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| 15 minutes read

CMO Series EP55 - Mark Howe of Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP on the rise of client-facing BD roles in law firms

Many firms are looking to gain a competitive advantage by being closer to their clients, but client-facing business development roles are no longer the sole responsibility of lawyers.

On this edition of the CMO Series, Will Eke welcomes Mark Howe, Director of Business Development & Client Relations at Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP, to hear about his experience in a client-facing BD role and the benefits to the lawyers and the wider firm.

Will and Mark discuss: 

  • Mark’s current role at TDS and when client-facing work become a regular part of it
  • The evolution of client-facing BD roles in legal 
  • Why these sorts of roles took so long to come about and what they bring to law firms
  • If client-facing BD is something every firm should have and the conditions that need to be met for client-facing BD professionals to be successful
  • Advice for law firms looking at implementing client facing BD roles


Intro: Welcome to the Passle podcast CMO Series.

Will: Welcome to the Passle CMO series podcast, where we discuss professional services, marketing, business development, and how you can be more effective than both. I think people are used to my dulcet tones by now. My name is Will Eke, and today I'm going to be talking about quite a popular topic that comes up in conversation quite a lot. And it's about the rise of client facing business development roles, specifically in law firms. I suppose just to set the scene, firms are normally looking to gain an advantage from being closer to clients, and client facing roles are no longer the sole responsibility of lawyers and attorneys. Now, we're really lucky today to welcome our guests on the podcast, and we're going to discuss how this sort of client facing role works in legal BD. So welcome to the CMO series podcast, Mark Howe. Mark heads up business development and marketing at Thompson Dorfman Sweatman. It's a leading regional law firm in Canada, and they are headquartered in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Hi, Mark. How are you doing?

Mark: Doing well. How are you doing, Will?

Will: Yeah, all good. We heard about my ailments. I'm not going to go on about them too much to our listeners. But yeah, all good. Apart from that, the sun is shining here, so we're all good. I was going to go straight to question one because I think this topic, as I say, is going to be really useful. I've had many meetings recently where I always ask, heads of BD, are your client facing? Do you get to see many clients? And they always say, oh, I'd love to be more client facing. So you guys have done it. And the first question is, how did you sort of come to be in your role at TDS? I'll abbreviate. And when did client facing work become a regular part of what you guys do and what you specifically do?

Mark: Yeah, thanks. I would love to say it was all part of a master plan, but really it just kind of evolved over time. So in 2008, I was hired to create the department, basically from scratch. And initially my role was really marketing focused. But as the firm evolved and the culture evolved, and my role as the head of that department evolved, it just started kind of happening naturally. So at the start, I wasn't actually hired for business development. Those responsibilities were not part of my job description. I actually just started doing it in part out of challenges with moving some things forward with prospects. And I saw a problem that I thought I could solve. So at the start, I didn't really have a BD mandate. But about ten years ago, we started our Client Feedback Interview Program, and at that time, I started meeting with clients and our managing partner and CEO. And so it kind of happened around the same time as we rolled out our Client Feedback Interview program. And like I said, things just developed organically, started doing it slowly, started getting some wins, some successes, and then really started building a track record and gaining trust among partners. And then more recently in 2019, I worked really closely with our COO and we completely overhauled the department and restructured the department. And now there's a healthy separation between marketing and BD.

Will: Interesting. It's interesting that point you say about the separation, because some firms like to separate it. Some firms, they still have it sort of under one banner. So I'm guessing you've separated it. So you have a head of marketing as well as yourself, Mark. Is that how that structure works?

Mark: Yes. So the head of marketing reports into me, so I kind of think that there's a dotted line between marketing and BD. So we work together as a team. We're kind of two halves of a whole, but because there is that separation that I'm not pulled into the marketing weeds.

Will: Yeah, that makes sense. And I like the fact that you talk about trust. It's often the thing you need to get the partners on side. You need them to trust you for some reason before you go in front of a client, which does make sense. Why do you think these sorts of roles took or take so long to come about? And what is it that these roles bring that has really brought them into focus now for sort of law firms?

Mark: Yeah, that's a really good question. I was giving some thought to that question as I was preparing for the podcast. I think that the work that Dr. Larry Richards did on the lawyer personality and the general traits that apply to many lawyers, things like being more introverted, less social, highly autonomous, those things certainly make BD a challenge. But I think one of the reasons it's taken a while for these roles to come about is perception of risk, especially as it relates to trust. And law firms are not well known for taking risks. And so I think trust is a big factor, trusting that things with the client will go well, trusting that nobody will be embarrassed. I was actually recently in the office of one of our partners and she said, you really are doing pure BD now. You're not really doing any marketing anymore, and that's great, but we wouldn't have let you do what you're doing early on. So I think it's back to that trust. I guess the other thing that comes to mind, some firms are trying to get there, but I think there's still a disconnect with real business development, at least in some cases. I've come across some people that have a business development title, and then when I start asking them questions about what do they do or what are the areas of focus, sometimes I'll hear things like sponsorships and events and directories and rankings coming up and I think, really, that's more marketing and not BD. I think some of the reasons why this role is coming into more focus is other professional services firms are doing it, especially the accounting firms. And I think these roles can create value both for clients and for the lawyers. So just as an example, when I'm setting up the first meeting with prospective clients after identifying the legal needs, I'll typically ask if they would like me to bring a lawyer to the first meeting and often they'll say yes, but sometimes they'll say for this first meeting, I just want to meet with you. I think part of the reason that's the response some of the time is they know I'm not a lawyer, so they know I'm personally not looking for files, I'm not looking for any legal work myself. So my role is really to identify the ideal lawyer for the client which extends beyond legal expertise. I'm a big believer in the importance of personal fit and I think the value for the lawyers is that I try to take on as much of the non-billable stuff as possible and take that off of their plates. So in the ideal scenario, to use a football analogy, I try to bring the ball as close to the 1 yard line as I can before doing the hand off because sometimes it'll take 8,9,10 phone calls, emails, LinkedIn messages over a year, more sometimes even to get the first face to face meeting. So if you're a lawyer whose hourly rate is several hundred dollars per hour, the client facing BD people can add a lot of value if they can bring things closer to the finish line.

Will: It's a great answer Mark, lots of points. I was going to pick on that, not least your football analogy because I was trying to work out is that soccer or football? But you're talking football. This stuff you talk about with Larry Richards, actually, we have a guy over here called Dan Cain who's come out of one of the big network rail firms over here and he started up this thing called the O shaped Lawyer, which is similar, and he's trying to fix that problem that Dr. Larry Richards talks about and he's trying to sort of say lawyers and attorneys do need these soft skills. It goes hand in hand with what you're sort of saying. You're not always going to get lawyers to suddenly build those skills. They're very good technically sometimes, but doesn't mean they're going to be people person or person people. So you do need that personal thing. I think that's where you fill the void, obviously, for some of these guys. The other thing I picked up on is and again, you've made it a mature role, but the fact that there is a disconnect with BD teams and BD folk and other law firms, I think it's because it's actually still a role that's in its infancy, right? So you've been doing it for a number of years and I don't think that's the norm because I think suddenly, as you say, law firms look at other professional service firms and they go, we should be set up like that. We should have pure BD people in there driving business forward. So they were my sort of points on that. I don't know if you've got anything to add at all.

Mark: Yeah, I think those are all really good points and valid points. I think it really is going to start evolving quickly. The fact that I'm on this podcast today, but just my network of contacts in North America and Europe that other firms I'm talking to, this is certainly seems like it's on the radar of a lot of firms, but it's not going to be a fit for every firm.

Will: Yeah, good point. Thanks Mark, for your thoughts on that. Next question I was going to ask, is client facing BD, I suppose we just touched upon it. Is it something every firm should have and what conditions need to be met for client facing BD professionals to actually be successful in that role, in your opinion?

Mark: Yeah, we did touch on this, but this is another really good question. The short answer is I don't think it's a fit for every firm, this client facing BD role. The first question I would ask is, is this a problem that needs solving? And if the answer is yes, then the next question I would ask or next thing I would look at would be the firm's culture. As Peter Drucker famously said, culture eats strategy for breakfast. I think with the wrong culture it comes down to will the lawyers even let the business development person do their job? I think that the firms that are considering this type of a role really do need to do a readiness assessment on the firm's culture. Things like do they have full support from the leadership? Because even if you find the right person for the job, if the firm isn't ready yet, it just won't work. I think a couple of other points on the answer to your question here is if firms are considering this type of a role. One thing I think that I've also seen is that maybe they've hired the wrong people. I think some mistakes have been made when law firms use the terms marketing and business development interchangeably. In some cases, I think putting a successful marketing person into a pure BD role just won't work out. Certainly it can work and it has worked, but I think marketing and BD really are different skill sets. Use a lawyer analogy, you can have a brilliant corporate lawyer who may not be as effective as a litigator in court. Again, different skill sets. I think another factor when you're looking at the right person for these types of roles, of course IQ is important, but I think EQ is really critically important. Things like being naturally curious, being even tempered. You of course need to have confidence and you need to be assertive, but you can't be arrogant. You have to be able to park your ego at the door. You also need to balance the client's needs with the lawyer's interests. And that can be a fine line to walk at times. You need to be politically savvy to navigate what is a sometimes complex law firm terrain. And of course, that applies to the marketing roles too. But I think when you're talking to clients and you're introducing potential clients to lawyers, that all just goes up a notch. And David Maister talked about hunters and farmers, so I was giving some thought to that too, as I was preparing for this. And I think you really need to be a hybrid with both hunter and farmer traits. So, yeah, to kind of finish up your answer to your question here, I think you really do need to have the right firm culture and to find the right person. And that sounds kind of obvious, but I've seen disconnects there, I think, and maybe firms that have tried this and it hasn't worked out well, you may have noticed I like metaphors and analogies. So think about car batteries. There's the two terminals, there's the red and the black, and you need a strong connection on both terminals or your battery won't work and your car won't start. And then I think it's an interesting one because there's a lot of attention being given to this client facing BD role. There's a lot of opportunity, but there's certainly a lot of challenges. I recall hearing a previous Passle podcast where I think the stat was only 25% of the AMLAW 100 firms have people in a client facing BD role. So firms that are looking to go down this road, I think, need to set realistic expectations because recruitment in general is a problem right now. And I certainly think that hiring for this type of a role is a challenge.

Will: Yeah, I was at a UK focused event last week and there were a few people on the panel that had sort of a UK presence and US presence. Your last point there about recruitment and hiring the right people. Everyone's very much aware this is a real issue at the moment, and it's an issue for a number of reasons. The big law firms are losing people outside the industry, the small ones, it's always quite hard to compete because of inflation of wages and things. But there was a CMO of a very big law firm, I won't name it, but his point was we're trying to hire for BD manager roles. He's got two open, I think he said they're in New York, and he was saying the wages were incredibly high, like crazy high, and they got no applicants, none at all. And he checked the market and it's because other law firms were doing even higher wages, but with a sign on fee as well, so people were taking it, but his problem is it's not sustainable A, because of that. But he was saying that people that are taking it are the wrong people. They're junior people trying to make that step up. And of course, the dollar signs are in the eyes, but he said they're being spat out after six months, a year because they can't fulfil the role. They don't fit with the culture, all the stuff you're saying. So it's a tricky problem at the moment. I also think you do like your analogies. I like the hunter farmer one, and that's actually you're quite an agricultural region, so it's probably quite close to the home. But I think the role is not solely new business. Right. So you do need to be that hunter farmer because you're farming from your existing client base as well as trying to look for new business. So, yeah, that makes absolute sense. A really great answer. The next question I was going to touch upon was, what would your one piece of advice be for law firms that are looking to implement these sort of client facing roles? Why do you think it's really worked for TDS in your regional market?

Mark: Yeah, I think that's certainly not for every firm back to the culture. I think TDS really does have the ideal culture for this role, so I'm very fortunate. I'm not saying I don't have any challenges, but TDS really does have a very supportive, BD culture and I think without that, you're kind of dead in the water. Another factor is lawyers like precedents, and we didn't really have one. One of our brand messages is free to lead. So one element of our firm's culture is the boldness to go first versus waiting for a local precedent. I think this factor is particularly important for firms in more of a mid-sized market like ours, where there might not be another law firm in your market that has someone in a role like this. So if your firm always has a history of always wanting to be first, to be second when it comes to doing something brand new, the reality is you're going to have to wait for one of your competitors to do it first. I think another thing that comes into play here is firms need to watch out about placing artificial barriers on themselves. If you think about what's happened in the last two years under COVID, there was all these things that we thought we couldn't do until we did them. So talking about artificial barriers reminds me of the Cliff Young story. So for the listeners that aren't familiar, Cliff Young was an Australian farmer in his sixties, and I think it was 1983, and he showed up to the Sydney, the Melbourne Marathon, and he wasn't really taken seriously. He was even laughed at for how he was dressed. But he not only won the race, but he won the race by 10 hours and actually set a new record. And the reason he won was because he didn't know what all the other runners knew. And that was that you had to stop and sleep for several hours per night, which was the conventional wisdom. So Cliff wasn't locked up into that or onto that conventional wisdom. He just kept running day and night for five days. So to kind of tie that back to us. Winnipeg is a big test market, and in particular, the reason for that is because we're pretty geographically isolated from other large population centres. And so because of that isolation, I think our firm was a bit like Cliff Young ten years ago when the client facing BD role started at TDS. And I know I just assumed that all the bigger firms and the larger markets were all doing BD this way. And then when I started to learn that many firms much larger than us didn't have a client facing BD role, I remember being quite surprised.

Will: Yeah, great point. And I think everyone knows that second is a big thing sometimes with law firms. And sometimes it even seems the bigger they are, the more they act like to use another agricultural farming stock at Sheep. Don't they really? Yeah. It's interesting that the size of your firm, you can be far more agile and you can set the precedent. Mark, amazing talking to you. Really insightful pieces, and I love the analogies that you brought in. Do you have any sort of final thoughts before we wrap up?

Mark: I guess final thoughts would be I really do love this role because it's a niche within a niche. I do like being very specialised, and I think for firms that can get it right, I think the client facing BD role really can be a competitive advantage. When you look outside of legal, certainly in the corporate world, there's a lot of talk of the first mover advantage, but typically law firms, at least historically, have been kind of reluctant to be that first mover. Other than that. Thank you, Will, for the opportunity to be on your podcast today. I really enjoyed the conversation.

Will: Likewise, Mark. Take care and have a brilliant rest of the week. 


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