Calibrate CEO Jennifer Johnson is interviewed for Intapp’s Horizons blog.

When a firm decides to expand its marketing, business development, and communications teams, its leaders often face a seemingly unsolvable challenge in the tight hiring market. The industry’s talent shortage comes as news to no one — many firms constantly struggle to hire the right people at the right time in all areas — but the legal marketing specialization faces an especially tough hiring market.

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Understanding the legal marketing space: No surprise, it’s tight

Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson

During a recent meeting of the Legal Business Development Council, Jennifer Johnson, Founder & CEO of Calibrate Legal, spelled out the state of the market.

“At any given time, there are nearly 200 open positions across North America in legal marketing,” said Johnson, “and many of these are new positions being added to the org chart, as opposed to backfills.”

Johnson said that one factor exacerbating the talent shortage is the strong disconnect between what law firms think they need from talent and what’s actually necessary and transferable. “There’s this incredible reluctance for firms to think outside of the box.” She cites a common request for marketing professionals with similar credentials: New York–based, at least 8 years of experience in a given practice, currently employed at another law firm, probably a former lawyer.

“Actually, if you map the market, which we do regularly, there’s about eight people that fit that profile, and everybody wants them,” says Johnson. “The competition is amazing, and it’s driving up compensation accordingly.”

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Thinking beyond the law degree

To be sure, law firm experience is hard to replicate for certain practices like litigation. But for others, Johnson and other hiring experts counsel their client firms to cast a wider net, searching for talent that have relevant experience without the all-too-scarce legal credential.

“There is a plethora of very smart people in other professional services firms who can make the transition into a law firm that takes the time to invest in on-boarding and training” says Johnson. But those pieces are hypercritical to successful hiring strategies, and often overlooked. “No doubt the seemingly easier route is to snag a plug-and-play candidate that you don’t have to train,” Johnson continues, “but that simply is not the way it works anymore. The onus is on the hiring manager to ensure the talent has a smooth transition and that just hasn’t been a focus for law firms when it comes to non-fee earners such as marketing professionals.” The savvy firms, she says, are moving away from hard-and-fast requirements for candidates to have law firm experience.

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Treating candidates like a valuable, scarce resource

Johnson also recommends leaving behind old ways of hiring, where law firms were in a power position relative to the talent pool.

“So many firms seem to still have the mentality: ‘Why wouldn’t the person want to work for our firm?’ says Johnson. This comes out in the recruitment process with candidates remarking that firms go weeks — sometimes months — between stages and then wonder why potential hires lose interest.”

“The firms that treat the hiring process accordingly — knowing that they’ve got to sell themselves to candidates, just like the candidates have to sell themselves — are the ones that gain an edge against the competition” she says.

Jennifer Johnson is the founder and CEO of Calibrate Legal.  She possesses two decades of professional services experience, including six years inside of a law firm as head of recruiting, and 14 years in legal marketing executive search and organizational consulting.