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| 12 minutes read

CMO Series EP36 - Bree Metherall of Stoel Rives LLP on the importance of asking "why?" in legal business development

The legal industry is built on precedent. It's important for firms, and for Business Development professionals in particular, to challenge the established ways of doing things if there are better options available.

This week’s guest is someone who often challenges the assumptions of the legal marketing and BD industry. Will Eke is delighted to welcome Bree Metherall, Director of Business Development and Marketing for Stoel Rives LLP to the CMO Series.

Listen in, as Will and Bree discuss:

  • Why questioning established practice, and asking "why?" is so important to successful marketing and business development
  • The point in Bree’s career that it became clear just how important it is to ask "why?"
  • Specific practices that Bree thinks could use closer scrutiny into why they still exist
  • Examples of when asking "why?" was done well and to good effect
  • How to balance the need to do a good job for internal clients with the need to challenge established practices
  • Advice for other legal Marketing & BD professionals


Will: Welcome to the Welcome to the CMO series podcast where we discuss professional services,marketing, business development and how you can be more effective at both. My name is Will Eke, you've listened to my dulcet tones already before today. Really delighted to be talking with Bree Metherall, who's head of marketing and business development at 400 attorney law firm Stoel Rives. Welcome to the podcast Bree.

Bree:Thank you so much. I'm glad to be here.

Will: We've got a really exciting sort of topic that we're covering today and it's the importance of asking why in legal business development. I suppose the legal industry is built on precedent. It's important for firms and for business development professionals in particular to sort of challenge that established way of doing things, especially if there are better options available. And often there are. Our guest today, you Bree, we spoke a while back actually and I think it's probably fair to say, I don't want to put my foot in it, you have often and you still do challenge some of these assumptions within the industry.

Bree: Yeah, I think that's fair to say.

Will:  We're going to explore some of them with some of the questions now. So I suppose the first one, a good place to start is questioning established practice or asking why it is so important to successful marketing and business development.

Bree: I think as you noted precedent really is a strong force at law firms and sometimes the only why for something is that's how we do it or we've been doing that for years and I found that the most effective way to shape the work that I was doing was really to push in to understand why someone was asking me to do something. So instead of just spending my time figuring out how to deliver, I would really push on the lawyers to help me understand why. And that helped me separate what was about keeping up with the Jones, Jones and Jones’ is and what was about really reaching clients and prospects. And so that made prioritisation so much easier. And it also helped me help lawyers think more critically about what activities they were engaging in and how they were going to benefit them in their business development or not. Simon Sinek’s Ted Talks and book start with why they show how it's really not just about curiosity but about strategic business practices. And he gives some really great examples of companies that are not about selling features and benefits but really have a why that is critical to their mission and that is how they're reaching people more effectively. And I think that's true in law firms to.

Will: That was a great, great answer. I mean we we know being in the space as a SaaS software, you know, that lots of law firms do, I suppose sort of follow each other. So it's interesting. Yeah, getting to that why. Why do you want me to do something in my marketing and BD function? Um looking at your career, when do you think it became clear to you, you know, just how important it is to ask why was there a particular moment that you can pinpoint?

Bree: Yeah, I mean I am definitely someone who has always been curious and I've always wanted to understand the inner workings and I have always performed best when I had a big picture view of what I was doing and when you have a big picture view of what you're doing,

it naturally leads you to ask why. But very early in my career, I was a public relations coordinator at a global law firm and we had organised a reporter to come in and meet with a contingent of partners who were in town for the annual retreat and they were from all over the world France Germany the UK. So we're in this conference room and the reporter asked these partners why the global platform mattered like what's the point? And there was this deafening silence. They're all looking around, they're looking at each other. No one said anything. And finally I piped up from the side of the room and I mentioned a major biotech deal that the firm had done. It had been in the news. I've been collecting the news clippings and I knew that some of these lawyers worked on it. So I mentioned to the reporter that we've done the largest biotech transaction ever and these partners worked on it and it was a multijurisdictional effort and that broke the ice and got the interview flowing and they started talking from there and I took a huge risk speaking up. I was the most junior person in that room, but I knew that the why of that meeting was to get legal industry news coverage that highlighted how the firm's global team could come together for clients. And so my options were to kind of sit in silence in deference to the pecking order or to say something and I knew that saying something was going to better serve the firm’s interest.

Will: You have pinpointed that pretty well, I suppose being curious, being inquisitive,but also not being afraid to to speak up. There's a there's a good good learning curve there in terms of how law firms are structured, would you say there are particular practices that you think maybe you could use a bit more closer scrutiny into why they actually exist.

Bree: Absolutely. And I think that, you know, my fellow marketers and business development leaders all apply really strong scrutiny to new initiatives and I think that that's often where the rationale is explored - during the startup. So there's often a lot of startups scrutiny, but a lot less ongoing scrutiny and that can result in adding new initiatives all the time, but you're not making room for them if you're not auditing the ongoing initiatives that are in place. So even things that started with a really strong rationale needs to be reexamined periodically to make sure that it still makes sense and I think the budget process is the best time to really dig into the why, because that's where we start to see the things that were grandfathered in year after year and if you can develop a good process in your budgeting um in your budgeting time frame, that's a really good place to explore things like conferences and so on, that might not make sense anymore. But I think the communications area is another that really could use more exploration of the why. I think lawyers are accustomed to publishing that's expected and they see other firms do it and so it's one of those keep up with the joneses initiatives, but you know, we sometimes start communications initiatives like blogs and so on and and that could have been established on the back of the enthusiasm of a particular lawyer but when their enthusiasm fades or they move on, sometimes those communications initiatives that were set in place continue even though they have withered on the vine and so you need to really audit those ongoing practices and make sure that they still aligned with the firm strategic vision and that they make good sense.

Will: We know about that and we'll save that for another time and the other thing that we often talk about on that topic as well is, you know, these new initiatives and things. Sometimes I suppose the old guard have always been, this is what we think our clients might want as a new initiative: actually listen to what your clients want and then build the initiatives around that.

Bree: That's a really good point.Yeah,that  makes a lot of sense.I think there are a lot of assumptions and that's a whole tangent we could go into, but I think that a lot of client listening programs sometimes are skewed toward hearing what we want to hear and clients get cherry picked into feedback programs that will only say good things and so then people can pat themselves on the back about how awesome they are because they're hiding from challenging feedback.

Will: So there's something else to watch out for to do you have any examples of when asking why it was sort of done well and it's had positive outcomes, with good effect?

Bree: Yeah, I thought a lot about this question and I don't have a big blockbuster example and I think sometimes that's what we're looking for is something really, you know, we asked why and we did this thing and it saved X dollars or you know, created y revenue. I think sometimes that we lose sight of how the small gains are where real progress is made. And so my focus right now is making sure that the inherited practice that I came into and the longstanding processes that I came into are really aligned to and furthering the firm strategic plan. As an example, our department was producing a monthly email that was sent out to everyone in the firm that summarised the communications that we had sent to clients in the prior month and it had a link so they could add contacts to a mailing list. But I found out that that had been going on for 10 years and the person who initiated that idea had long since left and moved on. But we had kept the practice going because we did it every month. And so, you know, we really looked into the efficacy of that email and whether or not people were reading it and I think a few people found it interesting, but it wasn't really furthering the goal of getting contacts on the list or otherwise. You know, driving communication. It was kind of review merits, yesterday's news. No one cares right. So we eliminated that and just doing that alone, put two hours a month back on one person's desk. So if every person on a 15 person team gets back two hours a month by asking why and challenging standing practice. That's 360 hours that my team gained in a single year. And that's the space that you create to do strategic work. You find it in the small spaces by asking why.

Will: It's a great point. I suppose you can relay that if ever asked back to the wider attorney partnership because they certainly understand the billable hour, don't they? So if you're freeing up time for your team,they'll certainly get that.Yeah, great example. How do you balance the need to do a good job for internal clients with the need to challenge established practices?

Bree: It's a really good question and I think that this is a fine line to walk and it gets easier as you get further in your career. But the way that I phrase it to my team and to my leadership is that my job is to run the business development department, not the lawyer happiness department. So if we do it properly, lawyer happiness should be the byproduct of effective business development programming, but it's not the why. So if you're chasing lawyer happiness is your why that's going to take you down dead ends and smelly alleys of initiatives that are just no good. But if you focus on doing strategic well thought through business development, it will result in lawyer happiness. And so that's the byproduct, not the why when I was, you know, obviously as a young beauty manager, I had responsibility as all BD managers do for both responsive service delivery to lawyers. You know, you're the go to when something comes in and you need it. So you have to be responsive,you have to give great service and they also want you to develop ideas for implementation, right? So as a as a business development manager, particularly early in career, you are both the idea factory and they get it done factory. And so I tell my team that we're in the business of of satisfying needs not necessarily want because what the lawyers think they want isn't always what they need. And that disconnect becomes really clear when you start to ask why and when you start to push a little bit about what the need is and get past what the state would want is that also saves time because sometimes someone will say, I want something, they get it, but it's not what they need, They don't know what they need, but they got what they wanted, but it's not making them happy because it's not what they need and you end up doing it again. So when you, when you ask why you can't save time up front, you can make sure that your team understands the end product and what they're delivering. So even junior people on the team benefit from asking why. You know, sure there's definitely times when the best move for all concerned is just to give the lawyers what they want. Sometimes it's not worth spending your political capital to fight that fight and that knowing when to push and when to just let it go is the dance that you do every day and you just get more polished with that with time. But I think it's never hurt my progress or my career or my reputation to be that person always pushing back. In fact, if anything, I think it has really helped my political capital and my career development because I never would just turn around and someone says jump and I say how high, that's not how I’m built and that's not what they want either. They might think they do, but they don't.

Will: I  really love that lawyer happiness department comment. And I guess what you're saying, if you've got 15 people in your team, you know, we see that time and time again,you must have seen it and it's hard for junior marketeers and BD folk coming through not to just, you know, give the lawyers what they want and patter to that sort of lawyer happiness department. But I guess you're empowering them to, to ask those questions. They don't have to.

Bree: Yeah that's right.I want my team to be curious. I recruit for curiosity and,and drive.I specifically recruit for that actually, and I think that the distinction is that you don't put your junior people in the position of challenging an equity partner that's not good for anyone that's not good for the department. It's not good for their career, but you create a culture where the managers and the lawyers all expect to be able to dig into the why and you build that from the top down. So it's not the junior person that's asking the lawyer why? It's the manager that's asking the lawyer why and then relaying the why to the junior person so they can deliver more effective work product.

Will: That makes sense. Amazing advice and really thought provoking stuff for our listeners here Bree. So thank you so much. I've got one final question which again you may not have a blockbuster for, but what would be your sort of one bit of advice?  Your one takeaway for your peers for other people in in marketing and BD professionals that are they're listening to this.

Bree: So it's only sort of related to this topic but I'm saying it a lot lately so I figured I'd say it here and my mantra is that your first job is to make yourself indispensable. Your second job is to make yourself dispensable. So what that means is that you build strong programming that aligns with a clear why and that your program can be deployed repeated scale leveraged and then that's how the BD manager team can spend more time focusing on strategies you know listening to the market revenue generation, client service partnering with lawyers on individual business development because you build programs that run efficiently because they're meeting the need not to want, that's how you make yourself indispensable in the end is by making yourself dispensable. 

Will: Awesome. I've got my pay review coming up. I need to make sure I've done that myself to be honest. Amazing having you on Bree. Thank you so much for your time and for your amazing sort of comments and why you seem like you really have put it into practice so we wish you all the best and thanks again.

Bree: Thank you so much for having me. It's been fun.

If you focus on doing strategic, well thought-through business development, it will result in lawyer happiness, and so that's the by-product, not the why.


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