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| 27 minutes read

CMO Series EP101 - Drinking from the firehose: Sarah Kempsey of Montgomery McCracken on the first 12 months as a new CMO

Throughout the CMO Series Podcast, we've delved into the challenges faced by legal Chief Marketing Officers. Few periods in a CMO's career are as demanding as the first 12 months in the role. Today, Eugene McCormick has the privilege of speaking with a true trailblazer who has thrived under this pressure. Join us in welcoming Sarah Kempsey, CMO at Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads.

Drawing from her wealth of experience, Sarah shares invaluable insights on navigating the complex landscape of legal marketing. From establishing a strong foundation to overcoming obstacles, she offers practical advice and strategies tailored for new CMOs. 

Sarah and Eugene discuss: 

  • Sarah's journey to her current role as CMO
  • Highlights of Sarah's 12-month tenure as a CMO
  • Sarah's proudest accomplishments and biggest challenges
  • Navigating the absence of a playbook and finding the right approach
  • Personal growth and changes throughout the 12 months
  • Sarah's one key piece of advice for legal marketers facing ambitious and challenging times


Eugene: Hi, folks and welcome to another edition of the CMO Series podcast. Now, we've heard a lot in this podcast about the challenges facing legal Chief Marketing officers and there's no point in the career of the legal CMO where those challenges are more pressing or difficult in the 1st 12 months. So today on the CMO Series podcast, we're really lucky to have someone talk who's thrived under that pressure and come out the other side. Sarah Kempsey, Chief Marketing Officer at Montgomery McCracken. Welcome to the CMO Series podcast.

Sarah: Thanks Eugene and thanks so much for having me. I'm so excited to chat today.

Eugene: It's our pleasure. It's our pleasure. Sarah, we're gonna jump straight in. I'm gonna wanna ask you just for the benefit of the audience. How did you come to be in your current role as Chief Marketing Officer?

Sarah: Yes, so I know this probably sounds very cliche because I think it's one of those things that a lot of people mention as one of their, you know, pieces of advice and whatnot, but it honestly came to be, I came to be in this role as a CMO from my network. So it's just, you know, the importance of having a network I know is a lot of people's piece of advice, but I feel like I'm a living breathing truth to that. You know, looking back over my roughly 12 years in the legal marketing industry, every single role I've had has come from a relationship within my network. You know, I first got into legal marketing in 2012 after I think probably about six years in, in marketing and advertising sales type roles, which those sales roles have obviously really served me quite well in the legal industry. But that initial introduction to the industry came by way of a relationship that my husband, then boyfriend at the time, actually had. And I really didn't know that legal marketing was an option. You know, I had at the time, been working at the Chamber of Commerce here in Philadelphia. So I'd worked indirectly with some events, and people within law firms. But I didn't realise there was this larger marketing department with business development roles which really piqued my interest because of that sales background that I had. But my husband had this contact that had a marketing opportunity within his firm. So I went for, you know, one of the like introduction type meetings, not really an interview by any means, I eventually ended up getting the offer, which was great. But, you know, in those first few months, I learned about the Legal Marketing Association. And so glad that I did because even though I was a coordinator at this firm, the firm was pretty small. So there was really no one within marketing, within the marketing department above me to mentor me or show me the ropes or anything along those lines. So the LMA was absolutely critical to me. And then through that, not only did I get a lot of that knowledge, but I met so many wonderful people that have since brought me into roles that they've had to offer or have introduced me to others where I've gotten roles.

And obviously through all of that,I've met some really great attorneys as well that have given my name for other opportunities.And that's pretty much how I came to be the CMO at Montgomery McCracken,the managing partner was messaging to his network that he was looking to bring on a CMO and my name was given so that recommendation along with a strong LinkedIn profile that really speaks to my experience because they got my name and they definitely went there first to check me out. That got me that initial conversation over a year ago. And now I've been in this role since May of 2022.

Eugene: Amazing. Is it an interesting point there you mean about having that personal brand, that digital brand?  And I want to loop back to that in a minute, but you've been CMO for 12 months now. You've been in previous firms. You've been, you know, you've been at the Saul Ewing, you've been at Reed Smith, you've been CMO for 12 months now. And beforehand, you and I discussed about some of the projects and, and big successes you've had in your career. It's an awful lot of ground to cover. But could you highlight some of those and we'll sort of loop back into it how that, you know, links into your personal brand in a moment.

Sarah: Yeah. Yeah. Like you said, we've been talking periodically for months now and I don't know that we've even begun to scratch that surface. But I do know that not a single year in my entire life has gone by faster than this past year. It's been fun and challenging and such an amazing and rewarding experience. But it was a lot. I came on board right smack in the middle of the firm doing a full website redesign. So the website was pretty much built out when I joined. So it was just fine tuning of content at that point. And then the launch that I was kind of tasked with when I joined, but there were some formatting aspects that I wanted to approach differently than what was in scope if you will. So there was the juggling of that and not only did I have and want to bring my thoughts and my touch to the project, but I had to convince others on the internal website committee that I knew what I was doing that made changes just weren't random changes. They were well thought out beneficial and had meaning and value because at the end of the day, they were out of the agreed-upon scope.

So they were at an additional cost, but I found extreme value in those changes and I felt they had to be made for the redesign and the launch to be successful. So I came in pretty much negotiating right off the bat with not only the vendor but internally as well and I just had to build that trust a little faster than normal and kind of prove myself a little faster than normal, I think. You know, because here was this huge project that had been going on costing a decent amount of money as huge projects do. And I think everyone had been at a part kind of at the point where they were just ready to slap a big bow on it, present it to the firm and the world and here I come, making all these last minute changes and delaying the process a little bit in order to do so. So while scary and nerve wracking, it was this great opportunity to work closely with a number of partners, including a few on the management committee. Like right off the bat, I was able to roll out this huge capital project right away and I really got my name out amongst the firm as I was constantly sending out communications around the launch. Not only to the management committee, the partnership, the firm as a whole pretty frequently within those first few months. So it was definitely a highlight and a project I'm really proud of, but it was definitely, I know we've spoken about this like trial by fire. This was something I had never done before. You know, I've been at firms like you said, Reed Smith and Saul Ewing where there was a new website that had been launched or was in the process of a redesign. I had never really been the one leading that project or really even directly on that project team. So this was definitely a test of my abilities. But I think it set the tone for me within the firm. So, you know, while stressful, while it was happening, I'm just really glad that it did because the way I was able to prove myself to the partners and others faster with such a large project off the bat rather than gradually over time like I was kind of expecting to do. I feel like that made my relationship so much stronger with so many of the key stakeholders. And I just have like created this really strong sense of trust and value that I bring like right off the bat. So that's kind of a known thing now. So that's been really great, but it definitely went through the wringer to get there.

Eugene: You said something really interesting there and I was just scribbling it down. I had to convince them straight away that I was, I knew…two things. I had to convince them straight away that I knew what I was doing and I was negotiating on both sides. You obviously having to prove yourself. But is there an element of, obviously we've spoken to have talked about this idea of the imposter syndrome, was there an element of that or was it sort of just I actually need to prove my worth. How would you sort of define what you were going through at that stage? 

Sarah: Definitely like a piece of that impostor syndrome because like I said, like I didn't really have that experience, like I've kind of been indirectly involved and I had some of the pieces or at least had conversations with folks that were going through it. So I understood the huge undertaking that it was, but I didn't really know the ins and outs, the dos and don't, so you kind of have to have this confidence about you. Like I said, like I need to, you know, I know what I'm talking about here. Like these are changes that we have to make because I'm the expert in the room here and I know what we're doing. But you know, you're saying this to a vendor and to a committee who have sat down with this for months and months and months and who am I just to come in and start making these changes? But I just think you have to really work around it and through it and just know that you've proven yourself to this point, you were hired to do this job and just show that confidence and, and that goes such a far away. I think like, you know, just having confidence in what you do and how you speak and what you decide to do like that. Just that takes you so much further. I think people just kind of, you know, if you start to show a weakness or if you start to second guess yourself or even question what you're doing. I think like they see that attorneys are trained to find those weaknesses and kind of dig in. So just don't show that weakness have that confidence. And I think that's really gotten me far and I just kept that in the back of my mind through all these conversations.

Eugene: Have the confidence and a glass of red wine at the end of the evening to get you through it.

Sarah: Yes, very true.

Eugene: So I can I ask you a slightly annoying question. You mentioned this website project? Is it fair to say that is what you're most proud of? Is it also your biggest challenge or is there anything else that you sort of had to overcome in the last 12 months?

Sarah: So, I mean, that was definitely a challenge. I wouldn't say it was the biggest challenge. And, you know, I think kind of this is a really interesting question because what I'm most proud of has definitely grown out of what I do think the biggest challenge was.

So I'm gonna kind of start from the biggest challenge part of this question first, which is when I accept this role, I was coming in and overseeing a team of two other marketing folks, I was asked to develop more structure and be focused more on the strategic side of things as well as building out more business development efforts within the department. But from when I accepted until the day I started, it was probably about a month's time that had gone by.

And within that time, the two marketing people accepted other positions and put in their notices. So one was out the door before I even started and the other I overlapped with for just about a week's time. So while I was trying to learn a new firm, new people, where my office even was what printer do I print to. I was also trying to learn where everything was saved. What the passwords were, what templates we were using, what's in our tech stack. What events do we put on annually? Like are we certified CLE there were just so many questions I didn't even know I had because I was really forced to figure it all out and ask them within a week's time after that week it was just me. So I'm trying to navigate all of those questions, handle every single request that was coming in because there's nobody else I was trying to meet with, you know, your first 90 days at a new company, like you want to meet with as many people, both attorneys and staff as you can. I'm trying to learn our service and industry groups. I'm trying to study bios to understand the practices of our attorneys. I'm trying to learn who our clients are launch that website. And, you know, just like we discussed, I'm doing all of this as well as trying to identify what roles I need to rebuild the department with. I didn't wanna just backfill these positions that previously existed.I wanted to be strategic about what was expected from the department historically, while also incorporating where the department was headed based off of those conversations that I was having before I even joined the firm. So I can definitely feel my anxiety rising just like kind of going through that list of things that was happening. 

Eugene: Me too.

Sarah: Let me throw this in the mix too. All of this is happening at a time when law firms are just starting their hybrid approaches. So all of this is happening for me as I'm returning to an office three days a week because up until this point, I had been working fully remote since March 17th of 2020. So that in itself is exhausting to like now wake up and get dressed and go into work three days a week with all of that on top. You know, obviously juggling the day to day was stressful, but my first priority was really to figure out what roles I needed and to start to hire for them. That is hands down what I'm most proud of in this past year because we just have such a fantastic marketing department now, for everything that had me stressing those first few months, I know it's in good hands, it's being handled.

I'm able to turn my attention and focus on the initiatives and projects and the various things I was hired to do. We are a small firm. We have about 100 attorneys across five different offices in four different states. I was able to this point, I've been able to hire a business development and Marketing Manager as well as a Communications and Marketing Coordinator. Our team, it's fantastic, like I'm just so glad that they have come on board. Our team is super collaborative, creative, hard working and that's really starting to show in the various initiatives that we're rolling out and have rolled out in the short time we've been here. I would say it's pretty much every other day. Somebody shooting me an email, one of the attorneys or even somebody else in one of the administrative functions is shooting me an email or popping by my office to just sing the praises of one of our team members. So I'm just so proud of the level of trust that we've built and what we've done in less than a year. And that really gives us a lot of freedom to be proactive and to present new ideas and get that buy in that's needed, obviously to make various initiatives successful. And as a team, we've done a really great job of being more than marketing. And what I mean by that is attorneys aren't just coming to us when they need materials or having added to their bio or need flag for a sponsorship. They're really coming to us with questions. They want our thoughts, they want our knowledge, they want to brainstorm with us for ideas for generating new business. They want to discuss opportunities for growing current clients and they're really hungry for coaching, which has been so rewarding and I just love seeing the team thrive in those situations and get excited about their work. So that's definitely the biggest challenge, but it's been such a highlight and just an aspect of this role that I'm just so incredibly proud of over this past year. And I'm really excited to see where that goes in the upcoming year.

Eugene: Amazing. When we discussed about this before. So you describe that sort of 1st 90 100 days as “drinking from the fire hose”, which it sounds as you said, it's almost like anxiety inducing because you don't know where to start. You're sort of build.. Phil McGowan from Reed Smith talks about, you know, with projects, sometimes you're building the runways you're taking off, there wasn't at all a playbook for what you were doing. How did you figure out to get to where you are? Because you seem like you're sort of getting to where you want to be. You got a collaborative team, you're proactive, you can focus on more of the strategic aspects rather than the operational foundational aspects which you put in place over the last sort of 12 months. How did you figure out what to do? How did you get it done? Was it leaning on external networks like the LMA, you know, where did you get that knowledge and figure out what the next right step was along with your intuition?

Sarah: Definitely leaning on my various networks has absolutely been my lifesaver. Not only do I have the network that I've developed and built over the 12 or so years of doing this and even prior to that, I've participated,  found and participated in CMO roundtable events through Chambers of Commerce within our footprint. And I was previously at the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. So I stay active there and that's been super helpful. That's really good. I think from an aspect of, you know, I know there's like the legal marketing industry and CMO s within that space which I'll get to in a second. But this roundtable, I find valuable because I'm hearing ideas from other industries and you know, we all know like the legal marketing law firms are just really conservative and slow to move on a lot of things.I think it's getting better, but that's just kind of the space that we operate in. I think partners, management committees, managing partners are a little hesitant to make some of the moves and a lot of the big firms make those moves first and it trickles down from there. So to hear what some other industries are doing is super, super helpful in that regard. But you know, with like the Changemakers group, that has been extremely helpful, huge plug for Passle Changemakers. You know, that group is for CMOs who have been in the position for just under three years or less. And we meet over zoom monthly. Someone presents for roughly 15 minutes or so on something they've found useful or successful. And we chat about it for another 30 minutes or so. And we have a LinkedIn chat going where we pose questions and ask for advice. So that's been really, really helpful to bounce ideas off of people, not only in similar roles, but for a similar amount of time, there's no expectation, there's no uncomfortableness in asking a question. Like, is this a stupid question or not? I feel like everybody is kind of in the same boat. So that's been a huge lifesaver and just the LMA as well with their message boards, their programming, all of it's been really, really helpful and that's definitely, I would say that's the number one thing I've definitely like relied upon and use and utilized. I've also worked under some amazing managers, directors and CMOs throughout the years at both an AMLaw 50 firm and an AMLaw 200 firm. So I've been able to bring a lot of the initiatives that we were doing there to Montgomery McCracken as Montgomery McCracken is a much smaller firm. So a lot of these things that I was doing pretty routinely at some bigger firms, like, hasn't really been introduced here yet. So that's been, that's been fun. And something that's kind of rewarding to do is just like, take these things that I've been doing and totally understand and know the ins and outs of and I've learned the dos and don'ts of and just incorporate that into the initiatives we have going on here. There's hurdles to that being that it's a smaller firm. There's a little less structure I would say. So it's been a learning experience trying to navigate that, leaning on those markets or those networking groups has been helpful for that. But at the same time, there's a lot less hierarchy and a lot less red tape per se. So I feel like we've been able to move forward fairly easily with a lot of our ideas and get the backing we need. And it's been really good. And Eugene, I know we've talked before, and just like one final point I wanna make on this particular question is I know we've talked about how it's like lonely at the top. You know, you can't always take issues or challenges up the chain to the Managing Partner or the CFO and I have a really, really supportive Managing Partner CFO and Chair.

So I feel like sometimes I probably can talk a little bit more freely with them than what I kind of came in thinking I could do. You don't want to take a lot of the issues to them because it's kind of like not for them to deal with, they're dealing with much bigger issues. You also don't want to come across as incompetent, but it's also issues you can't really take down to your team either or to other administrative functions. So you kind of feel like you're alone in this. So these various networks like have been great to bounce those ideas off of or discuss challenges, find solutions together and even just have like a group to vent to because we're all kind of in the same boat. We all know what each other is going through for the most part. So they've truly been a breath of fresh air and such a tremendous help over this past year. Thanks to Passle for building one of those groups because I look forward to those conversations.

Eugene: It's also interesting you mentioned those various networks. Luke Ferrandino, the CMO of Paul Weiss, absolutely great guy. He and I caught up a few weeks ago and he was talking about not just the power of having different networks but that you can leverage them for different things. And he says, I've got, you know, one network when I'm talking more the business development, I've got one who are more tech and digital-focused. I've got one network of sort of our peers and those big New York law firms. And he said it's the power of being able to leverage each one and dip into each one and give something to each but not just solely, you know, be reliant on, on one or the other.

Sarah: Yeah. And that's like the rewarding the other side of that too where it's so helpful to get this information to bounce ideas and you know, I'm not, I don't feel like I'm reinventing the wheel. I'm able to reach out to these groups. The legal industry I think is just so helpful and people are more than happy to share a process or a policy, or language that we might need for something like a template. But it's also really rewarding on the flip side of that to be the one sharing because you know, that this person who's reaching out asking probably has 10,000 things that they're doing. And that's one little thing they could check off, but they just can't sit down and put pen to paper and figure it out. So just to be able to shoot a quick email or message out to your network, get something come back and now you can move that, keep moving that along while still working on those 10,000 other things. It's just really helpful in your day-to-day to know that you have that behind you so that you can quickly reach out and ask for that help and then be able to offer help on the flip side as well.

Eugene: Agreed. So I suppose a nice way to tie this together. How do you feel that you've changed in the last 12 months as an individual and also as a marketing professional?

Sarah: I think I definitely process information and react differently. I think both professionally and personally, I think because I'm just so much more conscious of, I think there's just more eyes on what it is that you're doing. So I think I just really think through how I'm going to react or how I'm gonna respond or I just think I have kind of a more enlightened approach to things and I obviously have learned to delegate more, which it's also something I'm constantly reminding myself to do. You know, it's easy just to quick do something and check that thing off the to do list, but I need to delegate not only for the learning experience that it creates for more junior team members, but because it isn't the highest and best use of my time. So I'm gonna plug past the Changemakers group again here. The last discussion we had was on prioritising and delegating and that really resonated with me because now that our marketing department is really running at full speed, I need to be fully letting them do their thing. So the firm is getting the best use of my time. And I just feel like that's such an important thing to think about every day, the highest and best use of my time. Like, is this a meeting that I should be in or should I by the business development and marketing manager to attend or I just think kind of consciously thinking about all of that through the day-to-day.

And as I map out projects and we kind of discuss what we want to do each quarter and break that down into the months, like just divvying that up as to whose task that is.

So my time is better spent on those more strategic initiatives. So that's been a huge learning curve, but something I'm constantly working on every day. But I think that's just really how I've changed over these past 12 months and in this role, because it's a completely different mindset than the senior manager role that I came from with more of a business development mindset. Now, I kind of have to be thinking across events, marketing operations, PR.  I'm just processing all this information completely differently. And I just think I've learned to really sit back and think things through and like all the different angles than kind of just reacting, which I think you tend to do in the BDM role of just, you know, something comes in and you're working to get it out as quickly as you can to then turn to these longer term projects.

I just feel like nothing is as reactive as that in this CMO role and things are much more long term. So it's just a completely different mindset. That's definitely been interesting and just a huge pivot, but it's been good.

Eugene: Amazing. So, thank you so much for that. But I'm not gonna let you go just yet because we've been instructed to ask you a little quick fire round. So if we can grab you for another couple of minutes, we've got a few quick-fire questions.

Sarah: Sure.

Eugene: Right. Let's go. Sarah, what's your favourite business and non-business book? 

Sarah: This is always such a hard question for me because I love to read and have so many favorite books for a business book. However, I just don't think you can really call it much of a business book, but it's the book I'm reading right now and it's been extremely helpful is Atomic Habits by James Clear. It's been really helpful in mapping out my days. So, you know, I can make the most of them both professionally and personally. And for a non-business book a few years ago, I read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and was totally obsessed with it. And I recently learned they are turning it into a series starring Ewan McGregor. So I think that's set to air later this year or next year. So I'm really, really excited for that.

Eugene: Nice. I haven't heard of that one. I know Atomic Habits, but I don't know A Gentleman in Moscow. So I'll look it up. So, what was your first job?

Sarah: My very first job. I was 14 or 15 because I do remember I had to get a work permit signed by my parents since I was under 16. But I worked at a breakfast counter in a farmers' market. And my job was to go around and fill coffee. So I just walked around the counter, poured coffee, which I'm assuming is where my love for coffee started.

Eugene: So we touched on this actually a little bit. But what makes you happy at work?

Sarah: I’ve been listening to the Passle CMO podcast a lot lately. And I feel like this is probably, I would say I hear this response a lot but I think it's 1000% true and it's the people, it's the energy I get from being with my team, being face to face with the attorneys and staff, meeting clients. You know, I think I probably would have answered that way a few years ago too because I'm such a people person and an extrovert. But I think coming out of the pandemic and only seeing coworkers on a zoom or teams call for a number of years really zapped me of that energy. So it's definitely what makes me happy at work right now.

Eugene: Okay. Yeah, I would agree with that as well. It's definitely like seeing people's progression. What are you listening to at the minute? The podcast, music, audiobook, anything in between?

Sarah: Well, like I said, the Passle CMO podcast, I've been listening to that a lot, but I also listen to the Work Well podcast, which is a wellbeing podcast from Deloitte. They have a Chief Wellbeing Officer, her name's Jen Fisher and she's fantastic. Their tagline is ‘wellbeing insights to enhance your work and life’. And I've gotten so many great ideas and tips from the various guests she has on the podcast. So I just really, when the, you know, with the weather getting warmer and it's staying lighter out longer, I just love to go for a long walk and listen to a few episodes.

Eugene: Amazing. I think I know the answer to this next question because we've been chatting about it all time. But where is your favorite place to visit and why?

Sarah: Well, I think you're gonna be surprised because as you know, I did go with a bunch of girlfriends to Paris in February and it was absolutely amazing. And thank you for all of your fabulous recommendations. But being that I live in Philadelphia, I'm very torn in how to answer this because we are just an hour or so from the shore. But we're also only about two hours from the Pocono Mountains. So it's really dependent on the vibe I'm looking for at the time. But I find both to be so incredibly relaxing. I just love sitting on a beach with my toes in the sand just as much as I love sitting on a chair next to a lake and always with a book in one hand. And you know, like you mentioned earlier, that glass of red wine in the other hand, of course.

Eugene: Cool. And the very, very last question which is again tying into some of the things we touched on earlier. What would your one piece of advice for any of the listeners of this podcast be, you know, people who are facing an ambitious but challenging 12 months ahead in their legal marketing career, maybe people looking to take the next jump up or maybe do something similar to you and take that step up to the CMO role? What's your one piece of advice?

Sarah: I think I'm actually gonna give like two quick little pieces of advice because these are the two things I've really focused on and have been super intentional about over the past year and that's finding and leaning on those networks like we talked about, everyone is going through or has gone through pretty much the same challenges. So one,

it's comforting to know you aren't alone like we discussed and two to know you have this space where you can go and ask for advice and tips. And like I said too, it's just super rewarding on the flip side of that to be the one offering the advice and the dos and don't I,

I think the second piece of quick advice I want to give to is just make sure you continue to find time for your hobbies or if you don't have hobbies, spend some time finding them. I know we get really busy and those are the things that tend to drop off of our day or get pushed to the bottom of the to-do list and even if it's just getting out and just walking for 10 minutes or so in those moments, that's where my best ideas come from. It's where creativity lives. You know, I'm not thinking about work or projects. I'm just in the moment doing my thing right now for me, I'm, I'm doing a wine certification, speaking of wine. So it just completely allows me to shut off my brain from all things work related and really just focus fully on something else. So when I do come back to the work task or challenge unclear and can fully see the big picture and just think up these great ideas because the creative juices were flowing. I found that to really be my survival over the past year and I just, I strongly recommend that for anyone and everyone don't neglect that side of you. 

Eugene: I think that's a really, really nice way to tie things together. Thank you so much for your time. It's been really enlightening episode of the Passle CMO Series podcast. Thank you very much.

Sarah: Yeah, thanks, Eugene.

Eugene: Speak to you soon.


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