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| 18 minutes read

CMO Series EP126 - Nicole Miles Of Dentons On What It Takes To Build An Effective Approach To Business Development

Every law firm is at a different stage of professionalizing its approach to business development. Today, Will Eke has the pleasure of talking to Nicole Miles the Chief Clients & Markets Officer for Dentons Canada Region, to find out what it takes to build an effective, globally-minded approach to legal business development.

Nicole and Will discuss:

  • The importance of BD in today’s firms and what is driving that
  • How Nicole came to her role at Dentons and how the role and approach to Legal Marketing and Business Development have progressed throughout that career journey
  • Dentons Global Growth Program and the goals for that initiative
  • The biggest changes that clients and firms need to make to see the value of marketing and business development
  • How to tailor the BD approach to suit a unique structure and the opportunities and challenges that arise from that
  • Advice for marketing leaders wondering how they can build a more modern and effective BD function



Will: Welcome to the Passle CMO Series Podcast where we discuss all things marketing and business development. I can't even remember the number we're actually on now. I think it's over 120, which is brilliant. My name's Will Eke and you have heard from me before today, really excited to be talking about how to build an effective approach to business development. 

Now, it's a really interesting topic as more firms professionalize their approach to business development, especially law firms. They're all at different stages, but I like to call it a sort of maturity curve within business development. Brilliant, brilliant guest today, we've got Nicole Miles who is the Chief Clients and Markets Officer at Dentons over in Toronto, Canada. Now, Nicole's CV pretty much reads like a who's who of high-performing firms. Very excited to pick her brains on this. We're gonna talk about and really delve into how you can build an effective, globally-minded sort of approach and team no better place from Nicole's point of view than doing that at Denton's. Nicole, welcome to our Passle CMO Series.

Nicole: Thank you, Will. Thanks for having me.

Will: Absolute pleasure, and I'm glad I think last time you weren't that well, so I'm glad you're over that and we've managed to get you on. Okay, so delving into you know what it takes to build an effective approach to business development. I just wanted to set the scene, Nicole, you've driven transformative business development projects at some of the world's top firms in the past, and now, are firms coming to sort of realize the importance of business development more, do you think now? And what's actually driving that from your perspective?

Nicole: Yeah, I do think that firms are putting more of an emphasis on the business development function and that's a result of the evolution of the legal market and the commercial markets. I think we're seeing changes driven by technology globalization, economic pressures, changing client expectations and it's really pushing law firms to prioritize and innovate their BD approaches. As we're seeing new players emerge, whether that's nontraditional legal service providers which have been around for a while, but are gaining more prominence as well as legal tech companies. And of course, the more recent disruption through AI, I think it's really important for firms to adopt innovative BD strategies that focus on all stages of the life life cycle of the client. And that's gonna be critical to stay competitive. Like we're seeing the role of our clients shifting; general counsel is more involved in business strategy, they have higher expectations, and they're seeking firms that not only offer legal expertise but also understand their business and can provide commercial solutions. At Dentons, we like to say we're more than just a law firm. We're legal and business advisors and the reality is business is more global than ever before. And as clients are entering new markets, they're dealing with different regulatory environments and cultural differences. And it's effective BD strategies that can help demonstrate to clients that we can help them be successful when entering these diverse markets.

I also think technology is changing the way our lawyers and our clients are working and it's continuing to impact business development and it's this impact that's allowed us to shift our focus onto the client experience through the use of data analytics, more robust CRM systems and digital marketing tools. It means that as marketers and as business developers, we can be more targeted in our efforts. And I think the final thing that I think is driving this is on the talent side, lawyers today are really looking for firms that are more forward-thinking and innovative. They want a strong BD culture. And I think that's really attractive to new hires, whether it's juniors just coming out of law school. You know, we always say that they don't learn business development in law school, but it is a critical component of their job. So they do want to know that there's that the firm that they're entering does have a strong culture of BD and is going to support them in those efforts. And then on the more senior side, lateral hires, we're seeing them wanting to come to law firms where they can expand with their clients and take their relationships global. And so knowing that they've got a firm that can support their business development efforts is critical. So I think, in summary, kind of the evolution of the markets is both on the legal and business side. And that's actually pushing what's pushing firms to prioritize and innovate their BD approaches. 


Will: It's fascinating because I thought you might talk about, you know, clients driving it, but that point around attorneys also embracing it and actually even looking for it when they're, you know, if they are gonna move over to a new firm, I think that's a real sea change in mindset and behavior really. I know that business development and sales can, you know, or was, seen as maybe a dirty word for some attorneys in the past. So that's really interesting to hear that Nicole. Talking more personally, I mean, how did you come to sort of be in your role at Dentons and how have you seen that role and the approach in legal marketing and business development progress throughout your career journey?


Nicole: Yeah, I've been in the industry for more than 20 years. And you know, the approach to legal marketing and business development has evolved significantly throughout my career. Initially, the function was really just seen as peripheral to the core activities at the law firm. And when I think about when I first started out marketing was predominantly focused on print advertising seminars, brochures and essentially keeping the website updated, it really had very little to do with client relationship management from the BD side. Obviously, lawyers have always been involved in that. But I think as the legal industries become more aggressively competitive, the importance of strategic marketing and business development is realized and looking at how our teams can support those activities is really being more valued. I think there's a greater understanding of how firms should partner with their BD team as professionals, not just as task-oriented individuals, like back when we just, you know, created ads or updated the website. The other thing that I'm seeing in terms of the shift of how the function has evolved is really the importance of data analytics. Understanding our client needs and market trends through data has led to more targeted and efficient marketing strategies and client relationship management strategies. There's been a real shift from generalized marketing to highly personalized client experiences. And I think this is seen across across the the legal sector but also other sectors. There's a transition from a reactive approach to a proactive approach. It's not just about responding to client requests. Now it's anticipating client needs. And we do that through a deep understanding of their business and offering solutions before they even realize they need these solutions. So the progression of the legal marketing and business development function, I think really reflects the shift towards more sophisticated data-driven and client-centric approaches.

Will: Yeah, that sort of goes with a lot of what we're hearing as well, this sort of horizon scanning piece and being that trusted advisor, not just attorney, but as you said, you know, a bit like a consultant understanding, you know, deep down what your clients need that. Yeah that's really interesting. I suppose let's get into Dentons. I mean, everyone knows Dentons, you're the world's largest law firm. And let's be honest, probably growing again. I think I looked last time it was 20,000 people and that includes 12,000 lawyers. In your role with your team. I mean, you know, what are your sort of goals in relation to that growth? What does that mean

Nicole: Yeah, I mean, like I said, like businesses are becoming more global. But there's also, the focus on local. So at Dentons, we've got deep roots in our communities here, both within the cities and the provinces that we operate, but also across Canada. And we're also connected to every geography around the world as you've as you pointed out with the number of lawyers that we have. And I think with my team, our goal is to really be able to leverage the insights and trends in other regions and bring them back to support our local clients. It's really one of our biggest value propositions. We want to help our clients be prepared for critical impacts to their business, but also to be better organized to seize faster than their competitors. And for my team being able to connect with people around the world and bring back what they're working on and leverage everything that's being done around the globe to support our clients here in Canada is really critical. But it's also about being able to help our clients grow around the world. Doing business in other regions isn't just about the law. It's also about understanding local culture, it's about having access to local connections. And having a partner who can explain kind of service preferences, team structure, how the clients operate to facilitate a smoother transition uh from a relationship perspective as clients are going around the world is something that we're really focused on. And I think that connecting, making sure that our lawyers are connected and building relationships with the people that we have in other regions is really critical. This is a relationship-based business. It's not only a relationship-based business for our lawyers and our clients, but it's also for our lawyers in Canada with the lawyers around the world. You know, that someone once said people like to do business with people, they know like and trust. And so that's both from an internal relationship perspective, but also from a client relationship perspective. And so my team is really focused on making sure that we can bring all of the insights from around the world to our lawyers um and to our clients and to leverage everything that the global platform does. We have a really interesting program that was built by our global team called the client experience program. And that is, it's not about the law, but it's for lawyers and it's about professional development, personal development, operational excellence, client service excellence. And we're able to bring things like that, leverage things like that that are developed globally, to support our clients locally.

Will: It must be a hard, yeah, in some ways, a hard one to juggle because you're part of this huge behemoth. But then, you know, you can take things that work globally, but then they don't always work in the local market. So I suppose it's just, yeah, tailoring it sometimes as well. It must be really, really interesting. In general, I mean, across the experience that you've sort of had with the firms that you've worked at, what would you class as the biggest changes that need to be made for clients? And secondly, I suppose for the firms themselves to see the actual value of marketing and business development?

Nicole: The biggest changes that need to be made for clients. It actually connects with firms themselves. Sort of the second half of your question is we really need to make sure that we're understanding the full life cycle of the client. So the full client experience, when we think about our clients pre acquisition to acquisition, to working with them, and the whole end to end of the transaction and to continuing to service and support them. We need to have a really deep understanding of all elements of that so that we're making sure that the client experience is really uh the best client experience that they'd have. We all know that most clients work with 3 to 15 different law firms and as a global law firm, clients are definitely probably working with clients on with a number of firms on the top end of that number. So I think for us to be successful with our clients, we need to understand their whole life cycle and their experience and make sure that we're adding value at every stage of that life cycle. 

We also need to make sure that we're having consultative conversations with our clients so that we understand their business and what's driving them. And we need to make sure that we're proactive in providing that advice, proactive in leveraging our global platform to bring all of those insights from around the world to support their business. And I think for firms for them to see and to connect the value of marketing and business development to that is to really leverage the ideas and the tools that we have and to be bringing those to their clients, there's a real shift that that's happening. And I think, as I said at the outset, we are being seen more as partners to the business. One of the best that the marketing team has is they are working with the lawyers across the firm, across the pra across different practice groups. So we're able to kind of hear, listen, understand all of the value ads that are being offered, all of the challenges that are being raised and we're able to develop solutions and I and bring ideas forward that can help mitigate some of those, some of those challenges, but also capture some of the opportunities. We're all about measuring ROI so what is the RO I on the different activities that we're doing from the client's perspective, but also from the firm's perspective. We need to make sure that we're being efficient with our time and effective with the programs and the ideas that we're bringing forward so that they're adding value. And the clients can see that value.

Will: Do you ever collaborate with some of the other firms? Do you or do you see the value in maybe collaborating with other law firms to give the best client experience if that makes sense?

Nicole: We’ve had other firms that I've worked at where we have just had a national platform, absolutely. There's been collaboration with other regional firms. When we do work with firms, if the client has uses a different law firm in another country, we do collaborate with those firms we try to use some shared tools, et cetera, talk about approaches so that every everything seems aligned um for the firm because we realize that we're working on the same side. You know, we're all on the same team. At Dentons, what we do is we collaborate with our colleagues in other regions when we are supporting clients that we manage globally. So we absolutely connect in with them to talk about client preferences, client needs. We have client team meetings to make sure that everybody is coordinated, and we're all bringing a consistent experience to the client.

Will: Yeah, that makes sense. So, in your role at Dentons Nicole, there's a pretty unique structure, you know, being this big global firm and the whole Verein part of it. So I suppose it offers its own set of opportunities and challenges. How have you sort of tailored your approach and I suppose your team's approach to suit that?

Nicole: Yeah, I do think it's been interesting to work at a global law firm that does have our structure, we might be a verein structure, but we really are, we really do operate as one firm around the globe.  We do try to bring that one firm experience to our clients and that means connecting in with colleagues. So while I'm the Chief Clients and Markets Officer in Canada, we also have similar roles around the globe in other regions. We have regular meetings with all of the regional CMOs as well as our global CMO to share best practices to bring ideas to the table. And to make sure that we're leveraging those for the benefit of our clients. From my team's perspective, as you can imagine at the practice and sector group level, there's also global meetings so that people are able to, as I mentioned earlier, capture those global opportunities and bring trends and ideas back to their local clients. And the members of my team are also involved in those meetings so that they can think about those strategies, ideas and opportunities as they're tailoring their approaches to business development and marketing within our local market. As with anything working within an organization that's so large, it's all about communication and making sure that we are connected at both the lawyer practice sector and marketing levels with everybody around the world. And I think that I would say that our group is really collaborative on the global side, but also locally really collaborate of willing to share ideas and best practices. And one of the nice things is that when you're looking for something like training materials or um or a new idea to help market a practice, being able to reach into that global network that you have and see what other people have worked on or developed and take that back to your own region and customize it and tailor it to your own region can really save huge amounts of time. And be more efficient in the overall production of whatever it is that's being done. So I think that's what I would say. We're very connected and very communicative.

Will: Yeah. And it sounds like there's the economies of scale there, especially for things like that having worked for, you know, large organizations myself in the past. I know exactly what you mean in terms of being able to take those assets away. What I would really like to know and you don't have to answer obviously is the partner retreat must be absolutely the biggest in the world, right? All those partners going away.

Nicole: Yeah. The partner retreats are an amazing opportunity for the people on our marketing side, but also our lawyers to connect with people in other regions that they've been working with that they've never met, face to face. We had one, I think our last partner retreat was two years ago. Maybe it was. And it was fantastic. It's fantastic to listen to the conversations and to contribute to the conversations people are having around client opportunities and just seeing all of those connections and ideas coming to life and then coming back to our own regions and continuing to build on all of those relationships and synergies that were developed, it's pretty fantastic. And Dentons does a really amazing job. Our global team does an amazing job at pulling together the partner retreats.

Will: It pains me to say, but we're nearly at the end, Nicole. I mean, we could talk for hours on this. The final question I wanted to ask and this is, one that we always ask, but it's probably one of the most useful for your peers who will be, I'm sure listening to this and it's what would your one piece of advice be that you'd give to other marketing leaders, sort of wondering how they can build a more modern and effective BD function at their firms.

Nicole: Yeah, it's a great question. I think it's critical to look both within the industry but also outside of the industry, we have a benefit at Dentons being a global law firm. We can look within the industry, across regions. And there's different levels of sophistication across different regions. But look within the industry and outside of the industry, figure out best practices. But then you also have to consider your firm's internal culture and what steps you're gonna need to take in order to shift the function. I think change management is critical and meeting in the organization where it is and building on that is equally important. Regular communication, once you decide on the structure. Once you decide on some shifts, you might wanna make regular communication with key stakeholders for buy in is also really important. I mean, innovating requires change and change can be daunting for people. So it's important to bring them along on the journey. And that's gonna help you build the more modern BD function but also have that function not only accepted but embraced by the business.

Will: So I'm gonna start Nicole if it's right with you with a nice quick fire round by asking you what's your favorite business and nonbusiness book?

Nicole: Great question, Will. I think on the business side, Atomic Habits is a book that I really rely on quite a bit in terms of the business development training approach that I'm providing, but also in terms of my own approach to getting things done. On the nonbusiness side, I don't have a favorite, but I do love reading biographies. So next on my list is Barbara Streisland's new book.

Will: I imagine that that will be an interesting one. I do love the biography as well. Going back in time, what was your first job?

Nicole: My very first job was at a veterinarian clinic. I used to want to be a veterinarian, but it turns out that I'm more into cuddling animals than treating them. So, moving on from that though my first career-oriented work was at a company called McLuhan & Davies Communications. It's a Toronto-based business communication skills training company and it was a small company at the time now gone global. And I think working with the entrepreneur who started the company really taught me to be creative and bold in my career progression to try new things and really to never be afraid of failure because it's not really failure. It's just a learning opportunity.

Will: Snap on the vet thing. I just realized that I wasn't that clever. So that's why I couldn't make it. What makes you really happy at work?

Nicole: Yeah, I think it's my team. I work with an incredible group of professionals who are dedicated to the firm's success, but also to each other's success. And I just love connecting with them to brainstorm and bringing those ideas to the firm to co-create and execute on impactful initiatives and there's no shortage of ideas. And I always say a great idea is something that you can also get done. And so that's what really makes me happy.

Will: What are you listening to at the moment? And you know, that could be something in the charts, music-wise or it could be podcast or are you listening to an audiobook at the moment?

Nicole: I'm really more of a radio person when it comes to music. So lots of Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus. Those two artists seem to be dominating the airwaves of the radio station that I listen to right now.

Will: 1989, you know, is going wild, isn't it again? Now that album's out and everyone's rejoicing for it again. Cool. No, that's perfect. Well, it's been an absolute pleasure to finally get you on. Thank you so much for your time and on such an interesting topic. Have a brilliant rest of the week and thank you.

Nicole: Thanks for having me, Will. I really appreciate being asked and having the opportunity to share my insights with your listeners.



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