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| 19 minutes read

CMO Series EP92 - Adam Severson of Baker Donelson on Navigating Lateral Growth, Mergers and the Role of Marketing

Mergers can provide huge growth opportunities for ambitious law firms. Navigating a merger can also present challenges, but marketing and BD teams are well-positioned to help guide and influence a firm’s strategic direction and identify new or emerging markets.

On today’s episode of the CMO Series, Ed Lovatt has the pleasure of welcoming Adam Severson, Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer at Baker Donelson, to share his insights on taking advantage of market opportunities and the key factors that influence the success of a merger. 

Ed and Adam discuss: 

  • Adam’s background and career journey to his role now at Baker Donelson
  • The point at which Adam recognised the huge potential of law firm mergers in providing business development opportunities
  • The current landscape for firms when it comes to merger activity
  • The role of  marketing and BD in influencing strategic growth and taking advantage of new or emerging markets 
  • The key success factors that indicate if a merger will be successful or not
  • Advice for marketing BD professionals looking to successfully influence mergers and capitalise on growth opportunities 


Ed: Welcome to the CMO series podcast today. The topic that we're going to be covering is the role of marketing and BD in law firm mergers, lateral growth and new markets.

Mergers provide huge growth opportunities for ambitious law firms and marketing and BD teams are uniquely positioned to influence strategic growth but guiding and managing a merger, or a new market, can also present some challenges.

Someone very well-versed in these situations is Adam Severson, Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer at Baker Donelson. Adam joins us today on the CMO Series to share his insights on taking advantage of market opportunities and the key factors that influence the success of a merger and new markets. Adam, welcome to the podcast.

Adam: Thanks so much. Happy to be here.

Ed: We've met a couple of times at LMA at Marketing Partners Forum. We've had a couple of conversations here and there. But for the rest of our listeners, Adam, please could you tell us a little bit about your background, your career journey and how you got to your role and where you are now at Baker Donelson.

Adam: Sure. Absolutely. Well, I've been in the legal business my entire career. I actually applied for a job at West Group Publishing at a job fair in college and for those of you unfamiliar with West Group, it is now the entity that is Thomson Reuters and WestLaw and still one of the largest information companies in the world. I started there in customer service and quickly moved into a sales role and moved out to Los Angeles, California. At the time, my career goal was to convince lawyers that the internet was actually going to be a thing and that it was gonna stick around. So, I sold a host of legal research tools as well as marketing and client development solutions. I then went back to West Group's headquarters, back in Minnesota, where I had gone to college and then from there took another role with a smaller, upstart company under the umbrella of Thomson Reuters called Fine Law and sold to the large law firm segment. My territory really spanned a good part of the country between Boston and Chicago, Cleveland and Minneapolis and I really worked with firms, primarily managing partners, either Chief Marketing Officers or Directors of Marketing and Practice Group Leaders, on providing them a suite of marketing and business development tools.

After doing that fairly successfully and really expanding my network of people in the legal marketing and business development space, I also sort of in tandem and in parallel got increasingly involved in the Legal Marketing Association and then ultimately  took a leap of faith, if you will, to go in house, as client development and sales and business development roles were becoming more prominent, not just marketing roles. So, I started my career as the director of Business Development at Dorsey and Whitney and was there for, I think, five and half or six years. Then ultimately went over to Faegre and Benson to lead the entire function of marketing and business development.  Then worked, actually speaking of mergers, worked on the largest domestic law firm merger of 2012 in the combination of Faegre and Benson and Baker Daniels. At the end of that journey and exciting project, I found myself and my family moving to Nashville, Tennessee, where I became the Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer for Baker Donelson. I've been with the firm now for over 11 years and we've had a really great run and we've got a lot more work to do.

I'm really excited about how I've been able to sort of build my skill set over the years and be in several different markets, which I think is unique for people, and have enjoyed my time at the firm. On the LMA front, I have had the opportunity to serve in a variety of different leadership capacities for the Legal Marketing Association, including being president in 2015.

Ed: It's quite a background that you've got there Adam, a lot of law firm experience, but also with the LMA, that adds on top of it, and moving around a little bit as well. So now that you've been settled in Nashville, did you say you've been there 11 years?

Adam: A little over 11 years now, yeah.

Ed: So you're fairly settled now in Nashville at least.

Adam: Absolutely. It's a wonderful city. It's an incredibly growing economy and our firm is growing and we're doing a lot of great things.

Ed: Good. I'm yet to visit. I'll make a point to get over there and grab a coffee with you when we can please.

Adam: I'd love that.

Ed: Adam, is there a specific point in your career that you realised the huge potential of maybe mergers from the previous merger that you worked in, but also the lateral growth of the new market? Was there one pinpoint occasion that you can think of?

Adam: I don't know that I would say that there was sort of a moment in time when looking at a law firm merger seemed to be the exact way to grow. Clearly, if you look at any of the news clippings now you'll see that law firm mergers, you know, almost a week can't go by when you hear either about a group of lawyers or an entire firm or a set of firms combining and that is really looking at sort of a generally flat market. The competition for talent is fierce and so much of what I focus my career on is really on client growth and to identify opportunities where we can delight our clients and hope that they will trust us with more of the work that they have. As you know, a number of clients and companies have a whole host of legal needs and law firms typically provide one or two and maybe three, four or five of the services that those companies need. Obviously, the goal would be to provide a number of services over a number of offices based on earning their trust over time. There's also a sort time for which that growth and that some of those clients, maybe stalled probably isn't the right word, but that you need to look for other ways to grow. So typically lateral growth and growth by law firm mergers would then be the sort of next obvious choice and consideration.

Ed: Absolutely, and maybe I am being a little bit naive on this topic but, are you able to explain a little bit as to how marketing actually gets involved on a day to day or a week to week or month to month basis with a merger or a new market for example? From, as I say, my naivety, I kind of would always think it was maybe a bit of a backroom deal that was being done and then maybe marketing gets pulled in, but is there an explanation that you can give us to how marketing gets involved?

Adam: Sure. Well, I think if you are serving as a trusted advisor to the leadership in your firm and you're a leader yourself, you're in the room when those backroom deals that you reference are being handled. But, I also think that part of the role of marketing, aside from sort of being in the room, is to help analyse client information and market research to identify what a new market, meaning new area of geography, whether it be a state or multiple states, can bring to the table. Looking at the fancy word that they'll say in the press release is called client synergies and essentially that would be either me or members of my team looking at some of the top clients and/or industry verticals that a firm, or a set of attorneys services, to then see how are they complementary to the work that your firm provides? 

And so, for example, about five years ago, Baker Donelson merged with the firm Ober Kaler, which is a firm, a terrific firm, headquartered out of Baltimore, Maryland, that had amongst other things, one of the preeminent health care regulatory practices in the country and Baker Donelson had a top 10 recognized health care practice but, much of that was on the transactional side of the house and sort of policy side of the house. So to bring together two nationally recognized health care brands with a merger like that with Ober Kaler really allowed us to sort sort of amplify the firm's brand and the healthcare space in a way that wouldn't really be able to happen if you were just to sort of gather another client or two or expand particular services to a client. Then the benefit of a merger like that is they weren't just a health care firm. They had a number of additional talented lawyers from their financial services attorneys, as well as tax and labour and employment and so, as a full service firm, but with an emphasis in healthcare and financial services in particular, we were able to merge with them I think quite successfully into really doubling down down in the healthcare space and then building out some additional areas that we didn't have in our firm. So it made the sort of new Baker Donelson, if you will, at the end of that merger and provided a much stronger offering to our clients.

Ed: It seems like quite a good tactical way to have that expansion and that growth. But obviously, there's a huge amount of due diligence that needs to be put into it. But still, it's a successful way to expand. A bit of a broader question for you here, Adam, and I hope you have the answer for it. What do you think the landscape looks like for firms at the moment when it comes to these activities such as mergers and lateral growth and new markets?

Adam: Well, I think that the landscape is pretty interesting. I think the marketplace broadly for talent is perhaps more transient than I've ever seen it in my 25 plus years of working in the industry. I think that law firms and law firm leaders are looking for a variety of ways to grow and mergers are certainly a way to do that. I don't have statistics in front of me, but literally an American lawyer probably has an alert about a group of lawyers or law firm mergers every single day. The pace is rapid. I think some of the mergers that you see in the press, many of them seem very intuitive and make a ton of sense and then some of them you're sort of like, “huh, I didn't necessarily see that one coming”. So I do think that a firm, even like ours, is looking for strategic partners to help us better serve our clients and sort of fill up our presence throughout the country.

Ed: Do you think there's a concern or maybe even a fear when there are rumours that go round about some of the very large firms merging or at least there are talks about mergers. Do you think that has the knock on effect with the smaller firms?

Adam: I don't know if it has an effect on the smaller firms, but just recently, two of the top 20 firms in the world were in rumoured negotiations for a potential merger which would have formed the largest firm in the world, and that deal just busted in the last week. The follow on press from that deal busting, I do think it provides cause for concern for the folks that were the players within that specific merger. But I also think then it almost becomes a, I don't wanna say feeding frenzy necessarily, but I do think it generates a lot of activity for people to consider what might make sense or, if there's people that were really excited, perhaps about the potential combination that may now be in play so to speak, or their practices and their client relationships may be being shopped around somewhat. So I think the press of those mergers is certainly a hot button issue in firms and so confidentiality is clearly paramount when working through these programs and these potential mergers or new offices and the like.

Ed: Yeah, I think I know who you are talking about as well and we've sort of kept our ears to the ground on that. It’s interesting to follow it as it moves along or doesn't move along in that case. How do you in the marketing team, Adam, and the BD team as well, how do you influence the strategic growth and take advantage of new markets or emerging markets?

Adam: Well, so in some respects we have an incredibly strong Chief Growth Officer, Mark Carlson, at our firm. He and I work closely on research, as well as have conversations about whether it's either individuals or specific firms that we might want to consider combining with. Having been in the business for a good amount of time, as we look to grow, I've got a decent network of people and some of whom are at firms that we might be considering looking at and so part of that is sort of trying to identify pros and cons of a given market. 

So, for example, we recently, in the last 14 months, have opened offices in Raleigh, North Carolina and in Charleston, South Carolina. Part of the process is to really understand those markets and understand the talent that exists in those markets. We started each of those offices with I'll say a handful of really strong partners from multiple different firms. We thought that going into that market with one guy or girl probably wasn't the best idea. We've seen a lot of law firms enter markets and that growth stalls pretty quickly. And so, we thought that it would be important for us to have a critical mass as sort of one of the terms that people think through a lot when they want to do that. And so, you sort of generally look at the market, you look at the talents and the quality of firms that are there. You look at the clients that are resident in that market as well as the clients that are served by people in that market  outside of that geography and how that syncs up with the needs of your firm. 

You may know at Baker Donelson we've got offices from Baltimore and DC all the way down to Fort Lauderdale and over to Houston and pretty much everything in between. Raleigh and Charleston really helped fill out that southeastern footprint for us as a sort of super regional firm with a national reputation. So as we think about how to fortify the strengths of our firm and in markets like Nashville and Atlanta and in New Orleans and whatnot, we're also looking for new markets where, for example, if you're a financial services company and maybe have a workout matter that you might have in North Carolina, having somebody local in that market becomes really important to secure that type of work from a given client. And so, being in those markets has been an important growth area for us. 

Then further to your question as far as activities on a sort of more specific and practical level. In each instance, we work to develop a plan for the opening of that office, as well as individual plans for the lawyers that are there that breaks down at a client level and integration plan, not just whether or not those clients will sort of look to come over but a series of internal introductions to make people aware of the capabilities that will be in that new office, the strengths that they bring to the table that we think will be advantageous for our clients to sort of take hold of. Then developing a pretty specific action plan that allows us to try to facilitate client introductions, pursue new matters with those as well as sort of ensuring that the clients that they served at their former firm come over wholly. 

Ed: I think, you just mentioned it, you're now at 22 offices and slowly sort of growing your way across the country. It seems as you said all the way into Texas, Houston, I think you have an office there so, maybe the West Coast is not that far away for you. When we previously spoke, and this is probably a very good example that you could use on the two most recent offices, you talked previously about the importance of a cultural fit. What are the key factors that indicate if that new market or if a merger, for example,would be successful or not?

Adam: Well, one of the hallmarks of Baker Donelson is that we're an incredibly entrepreneurial firm and we're incredibly collaborative. So we really look for lawyers that want to be on a team, want to play on a team, want to lead a team and that like to hustle. In most instances we're really looking to identify people that have built something already and then see what our platform provides them where they can sort of contribute and almost double or triple the growth of their client base based on the further capabilities that we bring. And so, some of our client feedback say, like one quote I recall specifically or vividly was that, “Baker Donelson are the kind of lawyers that you want to have a beer with”. And so, I do think that having people where you feel collegial and part of the team with them is incredibly important. I think it's quite nice to be known as the guys that people would have a beer with.

Ed: It's a good reputation to have.

Adam: I resemble that remark.

Ed: Yeah, we've had a beer together so I can vote for that as well. So, very quickly we will go through the quick fire round. Sometimes this is quite a fun way to get to know you a little bit better and so I'll fire straight off with an easy question. What is your favourite business and your favourite non business book?

Adam: Well, two books that I think are really powerful, and so much of what we do in professional services marketing tends to blur the lines between business and nonbusiness, but ‘The Power of Regret’ by Daniel Pink is an incredibly terrific book that shapes a lot of what I think about. Then, ‘The Infinite Game’ by Simon Sinek is also again a really terrific read and sort of hits on both business and non business if you will because I think those lines get blurred in many ways, very good ways.

Ed: I think ‘The Power of Regret’ I've heard of. It's quite a recent book, isn't it?

Adam: It is. He's put out a lot of great content and we actually had him speak at our attorney retreat last year and we're bringing him back again this coming year to talk with our group some more.

Ed: It must have been a successful retreat. Next question is, and this can be quite an interesting one for everybody, what was your first job?

Adam: My first job, I was 11 years old and I started delivering newspapers for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Ed: Wow, that's quite a change to now and also 11 years old is, that's a young start.

Adam: Well, my dad certainly taught me both the importance and value of hard work and nothing said hard work like waking up at 5am in December and January to get on my bike and try to deliver newspapers in the snow.

Ed: Absolutely. That's quite a lesson to learn. Adam, what makes you happy at work?

Adam: My team. I'm so blessed really to work with such a talented group of professionals and to be able to work with them to influence the hearts and minds of our lawyers and leaders and how we approach client development and delight our clients is really just a joy and they're a lot of fun and I'm just fortunate to be able to be their leader.

Ed: I've noticed a bit of a reoccurring answer whenever I ask that question to anyone and it generally comes back with exactly as you said, team. Adam, what are you listening to at the moment? That could be a music album, a podcast, an audio book or even TikTok.

Adam: Oh, goodness, I'm not quite on the tiktok train just yet, even though my teenage daughter has me serve as a cameo from time to time. My musical interests really run the gamut. I'm into a lot of nineties hip hop so, on my morning run this morning I was listening to notorious BIG, Doctor Dre, Snoop and Eminem and I also have been doing a lot of listening to Taylor Swift. As you may have heard she's having a tour coming up this year, the Eras tour, and so my daughter and I are making a point to try to see her along the way so, I’ve got to make sure that I'm well versed in all the things Taylor. I've been a fan of hers for a while so just getting into her new stuff like the album Midnights.

Ed: Wow, doing some research to make sure that you're up to date with Taylor Swift is not what I was expecting you to say Adam. Finally, where is your favourite place to visit and why?

Adam: Italy is, I think, the most beautiful place I've ever been. I've been fortunate to visit three different times in different pockets of the country. It is so incredibly rich with history and wonderful food and delightful wine and just the Italians just really know how to live life to the fullest and that's something that I try to do. When I'm there, I feel like I'm living my best life and I'm actually in the process of starting to outline another visit in 2024.

Ed: Fantastic answer, I was going to ask if you've got any plans to go there soon.

Adam: Well, I'll be in Portugal later this year so, I'm excited to check that out, but we'll definitely be heading back to Italy in the very near term.

Ed: Fantastic. Adam, it's been fantastic having you on and I know that there's a number of different topics that we could cover and we could probably do 34 episodes of a podcast with you. We always like to end the podcast with a similar question for each episode. So finally, to sort of close this out, what would be your one piece of advice, if you can narrow it down to one that is, for marketing BD professionals looking to successfully influence mergers, lateral growth, new markets and capitalise on growth opportunities?

Adam: I think I wish there was just one piece of advice that would sort of carry the day. I do think understanding the industry is incredibly important. You need to be a student of the game and so to support a merger in your firm means that you need to understand the nuances of various mergers, you need to know if there was a merger announced two days ago or three months ago, you need to understand it and read the press releases of those mergers and indicate sort of what those firms stated about the strategy. Sometimes it's super intuitive and makes a ton of sense, like I mentioned before, and sometimes you scratch your head a little bit. So I think being a student of the merger game, if you will, is important because that then lends credibility to what you can offer then relative to growth. 

But, I do think that the services that the marketing and business development team provide the lawyers and leaders of the firm are really influential in how people are able to see value in what you bring. Fortunately, like I mentioned before when I referenced my team, they've done an incredibly great job in serving as liaisons and strategic business partners, dare I say trusted advisors, with the lawyers and leaders in our firm. And so then inherently when they think about growth, they think about my team. And so, if you find yourself in a position where you're not quite sure if you might get invited to that meeting, I would really focus on your ability to serve as a trusted advisor. So that when the next opportunity presents itself, you're in the mix for those conversations.

Ed: It's a very solid piece of advice. Sometimes some of the more obvious points are really the key ones and, as you said, be knowledgeable in the game that you're in so that you can actually act in the way that you need to. Adam, thank you so much for coming on the podcast with us. It's been an absolute pleasure to dig into your wealth of knowledge that you've gained over the years. I'm sure that we'll keep in touch. I know that we'll probably bump into each other at the LMA in Florida in a month or so but, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. We’re very grateful.

Adam: Well, thank you Ed. I appreciate the opportunity and I hope it's helpful and I look forward to future times for us to connect.

Ed: Thanks Adam.


e2e, professional services, marketing, cmoseries