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| 12 minutes read

CMO Series EP31 - Tina Emerson of Nexsen Pruet on growth, ambition and success in a regional law firm

The legal industry is becoming more competitive across the board.  Growth-minded firms are exploring new geographies, industries and strategies to succeed.

Much of this competition has come from highly capable and increasingly ambitious regional firms. Our guest joining Charles Cousins on this edition of the CMO Series podcast is someone who has been advancing best practice in this area. 

We’re lucky to be joined by Tina Emerson, Chief Marketing Officer at Nexsen Pruet, to hear how their firm is succeeding in its regional market.  

Charles and Tina discuss:

  • How to build your understanding of what it takes to drive success in your market
  • How the way law firms market and grow themselves has changed in the last decade or so, and what the competitive landscape for the legal industry looks like now
  • What it takes for ambitious mid-market firms to grow in the current market
  • How Nexsen Pruet are approaching growth and specific activities that have been particularly successful
  • Advice for other marketers looking to succeed in a challenging market


Intro: Welcome to the Passle Podcast CMO Series. 

Charles: Hello, and welcome to the Passle CMO Series podcast. I'm Charles Cousins. And today we are covering the super interesting topic, growth, ambition, and success in regional law firms. The legal industry has become more competitive across the board. Growth-minded firms are looking into new geographies, industries and strategies to succeed. A lot of this competition has come from highly capable and ambitious regional firms. And someone who has been advanced in best practice injustice is Tina Emerson at Nexsen Pruet. Welcome to the podcast, Tina. 

Tina: Oh, thank you very much for having me. 

Charles: Hey, it's great to have you on, and hopefully we're going to explore this topic and get some insight out of you that we can share with our community. So, Tina, starting from the beginning, how did you arrive as CMO at Nexsen Pruet? And how did you build your understanding of what it takes to drive success in a regional law firm? 

Tina: Well, if I start at the very beginning, I think everyone's career has a long and winding path. But my career started early in broadcasting, and a few years later I began working at a communications agency. From there, I was recruited to work at my first law firm back in 2002. And it was interesting because in this particular region, we don't have global firms where we are here in South Carolina. This firm in particular is located in north and South Carolina with an office in Austin, Texas as well. And the success of a firm like this, I think, really hinges on being able to understand the client's needs in an intimate way. I believe a lot of large firms are so very busy and it's hard to develop really long standing relationships. And I believe that in a smaller area like this, it's easier to generate those relationships. You see people in person more often, and it really is able to generate the types of walking down the sidewalk relationships that you see with people outside of our office where we can run into them, visit them quickly. And we are not put together as a firm that is ambitious enough to go global. So we know what our region is. We understand this area, and our goal is really to master the area that we're in. 

Charles: So the idea of mastering the area is really showing that you are the sort of destination firm for your area. South Carolina, North Carolina, rather than one of these bigger firms that may be trying to open a regional office there. Is that right? 

Tina: Right. A lot of our growth stems very organically from where our clients need and want us to be. So that isn't to say that we don't have growth in mind. It's just that that growth needs to be very strategic and there needs to be a reason for it. We don't want to grow for the sake of growing and start a location just for the sake of it. We really are looking to strategically grow in this particular region. This firm has been in business for 75 years, and it started as a single location and has grown to nine. But in those nine locations, we have grown in each of those very strategically to serve a particular client or a particular industry. And so that the geography of it is very calculated. 

Charles: That leads really nicely onto my next question, which is around really the way law firms market and grow themselves. It's been through this huge change in the last decade, which has been accelerated in the last two years with everything that's happened. So what does the competitive landscape for the legal industry currently look like? 

Tina: Well, for us as a regional firm, the market forces are not much different than larger or smaller firms. We see a lot of mergers and acquisitions that affect client size and direction, and strategy and legal services are now being provided by alternative providers like consulting firms and accounting firms. Our competition isn't simply the law firm down the road. It is other large corporations that are moving into this region to compete with us. I feel like our edge is that we are not competing on price. That's really not where we want to be. We want to be able to add value for our clients, and we think that's what clients really want. When clients are getting what they need, the price truly is secondary. So competing on price isn't really our goal. We want to give clients what they need in a way that's efficient and with an international capability for a regional firm that they're seeking. So we have attorneys here that are licensed to practise in many States in the United States, but we also have a lot of international clients that are doing business in this region. So if we're able to be local counsel for these larger global companies that have headquarters here in this region of the United States, and that is really the area where we're very good at doing that. And I think that that's the goal of a regional or middle market firm, as it's often called, to be able to harness attorneys to work here that are able to do that high end type of work but concentrate it in an area where those corporations are needing local and regional knowledge. 

Charles: So with that competition evolving, really you have to be competing on value, and that seems to be what your focus is, is that correct? 

Tina: Yes. 

Charles: What does it take for ambitious regional firms to grow in the current market? 

Tina: I really think it's forward thinking. There are a lot of firms who do exactly the same work that we do, and I think that most law firms would say that you're competing with firms who are capable of doing the exact same type of work. The only difference is the level of talent that we are able to recruit is very important. And as long as we remain forward thinking and innovative in our strategy. It allows us to recruit the types of lawyers that share the same mindset. For example, there are programs at the firm that are outside the realm of legal work, and we have found those side businesses, if you will, that are ancillary businesses to be very helpful and add value to our clients. We have a crisis communications and public relations firm that is a wholly owned subsidiary of the law firm called NP Strategy. And that business was born out of the need of our clients to have a professional look at their communication strategy in a way that benefits them and their communication to their shareholders, their stakeholders, and the general public so that they can be positioned well in the market so they can be successful. And so that is absolutely outside the legal realm of work. It really requires someone who is a professional in communications to be able to drive those strategies and communications tactics that are really important for a client standing in the community. And so we have a very innovative and forward thinking board. And I think that the leadership of any firm needs to be thinking about how they want to differentiate the work that they're doing in order to differentiate themselves in the market. We've successfully been able to do that. Our PR arm began in 2013, and since then, it has grown to not only service the clients that are here in our firm as legal clients, but now the PR firm handles clients that are completely outside of anything that the law firm is working on. So they really are two separate businesses, and we're able to refer work to one another. That worked out really well, and it differentiates us from our competitors. So you ask about ambitious regional firms, and I think that if you're truly going to be ambitious, you have to think outside of legal and look at your business model to see where revenue can be generated and also where you can add value to clients. So the clients have benefited from this ancillary business, and the firm has as well. And I don't think that you can really grow successfully without that mutual benefit. 

Charles: So I've got a quick question. Just on those ancillary business services like the PR and the crisis management, do your lawyers get involved with that as well, or are they two separate groups of people? 

Tina: They are two separate groups. We have intentionally hired people who are former journalists, communications professionals, political strategists, and they work completely outside of what our lawyers do. Now, of course, when we're working with a client who needs communication services, what the communications professionals do is they inform their strategies on what is going on with the legal matters, with the client. They're informed by that, but it certainly is not anything the lawyers are getting involved in. They are concentrated on lawyering, and the communications professionals on communicating. So we try to keep those lines very clear. Although like I mentioned, we refer work back and forth to one another. The communications and PR section of the firm often can bring in lawyers to work on clients who happen to have legal needs that we are working on a communication strategy for. So it goes back and forth. But working together outside of just sharing information, that's really where it stops. We have about 30 professionals that work on the PR side, and it is truly a separate business. 

Charles: To be honest, that sounds really interesting. I've not come across a law firm that had such a sort of side offering for their clients. And I guess that's what it comes down to is at the end of the day, you're obviously offering a fantastic legal service for your clients. But actually when we go back to that point you made early about competing on value, you can also help them with other things they might be working on.

Tina: That's right. And I think that a lot of firms, regional firms, as well as large global firms, will have separate consulting subsidiaries that are helping them with governmental relations, lobbying, or economic development strategies for their clients. And those are actually quite common. The communications, however, is something quite unique, and it's something that we feel like we can offer to our clients that differentiates us from other firms in this region and not just regionally, but nationally, there really aren't many firms that do this. So when you approach growth from a regional standpoint and you're surrounded by other firms who are doing the same typical full service law firm work business, litigation, employment, construction, real estate, everybody is doing those things. But if we can offer those clients something extra, whether it's communications and PR strategy or not, it could be offering up an electronic discovery business, which we also have here at the firm. We have a business called Nextra, which is document review and electronic discovery that clients typically farm out to other entities, to third parties. And again, when you have a forward thinking leadership, we start to talk about, well, let's bring that work in house so that we can help our clients the way that they need to be serviced. But we can also do this work keeping the work here and keeping all of that work close to us in a way that keeps them from having to dabble with another entity and it takes work off of them and it makes things easier for us to handle their cases. Are there any programs currently being conducted around that approaching growth that really sort of stand out as being extremely successful or ones you're particularly proud of, the one that I mentioned for our NP Strategy team, that one has really taken off over the past almost ten years now, and it's been really helpful for our clients. And we've been able to grow from a team of three people who were doing that type of work to now 30 in all of our offices. And so that one's been very successful. Something that we work on internally here, however, is our client feedback program, which is becoming more formalised as we speak, where it's very important for us to sit down and talk to our clients and ask them questions about how we're doing. It's not really a sales pitch for our clients. It's really informative for us to understand what our clients businesses are going to be doing in the next year, two years, five years, so that we can prepare for their needs, not just today, but five years from now to keep that longevity with the client. And I think that's what every firm wants is to have a client that has that long standing relationship. And the way to have that and to build that is to keep that constant dialogue honest and open about how we're doing. What type of work do you think you'll be needing in the future, and how do we best prepare ourselves to serve that need if we don't have it today? What can we do to move up to that level so that you don't find yourselves leaving our firm or using another firm for something that you could use us for? And we have those conversations quite often with our clients so we can understand what their needs are, what their expectations are, because there's really no way to meet and exceed expectations if you don't know what they are. And those can change over time. So we talked earlier about mergers and acquisitions and changes in leadership at clients. And really when clients are being acquired by someone else, a firm really risks losing that client because of the changes in leadership. And so keeping that dialogue open is a great way for firms to transition into a new legal team at the client. We can't be far removed from what's happening with the client internally. So our client interview and client feedback program is critical to maintaining the relationships that we have with our current clients.

Charles: Well, it sounds like between your client listing programs or additional offerings, you really are positioning yourself as the go to firm in your region. With all that in mind, we're going to round up the podcast, how we finish all of our podcasts, and it's often quite tough question, actually, because we leave it quite open ended. But what would be your one piece of advice for marketers looking to succeed in this challenging market? 

Tina: Well, one piece of advice. I have several pieces of advice, but I will try to keep it to one. I think the one piece of advice is to never stop looking ahead, and you have to keep looking for that next thing. If you have made a lot of revenue from one particular issue or matter that is a hot topic in your area, just know that it might not always be the hot topic and the big revenue generator there's always something else coming around the corner that your firm has to be prepared for so always make sure that you know what's coming. There are always going to be indicators in the market of issues that are cropping up and legislation that changes in the government that require our clients to shift, make changes, buy, sell, just keeping abreast of things that are going on in the industry so that you know how to best service your client when the time comes and when the need arises. You can't play catch up. You have to be ahead of it. So I think that if you want to succeed in a challenging market you really have to be first to the party with being prepared to service new needs in the industries that you serve. 

Charles: So never stop looking ahead. That idea of horizon scanning so when a problem comes up you can be the first ones helping your clients with those problems.

Tina: Absolutely and I think that's the case with most businesses in general right. You've got to know what the next thing is and languishing in your success today is wonderful but without having that forward thought it really can fade away as fast as it appeared. 

Charles: I think that's a really nice point to end the podcast on so thanks again for coming on today, Tina, it's been a pleasure to chat to you and hear a bit more about about what you and the team at next improve have been up to and how you're really sort of building that growth and that name for yourself in your region. So thanks again. 

Tina: Thank you very much for having me.

As long as we remain forward-thinking and innovative in our strategy, it allows us to recruit the types of lawyers that share the same mindset...


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