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| 21 minutes read

CMO Series EP51 - Gillian Ward of BCLP on crossing lines between industries, firms & job titles to build a successful legal marketing career

A career in legal marketing may mean crossing over from another industry into law, emigrating to a new country or joining a much larger and more complex firm than those you have experience in.

Whatever those challenges are, artfully crossing those lines is essential for those looking for legal marketing success.

Someone who has built a truly remarkable career in legal marketing is Gillian Ward, Global CMO at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner. Gillian's career has seen her move across hemispheres, between legal giants and has taken her from England’s industrial North to the towers of Houston Texas.

Gillian joins Eugene McCormick on this episode of the CMO Series to discuss:

  • Gillian’s career in legal marketing and the journey from the North of England to Canada and Texas
  • What the transition into a law firm was like and what Gillian found most helpful in crossing into legal successfully
  • What attracted Gillian to legal marketing and whether the industry has met her expectations
  • Advice for how to navigate the challenges and responsibilities that come with moving up the ranks into senior roles
  • What aspiring CMOs should be doing to prepare themselves for the move into marketing's top roles
  • How marketers and BD professionals can adapt to a new firm
  • Advice for marketers navigating difficult career transitions


Intro: Welcome to the Passle Podcast CMO series.

Charlie: Hello and welcome to the Passle CMO Series podcast, where we talk about all things for professional services, marketing and business development. I'm Charlie Digital, Marketing and Content Executive at Passle, and on this 51st episode of the podcast, Eugene McCormick has the pleasure of welcoming Gillian Ward, Global Chief Marketing Officer at BCLP, to talk about crossing lines between industries, funds, and job titles to build a successful career in legal marketing.

Gillian: I do believe being in the marketing function of the law firm is as much a profession as being a lawyer itself. I think eventually you make a conscious decision that this is what you're going to excel in. And I did think that the smarts that they have, I found really fascinating working with those types of people. What could I learn from them? But I definitely got from her on that very first plane ride and the discussions we had subsequent to that plane ride, how much more there was to bring to the table here and how I could contribute to firms if they were ready.

Charlie: Stay tuned as I'll be catching up with Eugene afterwards to reflect on what promises to be a fascinating chat. So without further ado, let's jump straight into it and welcome Gillian Ward to the CMO Series.

Eugene: There are some massively challenging lines around building a successful business career in legal marketing and a career in legal marketing, moving from another industry into legal, or even going away and coming back, making a jump into a new country, professional career, or even joining a much larger and more complex firm than those in which you have experienced. Whatever those challenges are, navigating them successfully and crossing over those lines gracefully is essential for those looking for legal marketing success. Now, there's probably nobody else better in the business to talk about this because we've got Gillian Ward, BCLP's Global CMO. Gillian's career has seen her navigate moves between hemispheres legal giants and has taken her from the north of England to Canada and all the way down to Houston, Texas. So I'm delighted to have her. Gillian, thanks a million for making time for us.

Gillian: You're very welcome. Nice to see you again, Eugene.

Eugene: Gillian, for the benefit of our listeners, could you give us a wheel or take us a wee bit through your journey into legal marketing? Starting in North England. Moving to Canada, of course. Now in Texas. Can you give us a wee summary?

Gillian: Sure. Once upon a time, in a land far far away, in the north of England. I came home from university back to my hometown just outside Sheffield. At that time, things were pretty bad and pretty dire in England, and there were no jobs. And my mother made it very clear I could move back home. But you better get a job. And back in the days before online job postings, the local newspaper came out on a Saturday and there was a job at a steel company in Sheffield looking for a translator for telexes. And I'm sure many of your audience has no idea what a telex and will be googling that right now. And my job was to translate the telexes. They came in overnight from Latin America and translate them into orders with carbon copies for the shop floor. That's how I started out. Moved up eventually into the international sales team. And when the company was split, there was a North American buyout of the manufacturing plants in Oregon, in Portland, and in Birmingham, Alabama. And they took with them the Latin American markets, which was my patch. So they offered me the opportunity to move to North America and continue working with them. And at that time, why not? Moved to Vancouver, Canada. Thought I'd stay for a couple of years and ended up paying 25 plus. Went into consulting, international sales consulting for a couple of local firms. That somehow led me to an engineering firm, a Canadian engineering firm. And I was the vice president of international sales for several years before I met a lady on an airplane who introduced me to a Canadian law firm who was looking for a CMO at the time. And she said, well, have you thought about moving to legal? And I said, well, no, not really. But it sounded really interesting. And I met with the board and really like the firm. And that was the transition there. Stayed there for nine years and then Baker Botts Came along in Houston, Texas, and said they were looking for someone more of a global CMO, someone who could help them with the sector specialisations and expansion internationally, growing their base in other markets. So I ended up in Texas and stayed with them for seven years and moved to BCLP two and a half years ago now. So each time a bit of a different field to a law firm as my career has progressed. And I think that's what's kept me interested and what's taught me it's a great career, really great career, and very good to me.

Eugene: And each time really taken not just a change geographically on many occasions, but I jump up. What was the tradition like, the transition, excuse me, like into legal? Was that the biggest jump out of everything you did? And what was the thing that you find most helpful in your transition into legal? Because just you saying that you have really strong sales experience and Sales is probably not the most widespread skill in legal. Is that being a real string to your bow?

Gillian: I think so. I didn't appreciate that. Coming from an engineering background, I felt, well, professional services, shortly they'll almost be the same. You're marketing and you're selling highly intelligent people and their brain power, but it actually isn't. It's very different from engineering. They definitely go on the market as teams. People are buying the firm and the expertise. There's rarely kind of one lead engineer at the front of a project that's the make or break on the sale. At the end of the day, moving into legal, I made the assumption that it's still a partnership. That was a partnership I was with. It must be the same and it actually isn't. So there was a good six months of head shift there and I was really lucky that the firm, when I joined Faskin, there had been an interim CMO who stayed for that six month period with me and kind of walked me through not only helping me understand the firm, but those nuances and sometimes really systemic differences between the engineering world and legal marketing. Very different space. Learnt it as I went along, found people who could help me, found partners that I could talk to and say, I just don't know what they're talking about here. What is this? The language, the lexicon that we worked with was so completely different. It took a while to find my feet and think, what is it that I can bring to this table from my previous roles that could really help not only my role but the firms to move forward. And I do think some of that sort of sales background helped with that, Eugene, yeah.

Eugene: It's a very unique skill set and it's a word I'm starting to see more and more sales and head of sales even in some US legal firms, but it's definitely not widespread. You mentioned before about the transition and the things that keep it fresh and the challenge maybe even moving geographically or jumping up to a bigger firm. What was the thing that attracted you to legal marketing? You mentioned you met a lady on a plane. It's very serendipitous. Did you have any big expectations you mentioned about how different can it be and that was a bit of a rude awakening for you. What was it about legal marketing? What was about that lady on the plane? What were your expectations at the time?

Gillian: Through talking to her, I realised it was still a developing profession and I do believe being in the marketing BD function of the law firm is as much a profession as being a lawyer itself. I think eventually you make a conscious decision that this is what you're going to excel in. And I did think that the smarts that they have I found really fascinating working with those types of people. What could I learn from them? But I definitely got from her on that very first plane ride and the discussions we had subsequent to that plane ride, how much more there was to bring to the table here and how I could contribute to firms if they were ready. And that readiness is something that people developing a career in this. I think it's important that you make that assessment of the firm that you're looking at and how ready they are for the real value that you're going to bring to the table. Whatever that might be, your particular expertise. There's no quick and easy way to do that, eugene but that was what really attracted me, was I felt I could make a difference here. I felt I could build teams in these firms that could really help build the top line. And I tell my team, that's what we're here to do. We’re here to build top line revenue, manage our costs effectively and drive the profit at the bottom line. And that's where I felt I could really help.

Eugene: I suppose that's really the main difference, is that you have a clear goal and a clear idea of your own value, but it was trying to find the right fit. I suppose maybe one of the things you've done is you moved into a senior role very quickly and you've moved into senior roles to bigger and bigger firms, but maybe for other people a little earlier in their career, there's moving up that senior already skills more slowly than you. From executive to manager to director to senior director. It's quite uncertain before you mentioned about you how great people you find, people who could help me and give you advice. Is that the best way to navigate those changes and responsibility? Is building your sort of network, or how did you overcome those big changes and responsibility and roles in industry? How did you get through it?

Gillian: I think the first piece of advice I'd give is to really look at the opportunity and do that, figuring out what could I really bring to this role, even as you're climbing up the ladder, and do I really want it? Am I ready for that added level of responsibility for the exposure and for the expectations that are obviously going to increase as you climb the ladder? I have to say, I've pretty much never said no to anything that people ask me when I was junior in my career, and still don't, actually, because you learn from everything that you get asked to do, even if you think, well, I should have been doing that when I was an executive and now I'm a manager. The things you learn from everything you do in the day and learning how to manage your time effectively, I think is a very useful skill. And getting some guidance from that, whether it's from your boss or from a peer that you meet through LMA or at another firm, and taking time to take stock of how am I progressing and what can I bring to that next role if indeed I do want it? And honestly, Eugene, I don't think there's anything wrong in saying, I'm actually really happy with the role I've got now, and I just want to get better at what I'm doing now. Moving too fast isn't always the best idea. You get out of your depth, particularly in a business like this, where expectations are high, very high. So sometimes I've counselled more junior people. Just take a breather here, there will be more opportunities. This is a growing profession and we're all looking for the smartest, the brightest, the most effective and efficient people. There's nothing wrong with hanging onto yourself for another year until you're confident you know your stuff and you're confident you found the right role, where you're going to be able to continue to grow, but you can bring your skills to the table effectively.

Eugene: Has there been any time that you've moved the role and maybe thought, I jumped out too quickly? Is that where that experience comes from? Or is that having seen other people maybe make that mistake?

Gillian: I think if I'm honest, early on in my career I jumped too quickly at some things, anxious to get ahead, anxious to be more senior, anxious to prove myself, particularly when I was in those sales roles. But there's a huge difference between being in the admin and the support functions for people who are out there, and their income as a salesperson is dependent upon their ability to actually sell. And I don't think I recognised early enough the difference between being a support and being a front line. And I think that's true in our world too. It's very different moving from a coordinator, supporting a business development manager, to thinking, if I could do that job if that person wasn't there and really take the time to understand what their day looks like, what their week looks like, the long days, the hours they put in, the high intensity meetings that they're in, but also the expectation that you're going to deliver back. I think if I'd learned that earlier in my career, maybe I wouldn't have jumped so quickly at some of the things that came my way.

Eugene: It’s very sage advice. I think actually, just looking at the notes, a lot of what you're saying just comes back to self awareness and awareness of your role in the business, what you can bring, but also what you can bring, which I suppose leads us into building that team and that leadership role. You talked a lot about transitioning into more senior roles. Can you tell us a little bit more about transitioning from one firm to another? Because you mentioned Fasken and you mentioned Baker Botts and obviously your current role in BCLP. You talked about the mistake you made previously, that all professional services firms are all the same. I imagine no two law firms are the same. Would that be true?

Gillian: Oh, definitely. Very different cultures, very different performance management systems, very different partnership structures. And it takes a while to get under the skin of that. And I think when we assume these new rules, we know expectations are high that you're going to be able to deliver pretty quickly. They're hiring you for a reason and understanding what those expectations are, what the first 90/120 days really need to look like. It sounds superficial to say I have to listen a lot but you actually do. And get out there and talk to your team, talk to the partners, talk to the stakeholders, talk to the big fee earners in the firm to really try to get to grips with what this particular firm is all about. They're not all the same. They don't make decisions the same way. They're at different stages of their evolution, their level of sophistication and it's a mistake to think just because something I did worked well there is going to work exactly the same way here, cut and paste, it won't. But by the same token you're getting hired for your ideas and your successes in your previous role, but ironically you can't implement them from day one. You have to take that time to understand what's going to work here and honestly, what are the priorities going to be? What are those wins you're going to be able to get in that 1st, 90 or 120 days.

Eugene:  You mentioned, among the first lines, you mentioned that business development and marketing and the respect for it is as much of a profession in itself as being a lawyer. Is that self respect and self awareness the key do you think the professionalisation of that whole task or that whole profession? Is that in itself another part of your success because you move in and you change the culture of the BD and marketing team from not just being a support role but to be front and centre. To profit just in the same way as the lawyers. Is that really your key?

Gillian: It is for me. I think that's enormously important. You're only as successful as the people behind you and at the side of you. It's really not about me and what I bring, I can't possibly cover up, bring all my expertise to this entire firm. So taking the time to build that structure underneath and understanding the difference between the marketing function, the BD function, the communications function and the operations function and then hiring good people and enabling them, giving the tools to succeed, but you can't do that overnight. You gotta have that sort of plan in your head. Your playbook of how things might look but be willing to adapt that as you go along and then enabling those people but knowing that I've got their back and it's okay to mess up and we will talk about it and we'll fix it and then it won't happen again because that's how they're going to develop and grow and gain that confidence. If anything, what I see so often is a lack of confidence and you have to get that. You have to learn the business, you have to learn the practices, you have to learn about the client base that's on you. The firm can't do that for you, owning your career but then working for someone who's going to help you continue further that career and help you build that confidence and expose you to things and situations that will help you build your career, I think would be really helpful to a lot of the juniors coming along. 

Eugene: I think that's a very important thing. Taking responsibility to own your own career sort of leads to my last question. I think you know this better than anyone. There's so much movement, not just within the attorneys market, but we're seeing so many business development marketing professionals take up new roles and take advantage of a perceived shortage of talent for people who are moving and making these difficult career transitions, like you've done a handful of times. Would that be your main piece of advice, take responsibility? Or what would be your main sort of little nugget of advice for someone about going to take a big change?

Gillian: Probably accepting that it's going to be a journey and the expectation will be that you'll get clarity and you should be able to go back to the firm where you're moving into a BD manager role and you're reporting to a director or you're moving up to a CMO role. Now, there should be an expectation on you that you come within the first three to four weeks with your idea of what your plan is going to be for the next three to four months. But don't over promise. The worst thing people can do is over promise and under deliver. It's better to set your expectations and recognise that it is a journey and you're on it, and you're on it with the people who brought you in and you're on it with the people who are going to be reporting to you now. Make sure you're aligned with the firm strategy and you're clear about what those expectations are both in the short and medium in the long term for you, because it's so easy to get overwhelmed. Sadly, you don't know what you don't know until you get in and you get under the covers. There's always that, oh my Lord, what have I taken on? And it's not what I thought it was going to be, and I think that's okay. So allow yourself the time to step back on your weekends in the evenings, get your notes down, get your thoughts down, and start to put together that plan that you can then discuss with somebody. Whether it's your CMO or if you're going to a CMO position, you discuss it with a managing partner. I think that's okay. And I think the danger is we know this is a high expectation, high performance culture for us. I think there's a bit of a danger to rush in too fast, and I don't think there's anything wrong with saying, I will be back to you within the next three to four weeks with a plan that we can then pressure test with you, whoever you're reporting to, and adjust accordingly. I think that should be okay.

Eugene: That's wonderful. I think it's the first time I've heard that sort of advice within the legal industry, to take a step back and take your time. I think you're right. There's just so much emphasis on the now that actually is maybe a bit destructive for the longer term success and also your own personal success, moreover. Gillian, we're going to leave it there. I think we're just about out of time. But I just want to say a big thank you that has been absolutely fabulous. Thank you for making the time for us, as always.

Gillian: You’re most welcome. Good to talk to you again. Thank you.

Eugene: All the best.

Charlie: So, Eugene, that was a fascinating conversation with Gillian. What career!

Eugene: Yeah, 100%. It was really very original and actually quite an inspiring chat for me, personally. I think really my key takeaway was Jillian's ability to take responsibility for her own career in a way nothing was really handed to her. She had to move country, move continent, change industry, keep jumping up to bigger, more prestigious, arguably more complex firms. But the thing which just ran throughout that conversation was took responsibility. She basically said yes to everything, threw herself into it, but also managed to relate it back to revenue, which in marketing can sometimes be a bit intangible. In Gillian's early career, she did a lot of sales rules and I think that's one thing that maybe sets her apart from her peers. Gillian's had a number on her head for her whole career. She knows what it takes to deliver. And again, there's that responsibility, there's that ownership and transparency really working in sales. And that obviously just then runs through everything she does day to day. She's an incredible lady and I don't think there's many people out there like her.

Charlie: That's amazing. Yeah. And it really must have taken a lot of courage to make that leap both into legal, but also, like, moving continents at the same time.

Eugene: Yeah, definitely. She said herself it's an exciting opportunity, especially when she was a bit younger and she was based in the north of England and post industrial England, and things weren't maybe as easy as they could have been back home. So it felt like the right time and place to move. But people maybe see the glitz and glamour side of moving continents. They don't see the massive cultural changes, the pressures, the adjustments, being on your own, all that sort of stuff. So, yeah, I think she describes it quite well. It wasn't quite as easy as it seems and she's obviously a grafter and it all came together.

Charlie:  Yeah. And I imagine that's something you can relate to, having just kind of moved over to the US as well.

Eugene: I think if I do half as well as Gillian Ward I’ll be doing very well for myself.

Charlie: And it seems like one challenge, though, was recognizing when the right time to move roles or even firms was and kind of building that self awareness. That seems to be something Gillian has really kind of mastered over the years.

Eugene: Yeah, I think that was probably one of the most original, interesting things she said. She said a lot of people in marketing and business development because there is a bit of a talent shortage. There are people who are taking big jumps at the minute for roles which I'm not as qualified or ready for. And actually, her key takeaway was say yes to everything. Throw yourself in, develop new skill sets and open yourself up to learn. But also, don't underestimate that you might be in a pretty good spot now. And if you can spend 18 months more building, growing that skill set and growing that sort of cultural capital, you'll be in a really good position to succeed. It's a long career ahead of you. You don't need to be constantly moving up the ladder. And again, that comes back to your other point about taking responsibility and self awareness. Am I ready for this role? It's definitely a different way of looking at things, and I think it's actually quite pertinent.

Charlie: Yeah, no, I agree. I thought that was really insightful and, like, say something you don't hear very often, actually. So, yeah, really interesting. And from your chat with Gillian, what do you really think those factors are? You've kind of talked about how inspiring she is and her career has been, but what are those factors or characteristics that she has that really set her apart and that has probably led to her success in legal marketing?

Eugene: Well, I'd say probably the key thing is she works very hard. I think that's the key thing which underpins everything she does. She's an absolute grafter from what I've seen. But I think her ability to bring people with her and going back to what we just said about taking your time, learning your craft, developing skill sets and delivering, she's able to relate everything back to revenue, and that drives a lot of respect. She's also a fantastic communicator, and she enables and lifts her team up. So she's got great people working with her who want to be there and everyone's on the same page. And she's great at managing the expectations of her team, but also in legal marketing, the marketing, the business development, the communications teams are effectively working alongside the lawyers. And one thing she said which was really pertinent was working in marketing and business development is as much of a profession as the law itself. And that's what she does. She's developed respect, and she knows the self awareness piece. She understands her team's role and how important they are to the business. And that just changes the way that they're able to work with the lawyers rather than necessarily working for them all the time in a slightly asymmetrical relationship. She really has just got that nailed.

Charlie: Yeah, no, I really love that point as well. But yeah, really great. Okay, so finally, Eugene, just one last thing really succinctly, what was your favourite takeaway from that chat with Gillian? That kind of key insight that you'll take with you.

Eugene: Selfishly, it would be to take responsibility for your own career. You are the sum of your work and you have to do the networking. Meet with the right people, but also make the right steps in the right jumps. And just like Jillian, there's a few times when you have to change country or change industry or jump up a level, and the self awareness will enable you to do that at the right time.

Charlie: Brilliant. Thanks, Eugene. Thank you for joining me.

Eugene: Thanks, Charlie.

Charlie: So that's all for today's episode. Thank you to Eugene and Gillian for coming on. You can subscribe to the Passle CMO series podcast via Spotify, Apple podcasts or Google podcasts. Head across to for a full transcription of this episode. And join us next time when Ali Bone welcomes Erin Dimry, Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer at DLA Piper to the series.


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