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| 21 minutes read

CMO Series EP105 - Megan Senese of Stage on taking a client-first approach to legal business development

While understanding the client's needs is a fundamental skill in legal business development, traditional protocols and precedents can inadvertently hinder business growth.

On this episode of the CMO Series podcast, we explore the challenges that professionals face in building successful client relationships with someone well-versed in doing just that both in-house and now as a consultant. 

Ed Lovatt is lucky to sit down with Megan Senese, Co-founder of Stage, to share her journey of transitioning from Big Law to entrepreneurship. Together with her former colleagues, she founded Stage, a marketing and business development company aimed at assisting busy lawyers in expanding their practices.

Megan reflects on the lessons learned from starting a new venture in the legal industry, offering valuable insights and practical tips that in-house business development teams can apply to enhance their strategies and drive growth.

Megan and Ed discuss: 

  • Megan’s unique career in professional services from KPMG to legal, and now setting up Stage with her former in-house team
  • The importance of a client focus in business development 
  • The different approaches to BD Megan discovered after starting her own company
  • The key opportunities for BD that law firms could take advantage of, based on Megan's in-house career experiences
  • The significance of understanding the clients and how you go about learning that information and delivering value 
  • Advice for in-house BD professionals looking to take a more client-focused approach


Ed: Welcome to the Passle CMO Series Podcast today. We're going to be taking a client-first approach to legal business development. That's the topic. 

Today's guest is actually taking quite a big leap from big law and together with her former colleagues, she set up a marketing and business development company to help busy lawyers grow their business. And we're incredibly lucky to welcome Megan Senese, Co-founder of Stage to discuss the lessons learned from starting a new venture. And what in-house BD can take from her experience. 

Welcome to the podcast, Megan.

Megan: Oh my gosh. Thank you so much for having me.

Ed: It's been a discussion that we've had for a few months now. I think, gosh, end of 2022 we started talking about it. And so it's really great to finally get you on.

Megan: Yes, it's hard to even imagine that it's been that many months, but it's kind of all gone by in a weird flash, a weird blur.

Ed: I think because you've been quite busy with obviously setting up a new venture, chatting away with you over the last couple of months you could easily say time has just flown past and I think most people would agree that 2023 is flying past.

Megan: Yeah. It's just luckily we're not in a weird, you know, time warp of 2020. So, anything compared to that feels great and glorious.

Ed: I've forgotten what that year was about anyway. So, it's fine. Now, Megan, we've chatted before and I know a little bit about your background and this is kind of where we set up the conversation before about getting you onto the podcast. You've had a pretty unique career in professional services starting out at KPMG and then moving into the legal sector and now setting up stage with your former in-house team. Can you tell us a little bit more about that journey? Maybe go into a little bit more depth.

Megan: Yes, absolutely. So, I love telling my KPMG story. It does date me a little. I mean, I'm not that old, but it does date me a little. So I love to start the KPMG story that I applied through Monster. I thought KPMG was a radio station. So that just goes to show you I had absolutely no idea what professional service marketing was. You know, they just don't talk about that in college, right? And nobody kind of dreams about legal marketing as the kind of sexy, sexy. Maybe you want to be like a product marketer… anyway. So I started KPMG and got introduced to account management and industry focus. And I think that is really what put me on the path from a legal marketing perspective, you know, stayed at KPMG for a couple of years. And then someone said, why don't you try law firms? And of course, I never heard of them for marketing. I was like, oh, I didn't know that you know, law firms needed marketing and business development support. And I joined McDermott and then I basically never got out of legal marketing up until, you know, a couple of months ago and bounced around from a couple of firms and now I'm Co-founder and Principal of Stage with Kathleen Hilton and Jennifer Ramsey. We met at our last firm. We were a team and worked together for the last, you know, 6.5 years and decided to make this big jump together and now we own our own company, which is pretty exciting.

Ed: Obviously, you guys all work together and I think, you know, jumping into that new title of Co-founder and Principle sounds like a real thrill ride.

Megan: It's equally thrilling as it is terrifying. You know, there's definitely some familiarity with working together and so we know what the three of our strengths are and where our weaknesses are. But there is definitely a new way of working as we are creating our own business. And, I think that's kind of one of just kind of one quick little thing that we weren't necessarily expecting. We're like, oh, this will just like, seamlessly transfer over and it did in a lot of ways, but it's been like a business crash course if you will. And so it's been really exciting but also terrifying to kind of be out there on your own in a lot of ways.

Ed: I think it's probably a good mixture to have excitement and terror.

Megan: The terror is what motivates you, right?

Ed: Yes, exactly. And it's kind of what pushes you each day. The excitement is what you get out of it as well. But, when I said the word, terror, it made it sound so much worse. 

Megan: Well, you know, it's like, we've been saying it's kind of like a roller coaster, Right? Or it's like a good terror. It's a little scary. It's a little scary to be out there kind of in that way. But it's a good scary. If you're not a little uncomfortable then you're not pushing yourself. You're not learning. And, and I think for the, you know, I can only really speak for me, but I think for the three of us that is a big one of the reasons why we kind of took this jump.

Ed: Makes sense. Now we spoke previously about those in-house roles that you had that how they tended to have an industry or a client focus. When was it that you realized the importance of that approach when it came to business development? Do you think that there was maybe one light bulb moment or was there a number?

Megan: It's super interesting. My entire career basically from day one has had either an industry or key account focus and that positioned me differently from the beginning. The majority of the peers, you know, in legal marketing, start kind of in a practice group. And of course, like law firms use a broader mix of both practice industry clients. And when they do that, those are the firms that tend to be more profitable. Usually, they are more collaborative, they have a better understanding of the client. And so that taking kind of all of that and then realizing that it was unique, particularly as I left from firm to firm and I was being hired to come in and implement an industry program or come into stand up 41 client teams, which is something I did at another firm, I think realising it kind of from each of those instances, I worked at 34 different law firms and seeing how that experience every single time I stepped into a new role was unique. I think that it was kind of each of those moments kind of piled up. And when I started working, with Jen and Kathleen, that's when the three of us realised that we all had this kind of unique experience that we were able to collaborate, you know, in-house. And now with Stage, like that's our main focus, you know, positioning the client and the lawyer to be able to like address their needs from that client perspective, which sometimes you don't get when you're kind of siloed.

Ed: Now that you've started Stage, your own company. What are the different approaches that you're taking to BD?

Megan: Yeah, I mean, I love this question. I touched on a little bit about how it's been a crash course on business. And I think we've had this really positive reaction in the marketplace with the launch of our business, which feels great and kind of, you know, eases some of that terror. But, you know, our main focus has been creating is trying to create authentic relationships and connecting people to one another. Like we believe in the power of connectivity and that it will kind of all come back around. And I think there's a little bit of getting to practice what we've been preaching for the, you know, for me for the last 16 years when you know, it's easy to be in-house and tell the lawyers and you need to go and network and you need to go and write and you also need to like, do the billable work and speak and get on podcasts and write on LinkedIn and now being on the other side, it's, we're practicing exactly all the things that we were saying in house and maybe didn't necessarily get the exposure or the opportunity from a BD side to do it yourselves. And so I can only imagine the leverage and like that kind of forward momentum that big law would be able to capitalize if they allowed more in-house BD and sales teams to kind of take this approach and be more client-facing. I had such a strong desire to be more client-facing when I was in-house and not every firm is super comfortable or maybe there, you know, there's politics involved with having their BD team be in front of, you know, their clients. And so now we're doing it ourselves. And I mean, I love it. I kind of love all of it. I love the networking and the approach that works for me in our company, I love like the figuring out the sales life cycle and how we differentiate and, you know, distinguish our brand. I like, I love all of it. It just allows me to know that we are doing the right thing like we made the right decision, you know. 

Ed: Yeah, I suppose it gives you that reassurance, that feeling that you're getting from it, that sense of loving it and enjoying it and that you've made the right decision.

Megan: Yeah, totally. 

Ed: Again, reflecting, I'm jumping back and forth between your previous roles and your new role at Stage. But reflecting on your in-house career, are there any key approaches or opportunities for BD that you think law firms could be taking advantage of?

Megan: Yeah, I mean, this response could go in like so many directions. The first thing that comes to mind is more one-to-one support for the lawyers that might not get all of the resources that perhaps the top biller gets. The one-to-one support from my perspective and what we had seen when we were in-house and now we're on the other side, I'm like outhouse now, you know, the one-to-one support is like where BD teams can get to do the real work, like the real coaching, the targeting, you know, developing the strategic plans, you know, a pursuit plan, that kind of one-one is where we've been able to see like a real return on investment, which is like really hard to demonstrate, at least from a BD perspective, right? Everyone wants that ROI and the life cycle takes a really long time and you're not really sure when you're in-house, if the idea that you suggested resulted in work or it just was a matter of timing. And so we, we love that kind of one-to-one. So I'm gonna share a quick little story. We had been supporting this kind of gigantic lead with a new lateral partner. And they wanted to make introductions in a new area that this client had and they didn't know the firm's capabilities or even the people like that closely yet, because they had just joined the firm. And so this is where, you know, Jen and I were able to come in, we set up a one-to-one call. We created just a social, like a virtual social event. It was, you know, still COVID and we just put together the like the right group of people. This partner knew the temperament of the client. And so Jen and I were able to assign and align the right people to not only to the client but with the people that were going to be coming together. And because of this relationship, building kind of activity, we provided the right research, they literally got a matter out of this like event which we feel like is never really happened. So direct, you know, the partner reported back on it and it was probably one of the quickest sales cycle that we had like ever seen. I think we set up this call in, you know, like January or something and we got new work in April. And so I think it's just, you know, really figuring out kind of on this one-to-one where, you know, sometimes that can become a scale issue. But that one-to-one support is really where you can make the most impact. And, you know, I guess speaking of scale, there's so many like, like legal tech options so you can like streamline things. And so, you know, to the extent that people are looking at technology, that could be a completely different podcast, I'm sure. So you know, incorporate different technologies to streamline some efficient inefficiencies and things like that. 

Ed: And I think that kind of ties in with something that you'd mentioned to me before and that's about really understanding what's valuable to the client. That's kind of how you could probably why this sales cycle that you just mentioned happens so quickly you had an understanding already. Are there any top tips, or any specific ways that you would go about getting that information?

Megan: Yeah, I mean, there are lots of ways, of course. You can learn a lot about the client by first doing your own research, reading their website, reading their social media just as reading as much as you can about the client. So that when you get the opportunity to ask the client, like what's on your mind, you're asking the client in an informed way. I think a lot of firms get shy of asking their clients, not all, but, you don't want to seem like you don't know them, but I think a lot of clients want to be asked what's important to you right now, how can we help you? What's your biggest challenge? And this can be for any, you know, any lawyer, a sole practitioner all the way, you know, down to the 10, right? You know, if you're just listening and asking your client, that's one of the most valuable tools that you can determine what the biggest issue for the client is. Every time a lawyer asks their client what's important and proactively is seeking out their values, it just creates another opportunity for that relationship to deepen and then figuring out what to do with all that information. So you like spend all this time like reading and figuring out stuff and now you've got this like massive amount of data. So now what do you do with it? And I think that's really part of where the value comes in and that's where you can bring in your BD team or your consultant and prepare some kind of report that is actionable and short so that the lawyer doesn't have to spend, you know, hours reading the reams of paper. That's I think that's really kind of critical in terms of figuring out how that lawyer can help where the gaps are coupling it with client listening. Like that's, it's kind of where the magic happens. I guess bonus tip if you have associates, like pull them in too, right? Introduce them to the clients' kind of equivalent associate level and really entrench the firm across all the levels.

Ed: Yeah, it sounds almost like a bit of a mining expedition. You want to go and do a load of digging, but actually, you still need to look through it to find the bits that are the key part that is going to help deliver that value.

Megan: Right. And I think sometimes with, you know, associate to associate or they might be able to uncover more like nuggets of information. A couple of firms ago, they had a really big secondment program, and the amount of information that the secondee would come back with just like figuring out because they sat on the floor with the client or they sat next to the general counsel's office. They were exposed to so much more information just from being there. But also they were asking if they were maybe a little more informal and so they were able to find out like so much more than when you're setting up a formal kind of meet and greet for 20 minutes, right? Kind of pressed for time and maybe not all the juicy stuff comes out immediately.

Ed: Yeah, it makes perfect sense and it's one of those things that's probably quite obvious to a few people, but also once you hear it out loud, you start thinking actually that makes that does make sense. That is something that we need to act on, or at least action maybe. So I'm glad we're having this conversation, Megan.

Megan: Yeah. Well, I mean, just because it’s, you know, simple, doesn't mean it's easy. You have to make time for it. And there's so much pressure on everybody. On the BD team, they're extremely resource-constrained and time-pressed and there are so many things they have to kind of turn out and that's even more for the lawyer. They have billable time, they have pro bono work, there's work-life balance, there's the mental health crisis, there's, you know, pressing recession, there are so many things that people just need to carve out time for any kind of creating new, like micro habits to address some of these things.

Ed: Absolutely. Lots of other things to take into perspective as well. So the list is almost endless. 

Megan: Yeah, for sure.

Ed: We normally, when we get towards the end of the podcast, we come up with the last question. And it's quite a difficult one because we ask you for what would be your one piece of advice. And for you, I suppose for in-house BD professionals, looking to make a more client-focused approach. Now, if you can think of that one piece of advice, I know there's probably gonna be many.

Megan: Just one thing, there's so many. All right. Well, I'll make it super simple then and everyone will be like, yeah, of course, we know this, but since you asked and I'm on the podcast, then I can say what I want. I think it always comes back to, you know, adapting this kind of external view, which is again, like easier to say, harder to do sometimes. And we just like, you know, we talked about the, the press, the internal press of life and what it's like to be in-house, and all of these activities are so important. But I think starting small, you know, creating these like new micro habits about how to create this external view of the client of the industry. You know, perhaps that's a new cadence of scanning the news for trends and topics that might be applicable to your practice group or your industry or the client team that you are supporting and then thinking about what you're reading and how that might intersect with the knowledge of your firm's clients. And then bringing that knowledge to the lawyers in this format that's like easy to read, easy to digest, super actionable, right? We all get so much news and you're like, great, like, what do I what do you want me to do with this? And so just maybe, you know, a sentence or two that is positioning the lawyer with some action so that they can create additional trust points with their clients. So they have an excuse to reach out to their clients and maybe just raising your hand if you're, you know, in-house within the BD team for opportunities around client feedback or client listening so that you can get trained up and kind of thinking about it in that way. 

Ed: I think that's some pretty good advice. It wasn't gonna be the one piece I know it's difficult to actually channel it down to. It's fine though because they're all interlinked. So it is kind of one piece of advice. And they all kind of have that slight interlining where they have a bit of a knock-on effect to each other, which makes perfect sense. So now we come to the quick-fire round which uh can often throw a few very interesting answers up. Megan, I'm going to go through five very quick questions with you. And it would be great uh to hear some of your answers. I'm gonna make notes as well. Starting with What is your favorite business and non-business book?

Megan: Yes, I love this one. So the book that I'm going to kind of set up as like a little guessing game, this book was gifted to my husband probably about 13 years ago. The company that he works for gave it to them as like the best business book in the world. So it's the only book you need to read, to learn how to sell or hold your value proposition. Try out different scenarios. It demonstrates grit, determination. It's like super easy to read. And so the drum roll for this book is Green Eggs and Ham. It's a Dr Seuss book. It goes through all different ways to, you know, keep trying something, try something, try something, try something. And I just kind of love how clever that is. And so that's what I'm gonna answer for that one.

Ed:  Good answer and non-business book? I suppose it's the same.

Megan:  You know if you just want an interesting story…

Ed: I'd not heard of it until I moved to the US eight years ago. And I've since heard of it a few times now and it's definitely actually something I'll pick up and read again. I'll ask you this second quick-fire question. This is sometimes when we get a really funny answer. But what was your first job?

Megan: Yeah. My first job was working at an ice cream store. I worked there before I even had working papers. So don't tell anybody I was 14. I had to convince them to hire me about a month before my 15th birthday And I was allowed to kind of work part-time. And I said to them, I know I'm not even 15 yet, but I'll show you that I'm a really good worker and if you hire me and you don't like how I perform then you can fire me. And so I actually, I worked there for a year and then I found another job with better, you know, better hourly pay. And, I mean, anyone who's worked in retail will know that like the customer service skills you learn there translate easily into any professional career and particularly big law and now with Stage, of course, it's just really about the people, like how, how you make them feel and how you care for them. So, you know, it starts with ice cream.

Ed: Did you get fed up with ice cream after a year?

Megan: We were allowed one ice cream per shift and I definitely did not adhere to that. Like, I was eating a lot more than one ice cream per shift. So I had like one super strong arm and definitely like, gained some weight. But, you know, when you're a teenager, it doesn't even really matter. But I, no, you never get, you never get sick of the ice cream, but I definitely exceeded my one ice cream per shift allotment. 

Ed: The third question is sometimes a little deeper. But what makes you happy at work?

Megan: What makes me happy at work? I guess when we're able to help, you know, we guide lawyers and support them trying to make client connections or following them kind of along with their client journey, getting a win or a new matter or new assignment. All of those, when all of those kind of trust points align. That’s like the best feeling when we get to help lawyers with their clients like their win is our win. And that's kind of like maybe selfishly like an amazing high, right? Like we're just out to get that high all the time. 

Ed: I think you're allowed to be a little bit selfish when it comes to that. What is it that you're listening to at the moment? And this could be something like an audiobook, music, or radio podcast maybe?

Megan: Yeah. So I just finished watching Daisy and the Six on Amazon. So I'm kind of obsessed with listening to the soundtrack and of course, like, I need to plug Stage's weekly playlist. We have a playlist that we put out once a week. It's on our like LinkedIn company page so you can listen to that.  But there's like an amazingly hilarious podcast called SmartLess. It makes me laugh like every episode. And there's another kind of newer podcast for me and I'm also going to be a guest on it and it's called For Your Listening Pleasure. So those are all the kinds of things that I've been trying to squeeze in between, you know, launching a business and helping people and being a parent, and all the things.

Ed: You've got your hands full a little bit. I'm gonna make sure I listen to that podcast when it gets released.

Megan: Oh, thanks.

Ed: Last one for you in the quick-fire round.  Where is your favorite place to visit? And why?

Megan: I wish I could visit these two places more. I would jet off to Hawaii like in an instant or, Tahiti, which is where I had my honeymoon. Both of those places were just like fun sun surf, like kind of all, you know, all of the picture-perfect things. We went to Hawaii for New Year's one year. My husband and I kind of started the New Year off doing like super early morning yoga, like overlooking the ocean and it sounds as perfect as like you can imagine. And it was just a kind of like magical way to start the New Year. And so I'd love to be able to go back. It’s just not around the corner.

Ed: No. But it sounds like island life is the one for you maybe.

Megan: Well, I do live on Long Island. It's just not quite the same.

Ed: Slight difference, but we won't go into that. Thank you very much for coming on the podcast with me, Megan. It's been really fantastic to get to know you over the previous few months, but also to have this conversation with you and record it so that we can let the listeners hear some of your incredible knowledge.

Megan: Oh, thank you so much. You know, it's been super fun and I've been really honored to be included and you've had some really fantastic guests. And so just the fact that I get to have my name next to those people is like an award.

Ed: Wishing you the best with Stage and we'll speak soon.

Megan: Thank you.

Ed: Thanks, Megan.


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