Legal CMOs: You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

Jennifer ScalziBeing a Leader

By: Jennifer Johnson Scalzi

As we approach the Legal Marketing Association 2015 Annual Conference, we decided to look back at some of the highlights of a critical, and still evolving role: the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO). It’s been about ten years since the role took hold in the legal industry. It seemed fitting to share this retrospective and a few interesting points about the staying power of many CMOs. The results of our research might surprise you!

Throughout the last few months, J. Johnson Executive Search has conducted research on the top marketing roles in the Am Law 200. We found that today’s current CMOs are in their role an average of 5.8 years. That’s quite a departure from the headlines nearly a decade ago sounding the alarm for top marketing professionals’ job security. While a fairly large portion of this set (32%) are just in their positions under two years, there is also a significant number (21%) who have been in their roles for more than a decade. This means that one-fifth of the sitting legal CMOs have successfully weathered the great shift that has been our industry for the last decade. Those on the lower end of tenure are most likely individuals who have had opportunities to move geographically (which right now can also mean internationally, as we mentioned in our February newsletter) or who advanced from Director to CMO.

The results in the Top 100 are even more surprising. It would seem that this set of large, everchanging, geographically far-flung firms would see more transitions in their top marketing roles. However, this set shows even greater continuity with the CMOs holding steady for an average of 6.1 years. This is almost a full two years longer than the average tenure of non-legal CMOs as reported by other industries just about a year ago. (Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2014)

Some things are not surprising. Of the peer set, nearly all of the top marketing chairs today are filled by a person who has earned a C-suite title. Only 68 individuals occupying the senior-most position in Am Law 200 firms are still at Director levels. In addition, most of the C-level roles still hold marketing-centric titles (CMO) and not chiefly business development, though that is changing. There is a much-higher concentration of C-suite titles in the Am Law 100, likely due to this set being the earlier adopters of the role and the Second Hundred now keeping pace.

So what does this mean for our industry? We’ve come a long way from a decade ago when the C-suite first beckoned. Clearly there’s been a lot of hard work done by long-tenured CMOs who are battle-tested in the industry and from newer CMOs who are shaking things up a bit. With legal experience or not, the legal CMO role is an attractive career option for results-oriented professionals who still want room to shape and evolve the role. We continue to see changes in what firms need. In the early days, as firms tentatively staffed up their C-suites, it was often an imperative that the individual have been a former lawyer or someone in a director role at a larger firm who could occupy the CMO role at a slightly smaller firm. Then we experienced a few years in which firms looked outside the industry, with mixed results. Today, we think it matters less where a CMO originates than what skill sets he or she brings to a firm. As we reported in our Survey of Am Law 200 Marketing Departments, CMOs, particularly in the Second Hundred, will be managing expanded teams, and hiring specialty roles. They will need to understand how and when to bring in data into their decision-making (see our recent post in LMA Strategies+).

We also spoke recently about a talent shortage and that we will need to look outside the boundaries of the legal community; CMOs will need to be great bosses, and good team-builders and integrators. The bottom line for current and aspiring CMOs is that this is an attractive industry in which to build a career. It’s still growing, there’s job stability and the ability to do some real cutting-edge work. But firms can be too complacent: the war for talent is on, and prepared firms will keep their eyes open for great talent.