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| 24 minutes read

CMO Series EP63 - Chris Hinze of Steptoe & Johnson on law firm reputation management and its importance to CMOs

Managing the firm’s reputation is perhaps one of the most critical roles a legal marketing function can play. Actively managing how the firm is perceived, by both internal and external stakeholders, is key to its success.

Someone with extensive experience in this area is Chris Hinze, Chief Marketing & Business Development Officer at Steptoe & Johnson. We’re so lucky to be joined by Chris in this episode of the CMO Series to discuss why reputation is critical to a law firm and the role of marketing leaders in managing the firm's reputation.

Will and Chris cover: 

  • Chris’s journey to CMBDO at Steptoe and the point in his career it became clear that reputation management was going to be important
  • The difference between Brand and Reputation
  • The importance of reputation management to law firms today
  • How reputation management works in practice 
  • What actions firms should be taking day to day
  • How a firm can diagnose if its reputation management is performing well or poorly
  • Advice for others in the legal marketing community who are managing their firm’s reputation 


Intro: Welcome to the Passle Podcast CMO series. 

Will: Hi there and welcome to the CMO Series podcast with Passle. My name is Will Eke. Today we're going to be talking about law firm reputation management, really important within the firm, within the industry for CMOs, and managing a firm's reputation and perception in the market is something that perhaps CMOs should be more aware of and perhaps adept at. Today we're really lucky to welcome Chris Hinze. He's the Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer at Washington-headquartered international firm Steptoe & Johnson. Hi, Chris, how are you doing today? 

Chris: Great. It's nice to be here well, and appreciate talking to you today. 

 Will: Good stuff. I'm really excited to have your thoughts on this. Chris joins us to discuss why reputation is so critical to a law firm and within his role in terms of managing that firm's reputation. To start us off, Chris, how did you come to be CMBDO at Steptoe? And at what point in your illustrious career, 25 years and more on the journey, did reputation management become something that you knew was going to be really important? 

Chris: I'd held a mixture of different roles through my career, so I looked at the communication side and the marketing director role and the BD roles at earlier stages of my career, first of all with the UK law firm, then for Andersen and Ernst & Young. And after that, I went over to Lovells in London as their Head of Communications. And we did a merger with Hogan and Hartz in 2010, which created what I think AMLAW called a couple of years ago as arguably the most successful transatlantic merger of all time. And in that post-merger environment, after a couple of years, I became the Global Head of Communications. But what really underscored all the way through that process, both of the combination and in that post-merger environment, was the real value of having powerful and very consistent messaging about what the benefits of that merger meant for clients, for people, for employees, and being able to share that out around different markets. And that was great fun and great experience to do. And then having had that role for quite a long time, I felt it was time to then go back to those wider marketing and business development roots that I'd had earlier in my career. And the role of Steptoe really gave me this great opportunity to do that. And what was fantastic, because it has broadly the same business model to the Hogan Lovells one, so it has strong practices in areas such as regulatory law, IP investigations, trade litigation, and so on. So there's a good alignment between those two things. So it was a relatively straightforward transition. On the more sort of reputation management side of things, I actually started my career as a PR consultant, and what really attracted me to that originally was a presentation given by Burson-Marsteller on campus about the work that they did and they really majored, very heavily on the board level work they did around crisis management. And that really appealed to me because it gave you this opportunity to sit at the table and make a difference. It's still relatively early stages in your career. When I became a PR consultant, I did end up working with a number of professional services firms on a number of different pieces of work. But I also developed a sort of specialism in issues management. So I worked with a number of consortiums in trying to create for them a message and a persona almost sometimes completely from scratch, as well as more broadly advising on public affairs work for clients, which did include some hard-hitting campaigns to fight off government tax proposals. And in all of those situations, demonstrating a strong reputation and having a clear message about who you are and what you had to offer played a critical role in the success of what you're trying to pursue. So the origins come from right back in the earlier stages of my career. 

Will: It's really fascinating, Chris, really good insight and yeah, some real specialist expertise that you sort of carried through. That's really interesting stuff. I suppose the next question really that links into that and help me and the listeners understand this is what do you see the real difference between brand and reputation being? 

Chris: I think ultimately they're very close, they're almost interchangeable, but there are differences between them and the degree of nuance. In terms of that difference, I think candidly depends on how much of a marketing purist you actually want to be. So if we look at, say, some of the work done by MIT Sloan, I read something there that says brand is arguably focused more on the promise that you provide to your customers or your clients and how that is perceived by them. So it's really focused on that one particular audience. And that sort of is a very single lens through which you are viewed as an organisation. And then the other way of looking at reputation, therefore, is focused much more on the credibility and respect that you have among a much broader set of stakeholders in our world that could be partners, employees, potential hires, regulators, reporters, local communities, associates and so forth, of which clients are then also a part. So part of me would say that reputation has brand as a subset of it. I can imagine a whole bunch of brand specialists arguing it completely the other way around. And in professional services, given that people are the service and the product and the way in which clients buy individuals as much as they say, for example, by law firm's name, I'd argue that the two actually are pretty much the same thing. Especially when you start talking about such things as employer brand or recruitment brand, where you're really focusing on essentially the same thing but aimed at those different audiences. And don't forget, within our particular industry you have this immense movement between firms, clients, government and various other bodies where those people are moving around and how they perceive you in one context will influence significantly how they perceive you in a different one. I'd also argue that brand can sometimes get a bit mistranslated in a law firm environment or in fact broad professional services, and people sort of mistranslate that then as logos or strap lines or pretty pictures and colours. It's more comfortable talking about reputation and how that is best communicated. And I think professionals such as attorneys feel on much stronger and more familiar ground when you talk about reputation rather than brand. 

Will: Thanks, Chris. Yeah, that is really interesting, isn't it? I think maybe the brand that comes in from the consumer side and you're absolutely right, from an external perspective, reputation fits far better with those sort of specialists in law. In terms of reputation management, why do you think it's so important for law firms today?

Chris:  I think it always has been important. I mean, if we look at the long term and all of this, there's been this decades-long ongoing transformation about more transparency around the profession and around individual law firms. So if we go back to the external scrutiny of firms, the American Lawyer was first of all founded in 1979. The lawyer in the UK legal business started doing its directories, for example, I think also in 1987. And what we've seen is this greater scrutiny of lawyers in a whole variety of different ways. So if we start with that external print reporting back in that dark distant period of time known as the 70s and 80s. It then migrated. So you had the development in line with technology of the bulletin boards such as Greedy Associates or Roll on Friday. That has morphed over time into the more online environment generally for commentary. And now what we've seen in the last ten years or so is the explosion of social media where it's not just reporters who are commenting on the business of what law firms are doing, but also its own employees outside parties as well, having a view and being very open and communicating about that to whoever wants to listen. So I think each of those different stages has brought that immense scrutiny. But we've also seen over the course of the last, arguably five or six years, a much more significant shift in the expectations and demands of society as a whole about who their employer is and also in relation to the actions and performance of business institutions as a whole. And you can see that in some of the data which is out there. So Edelman produces its Trust Barometer, in their 2021 Trust Barometer said, for example, that employees expect their employers to take a stand on social and business issues. And I think a good stat in there was just over a third of US employees stated that they had left a job, surely solely because their employer had kind of remained silent on a societal or political issue. There was a different study also on social justice, which Porter Novelli did again in 2021, where more than half of employees said that they hold their employer to a higher standard than other companies when it comes to addressing social justice issues. And this is new territory for law firms. It's not an area which they have often gone into for a whole range of different reasons. And I just wanted to pick up the one sort of other thing on this from the Porter Novelli study, which is that silence can have consequences. So six out of ten Americans said it was no longer acceptable for companies to be silent on social justice issues, and another half said that they assume that companies remain quiet on social issues simply just don't care. And law firms aren't immune to this. I mean, we're part of that business community, we're part of the employer community. And I think that dynamic was really startling illustrated in 2020 with the death of George Floyd and the up pouring and outpouring of commentary and views expressed around racial injustice here in the United States. And I think films have broadly caught a bit on the hop in terms of what was expected of them in that context. And that's because, yes, they have diversity and inclusion and equality programs and yes, people were genuinely appalled like everybody else at the killing, but what they were not comfortable with was saying so out loud to their people in the wider market. And I think partly because there's a view it was self-evident that this was appalling, and partly because sometimes taking a public stance is inherently alien to the firm. But what was missed in all of that, I think, was this very strong desire that was felt from minority groups for their employer, who is perceived to have real power to publicly support them in a time of crisis, against in a situation of feeling powerless. And firms got there eventually, but it took, I think, several days for the magnitude of what was happening to sink in and for those expectations from employees and others to actually crystallise and for that to be recognised and therefore to be in the form of both internal and external statements of support and comment. So I think there is this sort of shifting dynamic within society as a whole around what is expected of law firms, but then we get into a slightly different piece of territory on that. And that's actually that law firms are not just any other business though, their reputational perspective and their challenges are actually very different to other professions, let alone corporations. And this is where they occupy quite a unique environment in society and in other aspects. And that is around upholding the rule of law and operating within its framework as well as acting in the best interests of the client and you can't really have a functional democracy without these. And that creates occasionally these friction points between the profession and society, especially in periods of intense societal or cultural debate or change. And I can give you an example of that. I had a situation in a previous part of my career where there was a piece of investigation work that was being carried out for a client around the behaviour of some of those clients employees and whether they'd taken bribes or not. And the work the firm did resulted in an immense amount of scrutiny and actually public criticism because the work was viewed as political and it was perceived as having resulted in a whitewash because there are no prosecutions at the far end. And this put the firm in a bit of a position because actually the work that had been carried out, the internal investigations that had done had not cleared the employees of anything at all but had in fact recommended that they faced a disciplinary hearing which they did. And it was the disciplinary hearing that then cleared them of any responsibility and any form of criminal investigation and prosecution was actually the responsibility of the police. It's not the responsibility of the law firm but the firm itself is being targeted as being responsible and accused of fundamentally not doing its job. And that's where these mis-expectations start to come in place. And the firm found it actually really difficult to defend itself because the work was confidential and subject to client-attorney privilege. And when it said that it was being accused of hiding behind those things it's again quite hard to argue back other than simply falling back on these notions of professional ethics and the responsibilities that you have to your client. And that's where you play a slightly different role in society to a traditional corporation. But what was also I think quite disturbing in that particular case was a strong allegation that the firm itself was corrupt and that there was simple guilt by association with the client. And that sort of logic, frankly, is medieval as well as being fundamentally flawed. Lawyers are not their clients but they have responsibilities to act in their best interests. And also let's be quite pragmatic about this. Firms act for corporates and for individuals who are not popular and society knows that and it recognises that and it accepts it. I read a Reuters piece last year about some of the departures from Boies Schiller and there was speculation in that piece that it was work for Elizabeth Holmes and Harvey Weinstein which had acted as the catalyst for those departures. And what was interesting is that the Reuters article was quoting lots of comments from the comments section of the Daily Mail which as we all know is a fantastic newspaper. And there the newspaper had quite surprisingly found a lot of recognition by members of the public for the fact that lawyers have a duty to represent their clients and that some of those will be unpopular. So when you look at the overall landscape, you've got to be, I think, quite nuanced in assessing how firms are perceived and the reputation challenges they face, because often context is highly critical in that particular environment. And I can take that through a lens of individual law firms and what they do for a living and their own particular reputation. So a law firm which has a strong M & A track record. If that takes on a piece of work for a highly controversial figure who might be facing a government investigation. It might be perceived as acting outside of its normal reputational envelope or something similar and therefore it might face a heightened level of scrutiny from its people or from its clients or from the market or something else. And that's because what it's doing isn't aligned with what is normally expected of it or how it's perceived to normally behave. Whereas a firm which has a very strong white collar crime and fraud practice and reputation, if they take on a highly controversial figure, then that is seen as maybe acting within its reputational envelope and expectations and therefore doesn't gather that same level of scrutiny either internally or externally. I think a partner I worked with once phrased it up pretty pithily. They said, if you want to do top-tier work, then don't be surprised if you face intense scrutiny for it. That's part and parcel of doing business and I think law firms recogniSe that and they sit in this very unique position compared to other businesses and other organisations that operate within commerce and society. 

Will: Yeah, it's a fine line. We often hear that from law firms. We've got this ESG sustainability area that we've set up and then you actually, again, you look at some of the client base and they're actually representing BP, Shell, that sort of thing. So good points there. I think the other thing that sprung to mind as well, many things spring to mind with that amazing answer, was actually I was at an event a month ago and a CMO at a top 50 law firm in the UK. She sort of said, we know we're doing well in our roles on reputation if our lawyers aren't written about in Roll on Friday, which is sort of the tabloid on a Friday that comes out in the law industry, which sounds quite amusing. In terms of how reputation management should work in practice within a law firm. Is it a function? Do you see it as a team or something else Chris? 

Chris: I think it works at a number of levels and it sort of works in a number of different multiple directions. Given that sort of very all-embracing definition of reputation that we spoke about earlier, I think fundamentally what it comes down to is a mindset. And that mindset is owned by everybody within the firm. I don't think it sort of lives in one particular bucket, although some of the tools that may get used to get allocated out. And when we talk about this notion of reputation as a major asset, it also stands hand in hand about being very clear about the values of the organisation and what it stands for. And those two things working together, they're really the central aspect of the management and leadership of the firm. I mean, those two things sit very closely to the very top of the agenda for most law firm leaders that I've worked with over the years. And with that, I think fundamentally, when you're talking about the management of reputation for a law firm, it does come back to values and being prepared to live to those values and then take actions against those that repeatedly and fragrantly breached those values. Otherwise, what's the point in having them? And if the action that is then taken is transparent as to why everybody then has the right context for how the firm views itself, how it views its reputation, how it views the way that it works with society and with its clients and with potential recruits and everybody else. And that then drives confidence in leadership, that the right decisions are being taken to protect the reputation of the firm, to uphold its values and everything that it stands for. You can then add different layers in there in terms of where the PR team might work with a particular group of stakeholders like reporters, the recruitment team work with maybe laterals or associates coming in, or business services professionals that are being recruited into the firm. But fundamentally, it boils back down to having a clear sense of what your values are, being able to articulate that as a message, and then putting in place the programs that address each of those different audiences and stakeholders that reflect those through. And when those things get challenged, taking the appropriate actions to either course correct or to reinforce the values and say no, these are the things we stand for. And equally, these are the things we won't stand for. 

Will: What is actively managing the firm's reputation look like in practice? And what actions should the firm be taking day to day? Let's look at it across a range of different stakeholders. So if you think, first of all, about the client intake, we all do legal conflict checks, we all do industry sector conflict checks sometimes or positional conflict checks. I know some firms also do reputational conflict checks. So is this a client or a representation that we actually want to take on? So does it align with who we are as a firm and our track record and our experience? And are we prepared for how it will be perceived? And are we comfortable with that? And that's a fundamental decision that each firm has to take for itself in relation to its portfolio of clients. It should then also be in a process where it actively engages with stakeholders. And the critical word here is actively. Every firm has passive engagement with its stakeholders. Every firm will have a brand, every firm will have a reputation. The question is whether it takes a proactive step to engage with its different audiences both internally and externally. So, you know, there have to be discussion forums with partners, with your associates, with the business services teams. Leadership needs to be available to talk about what the organisation is doing, what it stands for, what its values are, how it sees its reputation and what it expects of its people in return. It needs to have a program, for example, of media engagement, a recruitment consultant engagement, of law school engagement, of regulator engagement even where appropriate, and to do so on a very regular basis. So this is a conscious and strategic decision to engage with all of those different groups. And in doing so it should be explaining ‘the why’ it does something as well as ‘the what’ it does in terms of its actions. Because I think providing this context and showing the underlying logic and rationale of the decisions that you take as a firm helps everyone really understand both the situation and the mindset and position of the firm or whatever is the relevant topic that's relevant at that point in time for that day. And over time that builds trust and it demonstrates a willingness to engage and to listen. And what we've seen, we talked earlier on about the long-term trends that we recognize is that requirement for speed of response and transparency has been constantly accelerating over the last 25 to 30 years. So if I go back to the very beginning of my career for some of the legal publications that we were dealing with at that point in time who are providing that scrutiny of the profession. They were on a weekly deadline. Well, that kind of gave you quite a bit of room to manoeuvre in terms of working out sometimes what your answer was going to be to some of the questions that they were posing. And it also gave you a bit of time, maybe a couple of days often to work out what you then needed to do internally to communicate okay, this is what's coming, or we've taken a position on this and be able to share that with your partners and your employees on the basis of there being no surprises. That world is long gone. So that speed of response cycle has dramatically accelerated. So we went from print to online to the discussion forums, to the social media environment we live in today. And that cycle of speed can actually be, if you're not prepared for it and you haven't had that experience over that long period of time, sometimes quite overwhelming. But I think fundamentally the principles remain the same regardless of the speed and that's to have a good understanding of who you are, what your message is, and be prepared to communicate it so those reaction times are sped up. But actually what that means from a very practical point of view ultimately is being much more certain about yourself and doing frankly more advanced planning so that you can plan things out, you can rehearse things, you can do occasional scenario planning, all those things which good law firms do around some of the reputational challenges that they may end up facing. And then it also takes us into a couple of other areas. So ultimately it's about using your judgment and experience because not everything which happens to you as a firm actually requires a major response. Sometimes the best approach is to not do anything at all or to just simply wait and see how things evolve. And that should in fact be an active decision. It shouldn't be a default or knee-jerk reaction not to do something. It should be a conscious decision to wait and see, which is as valid sometimes as moving swiftly to address a particular issue. And then the other thing I throw into the mix on this is notwithstanding the research I spoke about earlier in terms of social justice issues, on those social justice and other related issues of the day, be really careful to ensure that you are relevant to the topic and the conversation that's occurring in society. Because if you are going to weigh in on any particular subject then you have to be prepared to back that up with words, with substantive actions because otherwise, you're just noise. And if you're not part of contributing to the solution, then what was the point in saying and doing something in the first place? You're just creating additional noise for the sake of it and there is a backlash potential that goes with that. 

Will: I really like that area that you're talking about constantly tweaking the values and everything else to sort of follow involving everyone in internal stakeholders. I recently finished a book by this guy Owen Eastwood called Belonging and he basically talks about whakapapa which is like a Maori belief that you sort of belong. He talks a lot about togetherness and how you can build that. So he goes into a lot of high performing teams or sometimes not high performing sports teams and he sort of builds that whole identity for them. And sometimes it's done on history, sometimes it's just done on what their common beliefs are. But he talks about this point where he's like he doesn't understand where firms, especially in business, sometimes outsource that part. It doesn't make sense and you're talking exactly that. You're doing the opposite, you're building it from inside. And lots of firms miss that bit and they sort of say, well, you tell us what we stand for and then we'll try and impart that onto everyone else. It doesn't really work that way. How can a firm diagnose if it's reputation management is performing well or poorly, sometimes hard to work out. Once you put that in place, how is it doing? How do you gauge that? 

Chris: I think ultimately is listening. So you get that feedback from the stakeholders, you listen to what they're saying, you track the reporting, you track the social media engagement, you have employee engagement research, you listen to the associate's committee, you listen to partners. And you have a very strong radar or antenna up to sort of take the pulse of what is going on around you and where you're sitting. And as part of that, ultimately you start to learn to tell the difference between something which is a one off blip of concern versus something which is slightly more systemic or is achieving some momentum or getting some real traction either coming from an outside audience or from one of the internal ones. And then you start to decide what your reaction strategy is or even going on the front foot. But in doing so when you're trying to diagnose these sort of reputational pressures and the effect that they have on you is also be very aware of your own internal sensitivity to something, particularly in a partnership environment. So the partnership might feel like the firm is under attack and in the spotlight on a particular topic or when there's a really difficult subject that has to be managed and actually will over magnify its importance and significantly overstate sometimes as part of that internal discussion cycle, just how much the outside world actually cares. Because what we will all see when we are the subject of something spotlight being applied to us is we take it quite personally and there's a chance it sort of takes over our entire lives. Whereas from the outside world's point of view, it's like, yeah, no idea what you're talking about. It's just not landed or got any traction with them at all, whether that's the client or the recruitment market, it or even reporters. So being able to take a judgment on this and be in a position where it's often the case that the outside world barely noticed and kind of rapidly moved on, having the information so strong factual data, having the experience, and having the ability sometimes to take external counsel on something like this in order to reality check what's going on, can actually pay incredible dividends. 

Will: I guess it feeds into your other point about sometimes it's best to evaluate, stay quiet and actually see if it's a big issue or not. Brilliant. Okay, Chris, we're going to move on to more of a quick fire around now. And just going to start off. You've been travelling a bit recently, so maybe this leads into the first question what's your favourite business and non-business book at the moment? 

Chris: Favourite business book: Liars Poker by Michael Lewis. It just gives you an insight into a world which is now gone, but you can still see. It echoes all around us. And I go back to that book over and over again for an entertaining read and some strong lessons about personal behaviour. And then non-business book, I'd recommend Midnight Riots by Ben Aaronovitch. I won't spoil its contents, but if you read it, I think you might enjoy it. 

 Will: I'm writing them down. What was your first job? 

Chris: I was a PR consultant at the very beginning at a firm called Charles Barker, which is now long gone. Although technically I was also a shelf stacker at 16 for a local grocery store. So I'm not sure which of your jobs you'd like to pick on that one. 

Will: Definitely the shelf stacker. What makes you happy at work? 

Chris: I think having a smooth running team where people actually interact well with each other and enjoy the work and everybody knows what their particular role is and they integrate really, really well. I have pretty much zero tolerance attitude towards infighting and politicians that tends not to result in a happy experience for anybody. 

Wil: What are you listening to at the moment? And it doesn't matter if it's a podcast, it could be music if you're confident in your choices. 

Chris: I'm going to spare everybody my music choices, but I can recommend there's a podcast series called The Fall of Civilizations. Each one is about an hour long, but they go into how both ancient and semi-modern civilizations have both grown up and then collapsed over a period of time. I think they're quite highly instructive and probably a warning for the complacent.

Will: Brilliant. And having done quite a bit of travel, can you whittle it down? Where is your favourite place to visit?

Chris: Iceland. There's nowhere else like it on the planet. It's utterly unique. And I'm going to be going back there later on this year. 

Will: You're not talking about the supermarket, I presume? 

Chris: Correct.

Will: Brilliant. Thank you, Chris. Finally, and we always like to ask our guests this sort of golden nugget at the end, what one piece of advice or single takeaway would you give to the legal marketing community that we've got listening? 

Chris: I think listen to the smart people around you and be flexible in your thinking and never, ever, ever take it personally. 

Will: Lovely, lovely nugget there, Chris. It's been an absolute pleasure. Thank you for your amazing insights today. 

Chris; Thanks, Will. I've enjoyed it. I appreciate it very much. 


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