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| 21 minutes read

CMO Series EP128 - Melodie Tilley of FordHarrison on Creating a Culture of Human Connection in Legal Marketing

While remote and hybrid working has become the norm for many, establishing real human connections can be a challenge. Creating a culture of meaningful connection and collaboration in a law firm requires intention.

Eugene McCormick is lucky to welcome someone who has not only created a culture of human connection within the legal marketing and BD team, but across the entire firm and multiple geographies. Melodie Tilley, Chief Client Development Officer at FordHarrison, joins the CMO Series Podcast to share her insights on how to do it effectively.

Melodie and Eugene discuss:

  • The point in Melodie’s career she realized the importance of human connection and creating a culture that enables that to happen 
  • How to successfully run internal and external events that build connections and collaboration 
  • The challenges and barriers to success in getting those events off the ground
  • How physical events align with content strategy and other marketing and BD activities
  • How coaching programs are helping foster human connections across the business
  • The impact on the marketing team and the wider firm 
  • Advice for other marketing and BD leaders looking to create more opportunities for human connection in their firm



Eugene: Hello folks and welcome to another edition of the Passle CMO Series Podcast. Now in a digital world where remote and hybrid working is the norm for many establishing real human connections can often be a challenge and fostering a culture of meaningful connection and collaboration takes concerted effort.

Now, our guest today has not only created a culture of human connection within the legal marketing and BD team in which she operates, but she's successfully established that firm wide across multiple offices and geographies. We're lucky today to welcome Melodie Tilley, Chief Client Development Officer at FordHarrison, who joins us to discuss the role of marketing in creating that culture of human connection, the benefits of this approach as well as offering u s hopefully some advice for others looking to do exactly the same thing. Melodie, welcome to the Passle CMO Series Podcast.

Melodie: Thank you so much. It is a pleasure to be here. It took a minute, but I'm glad to finally be on.

Eugene: A long time coming, like a fine wine, Melodie, we got there eventually. Now we're going to dive straight in Melodie, and I wanted to just kick off, we talked about human connection. And I've been really lucky to get to know you a bit over the last couple of months. When did you realize that importance of human connection, the importance of the culture and how to enable that to happen and especially happen at your organization FordHarrison?

Melodie: So early on in my career, I sort of ended up in law firms really because I was a newlywed and my husband was going to law school. And I thought, why not? I will start to work in a law firm and see what that's all about. Originally started as a legal assistant slash paralegal, moved into recruiting and then from there, moved into marketing and throughout this time period, which was a number of years, we moved quite a bit. So I was at multiple different firms, which was really amazing early on to get to see how different firms did things um within these different departments and teams. But then I had the opportunity to become the Marketing Director for a smaller regional firm in Florida. And that was great, but it was the very first in house marketing position that they had. So I was on my own, starting a department from the ground up, which has lots of challenges. I learned so much. I'm very grateful for that opportunity. I realized pretty quickly into that situation that I really missed the team. I missed collaborating with other people in the way that I did in my prior position. After about two years there. I ended up having the opportunity to come on board with FordHarrison, with their business development department and got to use that connection, will say again, and work with the team, which I was so, so happy to do in that situation. It was a little, I'll call it pre-COVID in the sense that I was in Florida, but the rest of my team was in Atlanta. So I was constantly having to do those remote connections that we've learned recently. But I was very, very grateful to be a part of a firm that really prioritized in person and was able to travel to Atlanta whenever I needed to as well as participate in our internal firm annual programming that they do.

Eugene: And actually I remember you said to me before, not only did you start remotely and then you actually relocated to Atlanta, but actually when you joined FordHarrison and there was already a bit of a culture there about bringing the teams together twice a year. You know, you're bringing all the partners together, bringing the attorneys together. Human connection and very much physical connection is a big part of your culture.

Melodie: Yes, for sure. We have about 150 lawyers, but those are over 25 plus offices, but there's a lot of small offices. So without that in-person interaction, it would be very challenging for a lot of those attorneys in those offices to know and understand our culture. And that's a lot of what happens at these in-person, really required meetings that happen twice a year. I definitely cannot take credit at all for bringing those about because they were here way, before my tenure with the firm. But they're really the reason why I've been at the firm so long because that just know the culture of the firm and the way that we do prioritize getting together.

Eugene: Yeah. Well, I want to delve into that a little bit deeper because you talk about that culture, bringing people together events and that human connection is, it's extremely important to you. And I want to focus on bit about first internally at FordHarrison. Can you tell us a bit about more of those internal events, why they have been successful and actually telling the listeners what makes them so successful because everyone's been to an event, you bring lots of people together. What's the secret sauce at FordHarrison?

Melodie: Well, as you mentioned, we get all of our lawyers together once a year and then our partners get together twice a year, once in that all-attorney meeting and then once later on in the year for a partner meeting. And these are pretty much, you know, required in-person meetings, they're full-day meetings, sometimes a day and a half, depending on the programming. We do have a lot of substantive programming, but the main purpose of the meeting is to find ways for people to network and interact with each other. So we always have networking activities, round table discussions, you know, anything that we can do to foster connecting with people they might not normally connect with and part of that is usually assigning their tables. So I'll spend a lot of time trying to identify you know, a wide group for each of the table group settings for our sessions. And we often have our lawyers change tables multiple times throughout the day so that they are sitting with different people in different offices. We make sure leadership is spread out throughout the tables. Partners are spread out and then just, you know, the geographic piece as well. And I might get some eye rolls from that to at least initially when I started implementing that. But the surveys tell a different story because we are often thanked for the opportunity for people to be placed with people that they wouldn't normally interact with. And I'll reach out to my BD team prior to each of these meetings and actually ask them that with the lawyers that you work with, who should meet who and what connection should I try to make with these group settings. It's kind of like planning, you know, multiple table seating for a wedding every time we do one of these events It's so valuable though. So it's one of those extra things that I think is highly valuable. We've also, as the years have gone by prioritized, you know, longer networking breaks, more time for people to get together. We do events at night and we try, even with those, if we can to foster some sort of team environment, you know, for instance, when we do a casino night, we will put everyone on teams and they will, they don't necessarily play the games together, although they often do. But that's just to foster at the end of the night, you know, which team did the best.

Eugene: So we're often trying to mix people up as much as possible. And actually, it's really a few things you said are very interesting there and I almost want to pivot now to those external events. How does that success of, you know, fostering the human connection, bringing people together, the networking, almost playing a little bit of a game of chess and how you're going to fit all of the pieces together? How does that feed into your external events? For example, I know your airlines, you know, an employment loss symposium is quite a big event for you each and every year you were in San Antonio this year. Do you replicate those same tactics? How does that feed into your external facing events?

Melodie: Oh, it absolutely feeds in. It’s kind of, you know, practice in some ways. In fact, this year was really nice. It doesn't often work out this way. But this year we had our all attorney meeting in San Antonio in May. And then later on in the year had our airline symposium in San Antonio in September. So in that scenario, we even got to preview the hotel and all the activities and everything, which is fantastic, but it's the same, the same principles apply, right? So for the external events, our clients probably care about the substantive information a little bit more than we do internally. So we do spend a lot of time making sure that those panels and programs um are what makes sense for those groups. We do this for airline and then also for our health care industry. And often for both of those, we rarely if ever have one or two of our partners standing up and presenting, we are always doing that with our clients involved in panels or presentations and that engages the audience even more. But those groups also want a network and they definitely want to spend time with each other and with our lawyers. So we make sure that that's built into the program as well. And we also make sure that a number of lawyers that we are trying to introduce to these folks are just there at the program also, even if they're not a part of it, we bring them in.

Eugene: Yeah, I wanna pivot a little bit more into content strategy and how this the events and tying this all together in in your BD strategy. But one actually thing that just came to mind these events and these challenges, you, you mentioned a little bit about, you know, people rolling their eyes about the the wedding table scenario. Was it hard to get this approach off the ground, both internally and externally. Did you have like senior level leadership partner buy in from the from the get go. Were there any real barriers or challenges that maybe you would say to somebody else and appear in a different firm to watch out for? What were the obstacles to making this so ingrained in your culture, I think is maybe what I'm getting at?

Melodie: Well, I can't take any of the credit for getting these programs off the ground. At least not most of them, the internal meetings were there and in place long before I joined the firm, which is a big reason why I think I've been at the firm 19 years that the firm prioritizes these connections and it's been a place that I want to stay.  As far as challenges go though. We do occasionally have someone that will say, hey, is this really the right use of firm resources? And then we need to address that.  I would say that that's never someone that's in leadership though, who's questioning that, nor is it a rainmaker. Because those individuals truly understand the value of getting together. When someone is able to say, oh, you've got a specific matter in Chicago, Craig can help you with that. I know Craig, he's amazing. I would love to connect you with Craig. They know Craig, they know who Craig is. They had a drink at the bar with Craig, they've had roundtable discussions with Craig. So I think once you experience the events, it's pretty easy to overcome the barriers for that. The client events for airline, that event was also already in place. The healthcare has been newly added. Well, it's not that new anymore, but it it's been added since I've been in my role and it, and it really because the airline event was so great, it really didn't take a lot to push to say, well, let's try this with healthcare as well because these are also two of our largest industries. We certainly do keep the stats and the information where we're able to pull up and show you know, the volume of client receipts that are representative from those attendees. And even if we just strictly look at these events as a value add for these clients, because they're always asking when is the next event, and they always want to come that alone would make it valuable enough. But obviously, you know, we get new clients from these events. We also, you know, increase our work with our clients and get the chance to introduce them to other lawyers, for them to work. But I would say my advice would be for someone trying to do this is that they are big investments. So you do have to sort of make a case, but you probably have to push for it because until someone can experience the value of that in-person interaction and what that is like, it's easy to say, oh no, no, that's not worth the money, but I can guarantee it's worth the money.

Eugene: And the proof is in the pudding. A nice segue from that is actually how do you tie in because you obviously do these big events, a huge amount of effort, a lot of time, effort, resources. How do you tie that in with your year round content and marketing strategy and other BD activities? So that's not just a flash in the pan that you're supporting and surrounding your clients with that same love and expertise and knowledge throughout the year. How do you do that?

Melodie: Well, everything is obviously layered upon everything else. Our clients, well, we are a labor and employment firm, so our clients expect a lot of content from us. It's really not an option for us not to produce content and produce large volumes of content, there are always changes in things that we need to report at the federal state and local level. So there is a lot of content always flowing with all the states that, that we're involved with for the client events, content is definitely driven from that, whether it's that there's a topic that a partic particular industry showed huge interest in and we need to turn that into a webinar for something that happens more, you know, firm wide or the suggestions that they have for content for us to produce in the future. So we definitely, you know, take that, I would say we get just as much of those from our internal meetings as well though where lawyers are getting together, talking about things and they have clients with similar problems and we're like a light bulb, we need to get out of legal alert to share some tips on how to deal with that and work through that type of content is, but also it's connecting lawyers on developing the content. So we occasionally might have one lawyer write a legal alert or one lawyer do a webinar presentation, the vast majority of the time that is not the case and it's lawyers across offices, collaborating on the content. And if they don't have someone, they want to collaborate, we're connecting them with someone and hooking them up with someone on that activity. And that really helps by getting people together because when we're in a meeting, we're like, hey, go connect with this person and talk about, you know, this or that. But it's also a lot easier to reach out to someone to say, would you write this with me? When again you had a drink with them at the bar? It just changes things.

Eugene: A lot of what you're saying, it almost comes like that. The BD and marketing team in your firm is the real, you're the connector, you're the one connecting the dots, you're moving the pieces around and putting in, putting your lawyers and the wider business in a position to be successful. And a key element of that is coaching and a huge amount of your coaching. As I understand it is about again facilitating and strengthening those human connections across the business. Can you tell me there's a few areas I want to delve into here. Can you tell me a little bit more about your approach to that coaching connection and education at FordHarrison?

Melodie: Absolutely. We have some amazing programs that we've had in place for a number of years, but just as like a higher term global level, our business development professionals are available to any lawyer in the firm for coaching. At any time. We have a small handful that actually want that coaching on a weekly basis. A larger number that want it on a monthly basis and then others that just reach out to say, hey, I'm trying to approach this individual, you know, how would I do that? And so those folks are always there and available. It's mainly partners that take advantage of that. But we absolutely work with associates as well. So it is not, you know, it's open to anyone we'll say. But we also have a very specific program that we've had in place for almost 15 years now that we call LEAP. And that is an internal coaching program that's available to 10 partners at a time. We admit them on a rolling basis when there's an available spot. And the program usually lasts 2 to 3 years and most after two years want that third year and they kind of beg to stay in it a third year. So the program consists of monthly coaching with our outside consultant. We use Sally Schmidt from Schmidt Marketing for this and we have the rapid version of the program, but then also one of our business development professionals sits in on that coaching session and participates as well. And then in addition to that twice a year, the group of 10 and our business development professionals get together for an in person meeting with Sally Schmidt that there usually half day meetings and they occur the day before our partner meeting and the day before our media meeting. But the real value of the program, right? Is the monthly, you know, we're going to get in and we're going to do the hard work and do these monthly calls. But then the in person, they get to connect with the other people in the program and we hear huge positive feedback,on how important you know, that is, but the connections they make with the business development professional is really big as well. And I understand this is a model that most firms are not using. And I cannot um say enough positive things about having a BD professional, you know, from your team on these coaching calls with an outside consultant, the benefits are just massive. And I would highly, highly recommend that, but a couple of the key reasons why I think it's so important that, you know, one, you've got somebody there scheduling the calls, making sure they happen, you know, doing some of that administrative piece. But then you have someone on the call who's able to say, oh, you want to know more that company, let me research that for you. Let me pull a litigation report and they're there at the ready to do those activities as well as make sure they're aware of firm resources that could help them in that scenario that they might not know about or things that we could customize or create for them on our team. But it's also a huge education for your business development professionals when I originally joined the firm and this program was started, I joined on the business development team. I was not in my current role and I had several years of being able to do those monthly coaching calls with Sally Schmidt and it was invaluable. I mean, essentially I was being coached at the same time on how to coach. So I highly, highly would encourage other firms. 

Eugene: I imagine that has a massive effect for your team, not just in empowering them, but keeping them really engaged. There's often a bit of a dichotomy. I think it's fair to say in a lot of firms where there's sort of the lawyers first and then maybe marketing can be the second. Whereas actually, it sounds like it's almost equal partners to the table. It's, we're learning together, we're developing together, we're growing together. It must be very impactful for keeping your team engaged and then helping them be much more proficient at their job as well.

Melodie: I agree 100%. We have a team that's been together for a long time. I am very, very privileged to work with some really special people who have fallen in love with FordHarrison as much as I have. There are nine people on our team and out of those nine, six of us have worked together or six of us have worked together for over a decade and four of us over 15 years. So it is, it is really incredible. I do think that our team having such direct routine access to our lawyers and then actually being seen by our lawyers as sort of the ones to go to when they need help and assistance really does help that we also spend a lot of time trying to connect with each other and know each other, you know, what's going on in our lives outside of the office and truly care about each other. We also really care about the firm, so it's just a really good mix. I've worked with Sarah Adams and Andy Berryman and Amy Latrell for over 16 years. And I can't imagine doing my role without any of those three individuals. And really every member on the team is, is absolutely, we're all amazing, but we all want the firm to do well, we are and we want the lawyers to do well. So we're invested in the lawyers individually and in the firm, certainly we want our role to be successful. But I think that's kind of secondary where we're looking at the firm's success and the lawyers success before our own personal individual success.

Eugene: It's really interesting what you're saying, Melodie. I remember Gillian Ward who just recently left BCLP, she said something very interesting. She said BD works best when you can be on first-name terms with the partners. And she said the hardest thing about moving between roles and moving between organizations and the bigger firms is it's harder and harder to get that face time. And that quality, you know, grabbing a drink at the bar as you described it where you can build that relationship and the trust and they understand you as a character. And it sounds like you've institutionalized that knowledge and that connection at your firm.

Melodie: I would say so and I do think having that direct routine access with all of our partners is a reason that our team has stayed together for so long because we can do that, we can pick up the phone at any point and call any partner throughout the firm and likely have a very productive conversation.

Eugene: I was going to tie off this conversation by asking what your one piece of advice would be, but I sort of know and I think maybe I'm going to alter that question and ask you, where should someone star who doesn't have that institutionalized routine business development, lawyer connection, the coaching, they haven't got all that stuff which you've pulled together over the last years. Where's a really good starting point for someone to build that level of human connection and trust and sort of togetherness that you have at FordHarrison?

Melodie: Well, I think it's okay to start small, right? And maybe your firm isn't ready to invest in a full on, you know, coaching program like what we talked about. But maybe there's connections that you could make with lawyers on an individual basis and to identify the lawyers that you say, you know what I am just going to connect with them. I am going to do whatever it takes to, you know, reach out to them, the phone and call them instead of sending an email, anything to make those connections to start to foster that. I do also think it's worth it to push for internal events and maybe it's not a full firm event to start off with. That's pretty grand, right? I think smaller internal events that is are mainly for the purpose of networking and connecting with each other. The substantive piece is important. But I would make that secondary if you're able to plan a smaller internal.

Eugene: Start small, prove the value and go from there.

Melodie: And you gotta push, I mean, you have to push. 

Eugene: The key word there folks, keep pushing. Melodie, that's been absolutely amazing. And thank you very much for that. I wanna just tie off today and ask you actually learn a wee bit more about you, the individual rather than you, the business leader. And I want to do a quick fire round with you if that's OK.

Melodie: Absolutely.

Eugene: Smashing I’ll dive straight in. So Melodie, what is your favorite business and non-business book? So business book isn't really a business book, but it's been mentioned on this podcast before for good reason, and that's Atomic Habits by James Clear. There's so much good information in there. I'm currently slowly reading through it with my middle schooler. So I think it's good for anyone of all ages. And I love to read, I don't really have a favorite non business book, but I'm constantly reading. This year a series I've kind of devoured is one by Linda Cascio called The Hate Work Holder series about a female chief of police in small town Amish Ohio. And she happens to be formerly Amish herself. So it's been a fascinating to read.

Eugene: Nice. I have not heard of that. So I'll check that out. What was your first job?

Melodie: So I did a lot of babysitting when I was young, but my first job that I got like a paycheck for, it was actually working for my church. I did a summer day camp and I was a counselor in that. 

Eugene: Nice. It's very noble of you. That's definitely the most noble answer to that question. Todd Arritola of Winstead told me his first job was I can't even remember working in a take out store or something, and he got fired within about two days. Yours is a better answer than that. I think I'm going to know the answer to this one. But what makes you happy and fulfilled at work?

Melodie: You do know the answer. It is the people for sure. But I would add to that it's really seeing others be successful. I love it when my team is a part of a success that a lawyer has and I love seeing our lawyers. So it's the people and then watching their successes.

Eugene: Couldn't agree more. And what are you listening to at the moment? Could be podcast music, audiobook, anything like that. So, I am a podcast junkie and an audiobook junkie. But right now because we are past November 1st, it is Christmas music and it will be until January. So I love this time of year and have Christmas music playing.

Eugene: Melodie,  I thought we were gonna be friends. You've gone down in my estimations. Too many car rides with my own mom blasting Christmas tunes. I can't.

Melodie: You can feel for my Children this time of year.

Eugene: I'm sending them all my strength. And the last one for me is where is your favorite place to visit and why? So I don't have a specific favorite place. But I love the mountains. Any part of the country, any mountains, anywhere. I just love being able to have a view and look at the glorious mountains. I love the mountains.

Eugene: Well, I couldn't agree more with that Melodie. I want to say thank you very much for your time today. This has been absolutely wonderful. And yeah, thank you for joining the Passle CMO Series Podcast. 

Melodie: It was fun. Thank you so much for having me.

Eugene: Pleasure.


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