of the firm – litigators, solicitors, young, mid-range and senior lawyers. Most importantly, they should be individuals who are keen on marketing and are prepared to follow-through on directives from the firm’s management and marketing committees.

Depending on the size of firm and committee, a co-chair position to handle the meeting preparation, agenda, minutes and follow-up action items can be a significant boost to the Marketing Partner. The creation of the co-chair position is also a good succession planning strategy. Committees of three to eight members are most common, but should be large enough so that no one member is over-burdened and small enough to be nimble and responsive. Your committee size should be relative to your firm’s ambitions, goals and marketing budget.

If you are just getting started or revisiting your marketing structure, do consider a terms of reference document for your committee. Developing a shared understanding of the committee’s functions will be helpful to committee members and your executive. It should set out its role, responsibilities, and scope, but just as importantly, it should identify what it is not responsible for. 

Here are a few specific terms to include:

  1. Committee responsibilities as a whole, and the individual roles and responsibilities
  2. Scope of work and deliverables
  3. Budget and other resources available
  4. Reporting responsibilities

Each committee member should have a specific role and clear responsibilities. These could be the mandates below, or tactical activities such as advertising, sponsorships, website & social media, client presentations & events, and so forth. If your firm has a marketing coordinator, this person is likely well-positioned to take action on many of the decisions that arise from these meetings and will form the basis for the day-to-day marketing activities for this individual.

If your budget allows, bring in a consultant occasionally to ramp up the Committee’s efforts and inject some fresh thinking around current or problematic issues. Doing so a few times a year can bring greater effectiveness of your time and resources.

Plan to meet once a month or every six weeks and do schedule these meetings for the year, and for no more than 60 or 90 minutes each. If attendance ever starts to wane, consider that morning meetings catch everyone before client demands set in and often can rival lunch-time meetings. Follow-up between meetings by the chair or co-chair will dramatically impact how many action items are completed in time for the next meeting.

Marketing Committee Mandates

To avoid creating a rudderless committee that lacks direction or substance, it’s important to state your priorities and to set realistic goals for your Marketing Committee. Identify your purpose together to gain buy-in by all members and present your proposal to the executive committee for blessing, if that’s your structure.

Among some of the core mandates for your Marketing Committee, the following are the most effective and could be considered: 

  1. Advancing the firm’s profile in key markets
  2. Practice group planning and implementation
  3. Business development
  4. Client retention and feedback

Whether your firm’s market is geographically-based or tailored to specific sectors or industries, identify where your firm’s expertise needs to be showcased. Research what your clients and prospects are reading and attending and ensure your firm is present in the most effective manner. This could involve a variety of activities including social media, events, board positions, sponsorships, advertising, but could also include bringing your firm’s corporate image up to date and freshening up your firm’s online and print image.

The Marketing Committee should support and advance the practice groups and their marketing and business development efforts. With a firm-wide perspective, this Committee is able to evaluate marketing plans and what is appropriate resource allocation for each practice group. 

When doling out marketing dollars to lawyers or practice groups, it’s almost always advisable to request a plan or business case for each request. This way, the committee can track marketing spending and its ROI (return on investment), as well as the productive non-billable efforts of its lawyers. Practice group annual marketing plans that are drafted well before the annual budget process begins, can be presented to the marketing committee for comment, adoption and financial support. The plan should be straight-forward to complete, with an emphasis on timelines and responsibilities. Do reward and recognize the effort and not always just the results.

Business development initiatives ensure you have future work in your pipeline. Of course, new work can come from existing clients or shiny new ones. Start with existing clients first, but do plan some new client outreach efforts and request your practice group leaders capture their intentions in their Group plan.

Your Marketing Committee should work from billing and client data to further develop strategies to meet the firm’s business goals. Ask your accounting department to provide this Committee with quarterly updates on top clients by fees, practice group billings and lawyer billings. Look for trends and areas of concern or opportunity. 

Who were your top 10 clients this year compared to the past three years? Have clients dropped off that you didn’t notice? If there’s no reasonable explanation, start asking questions. Better yet, initiate a client audit program for your top clients with the sole purpose of understanding your client – specifically, how you’re doing and how you can improve. This is not a business development initiative, it’s a retention strategy and, in some way, it should benefit your client with improved service.

Those four mandates are likely enough to keep most Marketing Committees on track and busy with productive and meaningful work. Just ensure they help to achieve the firm’s overall goals.

Your management model may differ from other firms, but you can adapt the above to suit your firm to ensure your marketing efforts and decision-making hit the mark.


  1. Alastair Mills-McEwan

    Hello Susan

    Thank you for a very useful article for firms that want to improve their marketing. While I appreciate the value of a Marketing Committee, I’m going to also confess to having a particular bee in my bonnet, however, about “The Skill That Dare Not Speak Its Name” i.e.

    There, I said it and I’m not ashamed, either. I didn’t say “marketing” or “business development” or “client engagement”. I said “sales”. Believe it or not, there are still law firms out there for whom sales is the last dirty word.

    Many law firms have embraced the idea of professional management by non-lawyers in key business areas such as finance, human resources, administration, facilities management and IT, but much more rarely in sales. What is the difference between finance, HR and IT on the one hand and sales on the other? The difference is that senior lawyers don’t try and do finance, HR and IT themselves.

    Why do law firms on the whole (though with some notable exceptions) lag behind other types of professional services firms like accountants or management consultants when it comes to the maturity of their approach to sales and sales management?

    Is it because sales has always been regarded as partner territory and therefore off-limits to non-lawyers? Even in firms with well established, quasi-corporate organization structures, sales is still often seen as something that needs senior lawyers to lead it and do it. Any “non-lawyer” business development-related positions are often staffed by relatively junior marketing administrators rather than professional sales people. Many law firms suffer from the problem of “too much marketing, not enough selling”.

    Perhaps it is because too many firms still believe in the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy and just assume that new clients will find them, or existing clients will remember them when they have a need?

    It could be that, just as everyone regards themselves as a good driver, senior lawyers all regard themselves as effective business developers and perhaps just don’t see a need for additional help?
    Or, maybe, the real reason is that the link between the additional distributable profit that can be delivered by a more mature and focused approach to sales, and the cost of employing a professional sales leader, is not sufficiently clear?

    One of the things that gets in the way of moving up the “sales capability maturity” model is the image that many senior partners in professional firms still have of sales as a discipline. They still think of aggressive, foot-in-the-door, tactics poorly suited to a sophisticated service such as the law and, as a consequence, naturally want nothing to do with it. Sales has moved on in the last 10 years, however, and this image is no longer valid, if it ever was. Successful firms will be those who:

    • spend less time demonstrating their subject matter knowledge and more time understanding their prospective (and current) clients’ criteria and required outcomes
    • focus on articulating and (more importantly) demonstrating the business value of their services in their clients’ terms
    • understand that broadcast” advertising messages, corporate sponsorships are one of the least cost-effective factors in the marketing mix, not one of the most important
    • decide what clients they want to have and seek them out, rather than wait for the phone to ring
    • develop and execute a strategy for growing their market share by deciding from whom they want to take it
    • Stop marketing and start selling!

  2. Thanks for your comments, Alastair.

    You raise a few interesting points and reminders on the client perspective, but some of your points are incongruent with our industry.

    Sales is a loaded word in this industry and in my 17 years of experience in law, I have yet to work with a law firm that is comfortable with the notion of sales. And really, as long as the right work is coming in, it’s irrelevant what we call it, provided the efforts to do so are strategic and effective.

    As for marketing staff and your comments that they are “… relatively junior marketing administrators rather than professional sales people.” I can tell you that most firms are staffed with sophisticated professional marketers with undergrad and masters degrees. Those “brochure bunnies”, or “administrators” as you refer to them, left the field a decade or more ago when partners better understood the competitive environment they were in. I’ve hired a dozen or more marketing professionals in this industry — for clients or while I was in-house with firms — and many of them are still in legal today and doing brilliant work at a senior level.

    Ultimately, like it or not, it’s the lawyers who are the “sales” people. Clients won’t buy legal services from a typical sales person. They want contact with a lawyer so they can judge suitability for themselves as 90% of legal services are related to serious or high stakes matters — either personally or financially.

    It’s professional marketers who set the stage for their lawyers to “close the sale” and bring in the work, making the very most of each lawyers’ non-billable time and effort.