Calibrate Legal’s survey (conducted in partnership with Totum Partners in the UK) finds that COVID has been a catalyst for change in the law firm marketing & business development world.


As well as a global tragedy, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has been a “black swan” event that has disrupted the status quo throughout society and across all industries. In the legal world, firms and individual attorneys have quickly virtualized their client service and management routines. Firms are reconsidering their real estate footprints, adopting work-from-home strategies, employing online meetings and webinars, throwing out old client service playbooks, and embracing fresh approaches to getting work done. And even with effective vaccines on the horizon, it appears that many of these changes will be permanent because of the financial and efficiency benefits they bring.

Nowhere is this truer than in legal marketing and business development (MBD) departments. With traditional tactics (including face-to face meetings and in-person events) no longer an option, law firm MBD leaders have been challenged to deliver on their function’s promise of growing revenue, enhancing relationships, and building brands for their firms.

During the fall of 2020, Calibrate Legal (in partnership with our UK affiliate, Totum Partners) set out to measure the scope of this challenge. Our study canvassed 127 first-chair law firm MBD leaders in North America and the UK to get their views on how their departments and teams are evolving in response to COVID-19.

While several important themes emerged from this research, our broad conclusion is that COVID has been a catalyst for change in law firm marketing and business development. Over the past year, it has accelerated the function’s ongoing transformation from a bespoke craft to a data-centric discipline. And within many firms, it has underlined the importance of increasing MBD’s operational effectiveness – to accomplish and deliver more results without increasing budgets and FTE resources.

Following are some key findings that provide evidence of this trend.

Marketing Operations emerges as a core management function

For many firms, marketing operations has historically been a grab-bag of administrative tasks that were the responsibility of all marketing/business development team members. (Or, they were no-one’s responsibility.) Our recent recruiting experience proves that firms are recognizing the value of hiring marketing operations leaders at the senior manager and director levels – a practice that has seen wide acceptance in the technology, financial services and consumer markets sectors. The accountabilities of these roles can include marketing planning, budgeting, technology management, process management, project protocols, ROI measurement, analytics, and beyond. Marketing Operations leadership roles are providing the gravitas and credibility needed to get buy-in and change behavior at all levels of the marketing team, and among attorneys.

Shared Services and Centers of Excellence

A significant number of firms see the benefits of Shared Services operating models for their marketing teams. In fact, our survey found 20% of North American firms have a Shared Services model in place and another 15% are considering it. (UK firms – with 62% having a Shared Services model in place – are well ahead in adopting this strategy.) As one of our survey respondents stated, “The notion that business development, marketing, and communications personnel need to be located with the fee earners they support is no longer valid.”

Shared Services centers bring together expertise and resources in a specific discipline to increase value and performance. For example, many firms are pooling their RFP and pitch talent and technology into a centralized proposal function that operates across geographies and practice areas. Such efforts are proving successful, leading to increased win rates and definitive revenue impact, as well as brand and messaging consistency and production efficiencies.

Investment in technology, processes and automation

The Calibrate/Totum survey revealed that law firms are showing a greater willingness to invest in digital marketing technology, data analytics and, as one respondent stated, “more precise marketing resulting from better analysis.”

In fact, 84% of the surveyed firms plan to increase their budgets for digital marketing as a direct response to COVID-19. This result was broadly consistent across all sizes of firms, in both North America and the UK.

Where will those budget increases come from? If the survey responses are any indication, they will be funded by shifting funds away from some time-honored MBD tactics.

Sponsorship marketing is one of those shibboleths: 82% of the surveyed firms say they plan to reduce their sponsorship marketing budgets as a result of Covid-19. And as expected, in-person events are in the cross-hairs: 46 of the 127 surveyed firms state that they plan to discontinue half or more of their in-person events.

The verdict: If digital marketing and technology weren’t already mainstream in MBD, they are now. And with the right technology tools in place, MBD teams can be even more effective in supporting their businesses to improve existing client relationships and generate new leads/opportunities.

A wave of new martech hires is about to break

In addition to increasing their digital marketing budgets, firms are gearing up to acquire new marketing technology skills – 84% of the responding firms plan to increase the size of their marketing technology teams over the next 1-2 years. In total 72 net new martech hires are planned.

To fill these positions, firms will need to look outside the traditional recruiting pool. Quite simply, there are not enough candidates with a combination of advanced martech skills and law firm experience to go around. However, there is a plentiful supply of highly-qualified marketing technology professionals outside our industry, whose skills and experience can provide an excellent fit for law firms roles.

Some firms report poor experiences with hiring non-legal candidates for marketing/BD roles, citing their unfamiliarity with law firm culture as an impediment. In our view, this can be overcome by hiring for key personal attributes – including a client service attitude, intellectual curiosity, and a collaborative mindset. These attributes, when combined with targeted technology skills and a solid onboarding program, are excellent predictors of success.

Martech investment plans focus on the client relationship

The survey asked participants to indicate whether they were planning to make investments across a list of 18 marketing and BD-related technologies. Four of the top five technologies cited (Account-Based Marketing, Client Satisfaction Measurement, and two flavors of CRM) were focused directly on managing aspects of the relationship between law firms and their clients.

In our consulting practice, we’ve seen many law firms struggle to get full value from their investment in CRM systems and processes. Despite this, firms continue to double down on technologies, including CRM, that help them understand their clients (and future clients). The leading vendors in the legal CRM space have all updated their platforms in the past 12 months, and several new entrants have emerged. All these vendors are adding AI and automation features – such as signature scraping – with the goal of creating a “zero data entry” experience for lawyers. With COVID triggering a shift to digital engagement, we predict an active market for legal CRM in the next 1-2 years.

In-demand skills

The survey asked respondents for their views on demand for key marketing skills and roles in the wake of COVID-19. Unsurprisingly the results show decreasing demand for generalist skills associated with traditional law firm marketing tactics. In growing demand are specialist skills in digital marketing, data analytics and strategic BD – all of which contribute to the ability to measure the impact and return on investment in marketing/BD.

Operational Excellence: the way forward

First-Chair law firm marketing leaders tell us the biggest issue they face is lack of resources for growing the department or making non-headcount investments. At the same time, law firm Managing Partners are reporting that their firms have weathered the pandemic’s impacts well – but with the caveat that the good financial performance is due in large part to significant decreases in expenses.

We believe that operational excellence in Marketing & BD provides a way forward.

Firms may do well to repurpose some of those unused travel, client entertainment, and event sponsorship funds into more efficient and more measurable business development tactics, including digital marketing and marketing technology. Doing so could be a differentiating factor upon recovery and give the firm a head-start in the race for market share in a post COVID world.

About the Authors

Gordon Braun-Woodbury leads Calibrate Legal’s Marketing Operations consulting practice.  Kathryn Whitaker is Chief Marketing Officer of Burr & Forman LLP.  This article was originally published as part of ILTA’s January 2021 white paper on Marketing Technology.

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