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| 22 minutes read

CMO Series EP97 - Jennifer O'Donnell of Segal McCambridge on Walking in the Shoes of a New Legal CMO

The first few days, weeks, and months as a legal CMO are critical in establishing yourself in the business, assessing what is needed in the firm, and building an understanding of the landscape.

Today, Alistair Bone welcomes Jennifer O'Donnell, Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer at Segal McCambridge, to the series to discuss her first steps in the role and her advice for aspiring marketers new to their positions.

Jennifer and Ali discuss: 

  • Jennifer’s career journey leading up to joining Segal McCambridge as CMO
  • The plan for the first day, week, month, quarter as a CMO in a new firm with a new team and how to prioritise activities
  • The biggest successes of the first few months as a CMO
  • The challenges faced when joining a new firm in the early months
  • The resources, people or communities that have helped along the way 
  • The previous experiences from former roles Jennifer has leaned on the most as a CMO
  • Advice for others taking on new and challenging legal marketing roles


Ali: Welcome to the Passle CMO Series where we discuss all things marketing and business development in the world of professional services.

Today's subject is all about walking in the shoes of a new legal CMO. The first few days, weeks and months of the legal CMO are critical in establishing yourself in the business as well as assessing what is needed in the firm and building an understanding of the landscape at that firm. I've had the pleasure of enjoying this lady's wonderful company. And I'm delighted to welcome Jennifer O'Donnell, Chief Marketing Officer at Segal McCambridge to the CMO Series and we're gonna discuss her first steps as legal CMO and her advice for aspiring marketers uh new to their roles. So Jen, welcome.

Jennifer: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I'm looking forward to it.

Ali: Yeah, as are we and I hear that you are off to Tampa tomorrow. So thanks for making the time.

Jennifer: Of course, always, always, always.

Ali: Brilliant, brilliant. So to get into it first things first, what was your career journey leading up to joining Segal McCambridge as CMO?

Jennifer: Yeah, I think, you know, I think this is probably pretty common of a lot of or several CMOs that I've met anyways. But I am an attorney. I practiced for about four years before I decided that it was not for me, I actually had an internship, my last semester of law school at the federal court in the southern district of Mississippi. And they offered me a job at the end of that internship. So I took it and I was screening prisoners, constitutional complaints, and habeas petitions. And so that's usually all I have to say when I say I decided not to practice law anymore after that. So when I made the decision to kind of refocus my career, I kind of took some months off and really did, I explored all options. I looked at nursing school, I looked at pivoting altogether out of legal. I looked at all the things and I happened upon a job back at my law school in the library and that really was just a band-aid to be honest, it was not a career step at all, but it kind of gave me something to do. And my law firm, I was in Mississippi at the time and the law firm where I ended up was actually the biggest law firm in, it still is the biggest law firm in Mississippi. So I knew it by reputation. So when I saw they had a job posting in legal marketing, I thought, “oh, well, this may be a good fit. I'm a lawyer and I, you know, I know nothing about marketing but let's, you know, let's talk to him and see.” So I interviewed for that job and I didn't know it, but they were looking for a non-practicing attorney, and so I kind of just fit that bill and I think the idea was, let's just see what happens. The law firm had about 100 and 85 attorneys at the time and the marketing department was only five or six people. So it was, you know, I was more of a utility player at first, we kind of bounced around a little bit, and there was a little bit of turnover. So I'd take over a job when somebody left and then I kind of really honed in on business development, within the first six months to a year. And then, really kind of took that on, grew the department as the firm grew, the department grew, my responsibilities grew. I had a team of four direct reports and kind of built that business development machine and it really became a well-oiled machine to be honest, you know, I had good people and the processes were in place already, but I think that we were able just because of the people that I had and the skills that I learned, we really made it a well old machine because of that, I kind of started getting the itch a little bit there, towards the end, I was there for 10 years. And so I started to really have the desire for a new challenge, career-wise. And so that's when I started looking around and I don't know if this was a good or a bad thing still, but I worked with a couple of recruiters and  I interviewed for several things, and what I always told people was, “I don't know really what I'm looking for.” I didn't necessarily set out to say, I think my next step is to be a chief marketing officer. I just knew there was a next step, whether it be at a bigger firm, a similar role, a different role in legal marketing, a client-facing role. So I, you know, it took me about 18 months to find something. I really think that that was helpful though, in defining what I was looking for. I think it took me a while to figure out what I really wanted, and what that next step looked like for me. And I've had a big, you know, I'll just know it when I see it kind of attitude. And I did, you know, I think I saw this role I interviewed and I thought, you know, this is just, it it's the right firm, the right size, the right group of people and it just kind of all clicked pretty quickly. So I was not looking for this step necessarily, but it just made sense with this firm, the timing worked out.

Ali: Isn’t it funny how the world has its way of working things out? You know, at the very start, you know, you had been an attorney and then the firm that you happened to be interviewing for was actually looking for a non-practicing attorney. So you could bring all that experience as you went into that kind of BD and marketing role. And then now from your journey from your previous firm to Cambridge, you said you weren't necessarily looking at that, but all of a sudden, again, the stars align the right thing comes along and, you know, this has been the next step for you in a very exciting journey, which we're about to kind of really get into the guts of and like hear more about it, which is amazing. And actually on, on that topic, I know that your, your new team and firm is pretty different from, from what you experienced previously. And when we spoke before the podcast, you mentioned building up one thing at a time. So did you have a deliberate plan for that sort of first day, week, month, quarter, etcetera as being the CMO or were there any particular priorities that really came to mind?

Jennifer: You know, I think going into it, I don't know what I thought to be honest. I thought, “oh, I'll just, I know the things that I can implement on the business development side. I know how we did things at my prior firm, let's just go and do that exactly somewhere else.” And I quickly figured out as I began to meet people and talk to people and, you know, it was important that first quarter, almost as I really, as you know, I ran around to every major office we have. I met with the vast majority of all lawyers really just sat down and 30 minute, get to know your sessions, get to know your practice, what they had done business development wise up until that point and that sort of thing. And that shaped more of where I'm going than anything could have. And I don't know that I appreciated that, you know, I thought, “oh, I'll get to know these people. At least I know who to go to for this. I know who to go to for that.” But it really was more of getting to know this group of people, how they do their work and how it's different from what I knew. And I think that's really directed everything else that I've done. So it's, you know, the universe of things that I know to do in legal marketing, you have to make it, make sense for the group of people that you're working for. And I think that was a real light bulb moment for me that, you know, I've got to pick and choose of the things that I know to do what makes sense here. There's some things that it would be a waste of time and resources. And then you can really, I do have a much smaller team. I have one marketing assistant who is absolutely phenomenal. 

But we kind of have to be selective about what we decide to do and you know, you can't do it all somewhere like that, just bandwidth and manpower. So I think to answer your question on first day, week, month, you know, the first kind of quarter almost was figuring out who Segal McCambridge is as a law firm and where my skill set fits in with that. And I've leaned in more to my business development than I thought I would coming into it. I think that's the biggest surprise for me. Is that, that's probably the part that I'm gonna be able to use the most and it's where I'm most comfortable. They do need the most help there. But you know, the marketing communications, all that sort of thing, I'm figuring out as I go to be honest, but the business development end, which I thought was gonna be just a portion of the job has become the biggest part of my job. So I think that's a good thing. I think I'm in the right place. I think that tells me I'm in the right place.

Ali: That's amazing. I really appreciate your honesty there. It's a great answer and I think, you know, reflecting on it from the little knowledge I have but more so the conversations that you and I have had, but also with the other people is that going into that new role it's just been a question of, as you say, really kind of to shape it and education piece, I'm sure you'll kind of go into it as we go further along. I imagine so much that comes from going from one firm to a new firm. I mean, you know, a friend of both you and I, Kate Pearch over at Morris, Manning and Martin when she stepped into the CMO role, she had been at the firm for a number of years. So I'm sure that shift is slightly different, like whilst it's new shoes, probably, pick out like I know these sort of things we can maybe improve on or not. Whereas as you say, you've almost gone in blind and gone “Right, I need to speak to everybody work out who's where and what journey and how I can kind of help to lead them.”

Jennifer: Right. Right. Exactly. I think that the biggest lesson for me was I'm not stepping into this into doing everything that worked at my prior firm. I think that took me a minute to realise, but, was probably the best lesson I can learn early on to not put a square peg in a round hole to do what's best for this group of people and kind of be a little more nimble.

Ali: Yeah, 100%. I imagine just being able to play to your strength around business development and those sorts of areas at the moment also, it just makes it far more comfortable in a place to be when you're new. With that in mind, it brings us neatly on to asking what have been the biggest successes of the first few months of CMO?

Jennifer: Getting up and running. Putting some processes in place that just kind of, you know, building foundational departmental-type functions has been helpful and I would probably mark that as success. I've been able to help with an RFP. That was successful, which was, you know, always good to do in the first quarter, which you don't have any control over to be quite frank. So that was nice. But I think too, like I have developed a formal business development coaching program and I'm gonna be able to embark on that with about six or eight attorneys and I think, you know, have prepared that, presenting it to leadership and having them accept and be excited about it. They're just as excited about it as I am. I think that's probably the biggest success that I've had since I've been there. And again, leading into the business development experience that I kind of thought was gonna be peripheral in this role, but it's turned out to be very important to them. And I think to me as well and I think it's where it can bring a lot of value to them.

Ali: Yeah, I can imagine. I think you're doing a disservice at the start of that. Those are all huge wins, particularly being able to bring in a formal BD, you know, coaching program. But prior to this Segal McCambridge has never had a formal marketing and BD set up and they haven't had anybody in your role. So, everything you're doing is, you know, breaking new ground. So that's absolutely amazing. Congratulations, really, I suppose.

Jennifer: Oh, thank you. Well, you know, when you're treading water a little bit. There is… It's funny I was talking about my husband about this and, you know, what have I done since I've been here? And it's hard to appreciate it when you're in it. But he was like, you have kept the trains running on time and also gone around and met everybody and, you know, social media is still being posted and all that. Of course, again, thanks to my wonderful marketing assistant Pearson. But I think that's part of it too. You know I’m keep using the phrase I'm building a boat, but I've also built the boat, you know. Building a boat, keeping it afloat and plugging the holes all at the same time. But it's been a good exercise and multitasking and prioritization for sure.

Ali: Yeah, I can imagine. Well, on that topic of plugging the holes, what have been the biggest challenges and this might be slightly easier for you?

Jennifer: Yeah. Well, you know, it's funny when you've been somewhere else a decade, you don't give credit to the things that just become so second nature to you.  I think it may sound silly but just getting to know people and processes at a new place. I discounted how difficult that would be and you know. “Oh, great. I'm going to set up a conference call.” I have no idea how to do that here and you know, who to help me set it up and things like that. So that little part of it kind of frustrated more I think than the actual challenge is to be honest.

But also the challenge of just picking what's best for this group of people, I have a hard time not wanting to do it all. Knowing what's out there, knowing what we can spend, knowing what resources we could invest in. But knowing that some of that doesn't work has been a challenge for me to kind of accept that I think. But also to pick what really, you know, works best to be mindful about resources and time and things like that. So I think a lot of it is, you know, somewhere new, there's change, that's a challenge. But also really getting in there and figuring out what works and trying hard to not misstep in the first little bit.

Ali: Well, it sounds like you're doing a very good job so far. But were there any kind of challenges that you came across that surprised you that maybe in the first instance you didn't think would be the case? I mean, I know you said stuff that would be, you realised you had was second nature to you prior to it. But was there anything that, I don't know, maybe just suddenly having the name of or the title, should I say of Chief Marketing Officer? Did that? Was there anything that kind of came with that? And you're like, “Oh, I didn't expect that”, you know, this to kind of crop up. I mean, the answer might be “no”, but I'm just intrigued.

Jennifer: Yeah, I can't think of anything offhand. You know, a little bit of “oh, gosh, I'm driving this bus” or “boat” to stick with the same metaphor. And I need to decide what's best. I'm not being told, you know, of course, I have input from leadership and I bring things to them and things like that. But I think just, you know, the realisation that it's all on me - to come up with where we're going. Not all on me, that's probably a stretch. But you know, I'm in charge. So there is a heavy weight that comes with that.

Ali: Yeah, of course and it's exciting and we spoke about this before. You're incredibly well suited for everything that you've been sharing so far just shows that and it's just such a cool opportunity to kind of step into those shoes and really run with it and just own it fundamentally. So, yeah, it's very good. So a sort of slightly maybe more reflective note, you know, have there been any resources, people, communities that have helped along the way that potentially you want to mention or that actually for anybody going through the same process that you've been through at the moment, you think it's kind of worth noting?

Jennifer: Oh yeah. I think there's a one obviously my prior CMO and  the experience I had there and exposure I had to things because of the size and culture of where I was incredibly helpful in my career and giving me the confidence to make the next step. But also, you know, people that I've met at the Marketing Partner Forum, Kate Pearch, you mentioned at Morris, Manning and Martin. Melodie Tilley at FordHarrison I met actually at LMA, you know, I think we the Atlanta CMOs, we have made it at that point to kind of get together every couple of months, for lunch and had for a while. And I think, you know, networking with them was generally speaking, not gonna find me another position, but it gave me the confidence to take this position because I had heard about things at other firms. I only had one point of reference for my prior firm, so to hear about how they did it and they're very different-sized firms, with different size teams and different-sized teams than I have now. So to just hear ideas from them, have them to call, I ask them questions - probably too much. But to have that resource is just so nice and they've both been incredibly helpful. And then most recently at Marketing Partner Forum, I met Kalisha Crawford and they are so similar, and her role is so similar to mine, and her team is so similar to mine, and they do similar work, and so to be able to have her to talk to - and she's a couple of years down the road and look what I've done and look what I've implemented and things like that. So just the network that I have built just over the last decade. I mean, it's been a long time but those friendships from LMA and Marketing Partner Forum have been truly invaluable to me.

Ali: Yeah, some truly wonderful individuals you mentioned there who I'm fortunate enough to know as well, but as you mentioned that network clearly has just, just served you so well and in so many different aspects just being able to, to lean on it,  and you said, giving you that confidence, which is really great to hear. So thinking about the role as it stands at the moment, are there any experiences that you have from the previous roles that you've kind of been leaning on, you know, to kind of help you being in that CMO role? I know that you probably have shared some of that already, but was there anything else that kind of came to mind that you thought worth it was worth sharing?

Jennifer: Yeah, I mean, there's little stuff, of course, the biggest thing would probably be my business development experience and how that's given me the confidence to develop a formal coaching program, dive into that. I feel extremely comfortable. That's one of those things I feel like I could do kind of blindfolded with my hands behind my back because it comes so naturally to me now. But, you know, I had the opportunities at my prior firm to be in meetings with leadership, have access to leadership, and present things to leadership. And I think that gave me the confidence to feel comfortable in this role is as much as it's still as difficult for me to kind of, I don't wear it on my sleeve. You know, I struggle a little bit with that part of it. But I think that, you know, having that exposure to a the leadership team, being part of the leadership team within our marketing business development department at my prior firm, but also being able to present things to leadership. That gave me, you know, a little bit of experience when it was, the stakes were a little lower to practice those skills, brush up on presentations, things like that. So I think obviously the business development part really prepared me well for this. But also being part of that leadership team, knowing about PR, knowing about working with an agency, knowing about social media, the website, brand, all those sorts of things being kind of in the trenches with that leadership team. Within the marketing and business development department was invaluable.

Ali: Yeah, it sounds like so much of those kind of subconscious skills that you kind of pick up and you just don't really realise that you, you know, you learn it and then all of a sudden you're like, “oh my God, I'm implementing that” and you know, just kind of actually comes to me like second nature and you realise, you say you're kind of leaning on in the new role as well. 

Jennifer: Yeah, when you are peripherally involved with things. It's easy to discount how much experience you really have in those until you kind of get into it. And you're like, oh yeah, I do remember this was how this was handled or you called this person for that or whatever. So yeah, you soak up a little more than you appreciate.

Ali: Oh yeah, I could not agree more and it applies to so many different aspects of life. It's amazing what you soak in. So unfortunately, it kind of brings us to the final question of the day, which is always going to be an interesting one. But what would be your one piece of advice for others taking on new and challenging legal marketing roles such as stepping into being a CMO? 

Jennifer: Yeah, I think the biggest challenge for me and so that's obviously, what I would focus on first would be just to do it. I mean, even when I would look for so long, it's funny. I think, looking for a long time and then it an opportunity coming. It's like, “Oh, gosh, I'm almost paralyzed with fear to make the decision now and I was comfortable and I could have stayed there forever and, you know, I had good relationships” and things like that, but I think just to take the leap. Just do it. And Kate Pearch gave me so much confidence in that because I talked to her a lot about it even before this just not even to this particular role, but other roles I looked at or just CMO in general and she was like “just do it, you will figure it out, you know what you're doing”. And so I think that gave me such confidence and taking the leap, it will be hard, it will be challenging. There are things that are different that you won't like or that will feel odd and different, just because they're different. But I think just to take the leap would be the biggest piece of advice I was given that helped me more than anything. You know, I think you can get into the nitty gritty of any of it, but you have to take the leap first.

Ali: So we are gonna head into the quick fire round now. So nice, short, sharp, exciting little answer. Just getting to know you a little bit better. So, what is your favourite business and non-business book?

Jennifer: Well, I have to be honest on this one. I don't do a ton of business reading. I have a handful of business development books that I'll read. Sally Schmitt being one of them. But I don't do a ton of reading because I like to leave that as my kind of wind-down sleep hygiene, part of my day. So I like to do a lot of recreational reading and so that I can answer the second book.  All I have to say I have some, you know, books I reference, but I just don't have a favourite if I'm being honest. But on the non-business book,  I really enjoy just any thing that reads light and easy and I hate to use this phrase too, but “chick lit” I think is what a lot of people call it. But  “The lies that bind”  by Emily Giffin. She's actually an Atlantan author. That's probably my favourite book that I've read in a little while.  You know, it's kind of, I feel like asking somebody their favourite child to pick a favourite book. But that's probably been the top one I've read lately.

Ali: Lovely. And I can understand the old sleep hygiene element. I'm always doing the same. I like to prefer reading the more like a thriller or some sort of fiction before bed. So second question. What was your first job?

Jennifer: Ok. This is a funny one too. I actually kept score at the church league basketball. Because that was what I did before I could drive or anything. So, like my mom or my sister would drop me off and I still know, I mean, I sort of know the rules of basketball enough to enjoy it, but it's a whole other ball of wax. I never could figure out the possession arrow fully. But yeah, first job - keeping score. 

Ali: Brilliant. What makes you happy at work?

Jennifer: I think outside the normal wins of, you know, winning an RFP or getting an attorney what they need or that sort of thing. The people. It's just really nice to work with a good team and I have a lovely group of people at Segal McCambridge. My marketing assistant is awesome, but also the attorneys are just overall a really great group of people and I think the people kind of make it the most rewarding for me. You can get a win anywhere quite frankly, but I think the people are what make a place. 

Ali: That's really wonderful to hear. And what are you listening to at the moment?

Jennifer: You know, I'm listening to a lot of Lumineers we were supposed to see them last Labor Day and I got COVID. So I'm kind of, you know, appeasing that with listening to them. A lot of Mumford and Sons. My husband Eugene's kind of a DJ at the house, he's more into music than I am, but I'm also trying to listen to Spare. Funnily enough. But I'm struggling through that audiobook. I have to be honest, I think he gets a little too into the weeds for me. But, yeah, I'm going to finish it one day.

Ali: Well, I like the music choices. Certainly. There's some good ones there. And what or should I say where is your favourite place to visit and why?

Jennifer: This is another hard one for me to pick a favorite. We travel a lot. It's kind of what we do - our hobby. I have to say, to be honest, I have to say it's Paris. You know, it's so close to London and yet it's almost like a world away when you get there. There's just something unique about the energy there and the light almost seems different. A cafe is just my happy place. So I think that would probably win out on the favourite.

Ali: I think that would talk for quite a lot of people. It is a beautiful spot, so great choice. Excellent. Well, thank you very much for that how interesting. And I want to say, you know, obviously a huge congratulations to you on the new role and everything that you have achieved. We’ve been fortunate enough to get to know each other very well recently and there's so much that I can see that you're doing, that is just such a huge success in, you know, setting yourself up for, I'm sure great and long career with Segal McCambridge in terms of where you're taking that firm. So, yeah, it's been an absolute pleasure.

Jennifer: Well, thank you. It's been a pleasure for me as well.


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