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| 19 minutes read

CMO Series EP74 - Suzanne Donnels of Davies on aligning technology with your firm’s goals for success

Technology in legal marketing and business development offers huge opportunities to help firms progress and stand out in the market. The type of technology and how it’s applied depends on the firm’s capabilities, and more importantly, its goals and ambitions.

Someone with a deep understanding of aligning technology with their firm's goals is Suzanne Donnels, Chief Business Development & Marketing Officer at Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg. Ali Bone has the pleasure of sitting down with Suzanne to explore her insights on identifying and implementing the right tech stack to fit your firm’s goals.

Ali and Suzanne cover: 

  • Suzanne’s journey to CMO and how technology has played a role in that journey
  • What the definition of legal marketing tech is and the kinds of solutions available 
  • How law firm marketing and BD can shape their tech stack and policies to meet their goals
  • Examples of alignment between goals of the firm and technology
  • How far along firms are on their technology journey and the minimum baseline and core capabilities that today's legal marketing and BD departments need to be delivering
  • Advice for others looking to make the most of the opportunities presented by technology in legal marketing and business development


Intro: Welcome to the Passle Podcast CMO Series

Ali: Welcome to the Passle CMO Series podcast, where we discuss all things marketing and BD in professional services. And so today we're here to discuss technology, and specifically technology, in legal marketing and business development, which offers a variety of exciting opportunities to progress a firm forward. Although how and where the firm applies technology will depend on its capabilities and probably first and foremost, its goals and ambitions to discuss aligning technology with their firm's goals we're lucky today to welcome Suzanne Donnels, Chief Business Development and Marketing Officer at Davies. Welcome, Suzanne.

Suzanne: Thank you, Ali. I'm happy to be here.

Ali: Yeah, we're very excited to we've had some fantastic conversations leading into this, so I'm looking forward to getting into the guts of it and discussing all things around technology and what you've been doing. So I guess to kick us off. Suzanne, I would love to understand, for the benefit of the listeners, if you could take us briefly through your journey to CMO and actually tell us how technology has played a role in that journey.

Suzanne: Sure, I'm happy to do that. There are two things that forged my journey to work at the nexus of what I think is business development and technology. The first is early exposure to technology, computers and video games. And number two, the brilliant people I was fortunate to work with.

I moved to San Francisco in the 80s, in 1987, and I was one of the few non-programmers in the workforce with technological skills and killer typing speed. I was a paralegal, and these skills boosted me to a lead role in a very short period of time. You might wonder how I got these skills, well, I acquired them in high school. Like many, I took Typing, I don't think they offer it today, but back in the day, I did. And even today, I'm still pretty fast. At the same time, my father's construction business was dissolving, and he asked me to catalogue all of the auction items in Excel from our home computer. That's how it all started.

If we were to fast forward when I went to San Francisco, I was lucky to meet a woman by the name of Jolene Overbeck, and she was the Director of Marketing (this is way before we had CMOs) at Orrick. She gave me my very first job in law firm marketing. Beyond being her assistant, I was also responsible for the firm's mailing and client list. Jolene was a wonderful mentor, allowed me to join the Legal Marketing Association.

There I met other smart and talented people like yourself who opened the doors for me. Some names that might be familiar to you are Ann Lee Gibson, Norm Rubenstein, Lonnie Zwerin, Jan Anne Dubin and Diane Hamlin and many more. These are the people that led me to new roles and possibilities, and I became known as a bit of a technologist in LMA. I gave presentations, I got involved in committees, then I got on the board and became president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter.

And I've worked for a lot of law firms, which took me to Los Angeles, back to San Francisco, then to Chicago in 2012, and now to Canada, which was February for Davies.

Ali: That's amazing. Thanks very much for that context and always lovely to hear Norm Rubenstein coming up. He's been on the podcast. He's an absolute gentleman, and I know that he's done a lot around sort of people's careers, but it's really interesting to kind of see that you became known as that technologist within the LMA, and I guess that leads nicely into everything that you've been doing throughout your career. So when you come to talking about legal marketing and tech, how wide does that definition go and actually, what kinds of solutions are we discussing here?

Suzanne: At Davies, our definition of a legal marketing tech includes any systems that help us achieve our firm's goals. So these include our CRM, which we use InterAction; our ERM (which is Enterprise Relationship Management) and includes a product called Introhive; and our email distribution system, which is Tikit. And, we have an aggregator called Foundation. We use for social media, Hootsuite; media monitoring and pitching we use Meltwater; and obviously we have a website and an Intranet. For project management, we use Monday. And for analysis, we use Power BI and for document management, we use Net Documents. There are other products out there that we use within the firm sphere, but those are the ones that are really geared towards the marketing and business development function. I'd add that we leverage syndicated data from such sources as Capital IQ, Bloomberg, Mergermarket, and, and that enhances and transforms our information to create actionable intelligence. And we put a lot of that information back into the systems that I mentioned previously. Rounding out the list of subscriptions to alternative distribution channels like JD Supra, Mondaq and Lexology.

Ali: Yeah, naturally. And I think one of the things that really came through for me when we were talking about this previously is you've got a whole host of different technology. I'm sure it's something that you're going to come on to, but there's a real element of human interaction throughout all of that. And I know you're talking about how you can really get the most out of it, particularly stuff like that, syndicated data, by people understanding it from the human side of it. Right?

Suzanne: Yeah, exactly. There is a statistic out there in the marketplace and it says that for every technology that's on your plate, that's on your laptop or on your phone, we use less than 10% of it. It's no shock that that's the same amount that we have for our brains. Right? And so it is really important for us as a team to understand what's the value that these technologies add and how can it make us more efficient, more effective and be able to support the lawyers in a way that moves the needle and achieve our goals and objectives. Very important.

Ali: Yes, really important. I love that kind of the idea of moving the needle. Actually. It brings us on really nicely to kind of the next question, which is when we come to talk about technology and on this podcast we've heard from many different CMOs around their firms and many of which have sort of dramatically different goals in what they're trying to achieve. Where one firm is solely focused on the market share in a single niche, another may be trying to sort of have an overriding focus on the type of work and its profitability. So how can a law firm marketing and BD team shape their tech stack and policies to meet their goals?

Because I know this is something you really focus on.

Suzanne: Without knowing more about the firm and its specific needs and the questions they need to answer, it's hard for me to consider how in the main, marketing and BD shape their tech stack.

But what I can do is share with you how it works here at Davies.  The tech stack is not a solution in and of itself. That's really important. I just want to pause right there. It needs to be coupled with firm initiatives to make an impact.

So at Davies we have short-term goals and we have long-term goals and objectives which drive our staffing model. That drives our priorities and it drives the tech stack that we use. So for example, understanding the full story of our client relationships is critical to putting the client's needs first. Our tech stack is designed to keep the client team informed so that they may provide the highest level of service and quality. The technology helps our teams identify efficiencies, measure touch points and target areas where we can continue to add value in helping the client achieve its goals. I sometimes think that firms implement technology as a panacea, that it's going to solve all their issues. From my perspective, that is not realistic.

Ali: I can understand that. Before the podcast, we were actually just talking about your firm's goals. So where does your firm start in applying those technologies to those goals and to that final point you made there? They're not just implementing it for the sake of it, right?

Suzanne: As we work on the execution of each goal and objective, we consider technology as a tool to meet that end and determine how to proceed we consider our current stack, the latest programs that are in the marketplace, our budget and the work that's required to get it done, very simply.

Ali: Makes a lot of sense. It makes a lot of sense. So I think maybe if we're able to delve into it, because I know you're sharing it with us a little bit, but is there a project that you and your team have been working on recently that's a good example of alignment between the goals of the firm and technology?

Suzanne:  We have deployed a data aggregator called Foundation and it connects twelve sources including databases, spreadsheets or sometimes this information is in the heads of people and it's something we want and get on paper. And all of these, I'd say about 80% of them were previously siloed and they only talk with themselves or maybe one or two other programs.

This is a highly collaborative project involving nearly every administrative function within the firm, including our leadership, knowledge management, pricing, finance, professional development, information technology, and then of course the marketing and business development function. And the goal here is to align our data to create one truth and solve for the ‘who we know’, ‘what we know’ and ‘why we know it’. So this was a massive project that was three years in the making. Now realise I just got to the firm, what, about 19 months ago, so I can't claim success for this. This was not me. This was Celine Gilmore and other people on the team and the firm's leadership for having the foresight to know that this was a good thing to do. It's now being deployed to the lawyers and my understanding is that we are the only Canadian firm to deploy Foundation to its lawyers and apply it firmwide. So that's pretty spectacular. I think it's a huge win for the department, and for the firm.

Ali: That's amazing. I think for me what kind of really came through there is the fact you're talking about data is king as we all know. And law firms sits on a huge amount of data that really they're probably not utilising. And that idea of having one truth and therefore being able to understand how you can maximise the work that you're doing across the board, who's been working where, where you can cross-sell it's only going to have huge benefits to you as a firm. And I'm sure that's been a really exciting project to be a part of.

Suzanne: Absolutely. It's really helped elevate the value of the marketing team to the firm as well, which I'll describe a little bit later in our podcast. But it checks a number of the boxes for our goals and objectives, which is awesome.

Ali: Yeah, I can imagine. Again, like we're saying at the top of the conversation, it's that human element as well, which shows it's all about balance. So I think if we're kind of looking at zooming up a little bit here when we consider law firms, how far along the technology journey do you think law firms are at the moment? And when you consider that, do you think there is a minimum baseline or some sort of core capabilities that today's legal marketing and business development departments need to be delivering on?

Suzanne: Yeah, I think it's all over the map. There are really three challenges that each firm must overcome. One is the war for technical talent, it's really hard to find those people. Although with the layoffs that have been happening recently in the tech sector, we might find better talent to come into law firms. So that might be an opportunity for firms to take advantage of that.

The second is latent systems that are expensive to replace and they can be impossible to connect to other systems.

And then the third is the number of years it takes to make it happen.

Since we aren't inside each firm, it's really hard to know how deep and wide the technology is utilised. An example of that historically has been CRM. We don't know what the true adoption was. It's a bit of a mystery. And when I talk about adoption, I don't mean how many people are using it because maybe they're using it to dress mailing labels, but are they using it in the right way and are the right people using it for the right purposes?

As far as core capabilities or minimum baseline, from a technological perspective, for each firm, it really depends on their goals and objectives.

And I would suggest three criteria. One is for us here at Davies, we want our BD team to be fully embedded in the practices that say that they support. And it's really hard for that to happen if your marketing team doesn't have an ERM like Introhive where it reveals who has the closest relationships to the clients and targets. Two, our BD team needs to know the clients that their partners represent, the work that we do for them and the value that we had. And this is essential for awards, rankings, expanding the share of wallet, pitching for new business, and also profile raising. And then the team needs some way to track experience and client features. The third and final one is you need some way to amplify your message to the marketplace. I would suggest an email distribution system like Tikit, Concept, Vuture. And then for social media, Hootsuite is the one that we use, coupled with subscriptions from your website, which can promote your message more broadly, things like JD Supra, Mondaq and Lexology. The bottom line with all of these technologies is that in order for our BD team and the marketing team to be successful within the firm, we must forge close relationships with the partners. Thhe only way that I know of to get there is to consistently earn your seat at that table and to make sure that you're adding value in every interaction that you have with the partners. And of course, you never over-promise. Rather, you want to under promise and over-deliver, right? It's really important for every team to do that. I think sometimes we get into meeting rooms and we're the scribe, so we take down a bunch of notes and then we come back and we give a long list of those notes. But there's little time taken for prioritisation to say we're going to do option one next week and what we're going to do the next week and the week after. Communicating those and having that close trusting relationship with the partners is really critical to the success of any team.

Ali: Yeah, without a doubt. Because then the way that they're working, they need to be able to understand the value that you're bringing. And actually we spoke about this previously, being that strategic partner in terms of shaping the way that the firm is going and how it works. I mean, one thing to pick up on that you mentioned there in terms of, I guess a little bit of a gulf between what people are doing with the CRM system and it's actually only today I was chatting with a law firm here in the UK and they will remain nameless. However, they do not have a CRM system and for the first time in January, they're going to be taking one on and doing a bit of a trial with it, which to me sort of was seen as rather amusing. It just shows you kind of the gulf between what people are doing and the opportunities there are. Anyway, I guess it's all been very interesting but as always, we'd absolutely love to kind of finish off with understanding a little bit more from you. But what would be great is actually if we could go into understanding sort of one piece of advice that you have for others who are looking to make the most of the opportunities presented by technology, specifically, obviously, in the legal marketing and business development space.

Suzanne: Yeah, I have four things to offer. Stick to your goals and objectives. I talked about it a lot in our conversation today. Resist the shiny object, let it go. If it doesn't meet your goals and objectives, let it go away. Crawl before you run and pilot and test. Very important, all those things. The last part is a big bone of contention for me because I've been in a lot of law firms and seen a lot of technologies deployed both within the marketing department as well as just generally in the firm. Then the marketing department gives short shrift to learning the new technology and figuring out ways that it can improve the marketing and BD functions. And the worst thing we can do is to just use it in the same way we did the last version. I see it all the time and it's really complicated by two challenges. The technology will be radically different for which we need to be competent and the lawyers' needs and focus will understandably come first in the firm. So this just means that the marketing team needs to view these as innovation projects and determine how they can help us do better.

The last thing I'll say is that you won't get very far if you continue to hire people who do not have strong technological skills or are afraid of working with unfamiliar technology, and you're really going to sink yourself in if you give those with subpar tech skills a path. Everyone on our team is required to improve their technological sophistication and become the best version of themselves.

Ali: Actually that's a really nice way to round it off. And actually, I think what was brilliant is that it's so easy to take technology and run with it and to your point, just implement shiny new objects. But actually, as we spoke about throughout this podcast, it's how do you align it with those goals? Like, what's actually going to achieve something, and to use your phrase at the start, is move the needle for the attorneys. That's what's ultimately the ultimate output with this. So how can you actually align that? And again, just that constant theme of the human element, the strategy that comes from yourself, Suzanne, and the team, and then actually people being able to understand the value of what it's doing. So thanks so much for sharing so many fantastic insights there. It's been a pleasure.

Suzanne: My pleasure, too.

Ali: Brilliant. Well, as tradition goes, we have a little quick-fire round to finish things off a little bit more relaxed. So you're going to get straight into that, if that's okay, and just run through five really quick questions just to kind of get a little bit better. So to kick it off. What's your favourite business and non-business book, please?

Suzanne: Okay, so here's a confession. I'm Dyslexic and I'm a slow reader, so I love books in which I can fully submerge. One of my favourite non-business trilogy series is Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith. It's great. I highly recommend it. On the business books, I'm obsessed with Edward Tufte. He produces a whole series of books on visual displays of data. There's real power in how you present information, and he shows you how to do it, so that's definitely worth some time. And he also gives presentations, by the way.

Ali: Okay, interesting to get into that there. Again, a nice little tech book. So second question would be what was your first job, please?

Suzanne: So I'm from Reno, Nevada. Probably one of the first people you've ever met from Reno, Nevada. I worked for my dad's construction company while doing office work at various times throughout my educational career. Funny story, for homecoming in my senior year, my dad lent us a flatbed truck for our float.  He said, go pick it up at the construction yard and the keys are in the truck. Well, there were several trucks at the yard, so I picked the biggest, of course, which I didn't know that you needed a special license to drive.

Ali: Nice. I imagine Reno is one of the few places you probably were able to get away with that.

Suzanne: Well, yeah, probably. I drove it across town and needless to say, my dad was less than pleased.

Ali: I can imagine. I can imagine. And leading on to something, what makes you happy at work

Suzanne: Seeing my teammates become the best versions of themselves. And of course, changing hearts and minds.

Ali: Naturally. Fourth question: what are you listening to at the moment? It could be sort of podcast music. Anything along those lines?

Suzanne: Well, I love music, but I'm a huge podcast geek, so obviously the Passle Podcast CMO series is number one. Ding ding, ding, ding ding. But then I have a whole bunch I like and I flip around to all of them. I love American Scandal. It's great. There's a lot of stories in history that were not taught, and this is an NPR podcast, so you know it's coming from a source of accuracy. I like Hidden Brain is a great one. That's how we think, why we think the way we do and act the way that we do. Very helpful, particularly in the business context. Left, Right and Centre is amazing. It's a political show with people from all those disciplines, the left side, the right side and the centre. Land of the Giants is also a historic podcast about big companies and startups and how they've grown into these big behemoth entities, Persona: The French Deception is really great about people who deceive others and how they get away with things. It's fascinating. The Serial Podcast, everybody knows about that. It's great. Mostly about crime. The Moth is about storytelling. Fabulous. The problem with John Stewart has John Stewart and This American Life is also a storytelling podcast, Ira Glass is the host for that. It's amazing. It's out of Chicago and Today Explained explains all kinds of amazing things, which is fun. And then from a comedy perspective, Smartless with Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes and Will Arnett. One person is responsible for bringing either an actor, singer or someone famous to the group, and the other two don't know that they're coming and they disappear and they have a conversation and it's so hilarious. It's really good.

Ali: Maybe I might have to dip into that. I made note of a couple of the others of The Hidden Brains and Land of the Giants, which certainly kind of sound very interesting to dip into. The final question for you, Suzanne, is where is your favourite place to visit and why?

Suzanne: That's hard to say. I don't have just one favourite place. I've been fortunate in my life to travel all over the world, so I think it just depends. I'm from Nevada and Lake Tahoe, which crosses both Nevada and California is just an amazing place. And when I need to calm myself, I always think about a quiet top-of-the-mountain scene with trees covered in snow and sound just all disappears. It's amazing. I have lots of fond memories of places that I visited. Venice, Italy, Mexico, Kenya, Uganda and Botswana and Africa. And I love Chicago. I think I shared with you in our conversation about attending The Paper Machete on Saturdays at the Green Mill. It's really the best. It's like an SNL in live space. And then, of course, Toronto, my new home. And then we have an office in Montreal as well as New York. But Toronto and Montreal are amazing places, and I have so much to explore. And being someone from the United States, it's amazing to me how little we know about Canada and how much information is filtered and clouded. And I consider myself fairly well-read, or I listen to a lot of things on podcasts and news and such, but it's still amazing to me how little I knew about Canada before coming here. And it's just an amazing country. I love it.

Ali: That's amazing. Well, thank you very much. It sounds like you're incredibly well-travelled. You say huge amounts to learn and clearly kind of feeds into some of those podcasts that you like to listen to.

Suzanne: Well, thanks for having me. I so appreciate it. I hope this was helpful and that people find it of use. And if anybody has any questions, I'm happy to make myself available.

Ali: Very kind of you, an absolute joy to have you on, Suzanne. Thank you very much for everything and sharing your knowledge, and look forward to seeing you again soon.

Suzanne: All right, take care.


cmoseries, e2e, professional services, marketing
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