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| 22 minutes read

CMO Series EP129 - Allan Schoenberg of Vinson & Elkins on Culture, Connection and the Evolving Role of Legal Comms

The role of Communications is the linchpin of effectively managing a law firm’s brand and reputation, not to mention being a key player in the development and success of a firm’s culture. 

Today, Will Eke is lucky to welcome Allan Schoenberg, who is celebrating 3 years as Chief Communications Officer at Vinson & Elkins, to the CMO Series Podcast to discuss his unique career journey, and the pivotal role communications plays in today’s firms. 

Allan and Will discuss:

  • Allan’s career journey to his current role as Chief Communications Officer at Vinson & Elkins 
  • The work dynamic he has with the Chief Business Development Officer and Chief Innovation Officer and the key to working together successfully
  • How the role of Communications in law firms is evolving, and how the landscape has changed
  • The key projects Allan wanted to get started on when he joined the firm
  • How to demonstrate the value you're bringing through Communications to the managing partners and wider firm
  • The greatest achievements in the role so far
  • Advice for Communications professionals working within law firms



Will: Welcome to the Passle CMO Series Podcast where we discuss all things marketing and business development. My name is Will Eke. Today we're gonna be talking about culture, connection and the evolving role of legal communications. Communications play an ever-increasing role in managing the brand, the reputation of firms as well as being central to the development and success of law firm culture.

Today in this episode, we are going to look at why communications is becoming the linchpin of an effective legal marketing and BD function. Really excited no better person to discuss this with than Allan Schoenberg, he's the Chief Communications Officer at Vinson & Elkins. We're gonna be unraveling his unconventional career journey. The firm's unique organizational structure and the pivotal role in communications and how it plays into um the function of today's firms.

Allan, Welcome. I hope you had a nice Thanksgiving.

Allan: Thanks. Well, it's great to be here. I did as you and I talked about before. My daughter is at the University of Bristol. So I had a wonderful pizza Thanksgiving in Bristol. I enjoyed spending time with my daughter and it was a great reunion for both of us.

Will: Lovely and probably slightly different to normal. Allan, you're in London at the moment, but you're actually, you're actually based in New York. Right.

Allan: That's correct. 

Will: Yes, because I know with V&E it's often not known that there is a New York office as well. New York presence.

Allan: Yeah, we actually have a large office now in New York. It's gone through tremendous growth in the last 5 to 10 years of well, over 130 attorneys now covering really every, every practice, white collar crime, private equity, mergers and acquisitions, taxes. So it's a full service office by every single measure.   

Will: We're gonna get on to now, the main topic of culture connection and the evolving role of legal comms. Now a really interesting thing and I know our listeners will like this because they always like it when we have guests on that have come at some point from outside of the legal sphere and industry. You being one of them, Allan, you've had a very, very interesting route into Vinson & Elkins and into law. Can you tell us a bit more about that career journey? And where that's led to your role now as Chief Communications Officer at V&E?

Allan: Yeah. Sure. I mean, I definitely do not have the traditional legal job arc. You know, early on my career, I was fortunate enough to work at two large PR agencies, Edelman Worldwide and Fleischman Hillard that really introduced me to the world of business, to business communications. I moved on into the professional services realm at IBM information, security services and then at Accenture and then landed a job. Really another career pivot for me, after spending so much time in the B2B and technology space, made a career pivot into financial services. There was an opening at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. It was for someone to help them communicate their technology mission and vision and landed that job and then turned it into something bigger. I ended up staying there 11 years. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange also runs the New York Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade. So I had a whole education into the global commodities and financial services world. Spent four of those 11 years in London, helping them build out their brand and their reputation outside of the United States. And then move back to New York for a role at Bloomberg, pushing out all of the messaging and communications around the terminal. And that led me to a job at NASDAQ. We spent five years, building out a communications team there media relations, internal communications, social media. And I got a call from a head hunter who had said, hey, I've got this perfect job for you. Your background really fits this organization and this law firm really well. And of course, I think we've all gotten that call from a from a headhunter. So I decided to take it and we had a really great conversation about Vinson & Elkins, what they wanted to achieve where their vision was going. The growth of the firm and the various practice groups and he really threaded the needle to use a cliche on my experience. And working in London, my capital markets experience, my experience in the energy markets. And so I decided to go through the interview process. And after, oh goodness 6,7, 8, I lost count of the number of interviews. It really became clear to me that it was a great place, great people and they wanted to do bigger things and I was extremely interested in it. Fortunately enough, they, as much as I took a risk in leaving the capital markets and moving over to a law firm. They also took a risk on me. And I know it was a two way street and uh it worked out extremely well. I love what the firm is doing. I love the passion they have for culture and you know, their belief in me really made it made a difference. So, you know, I run the media relations team, the internal communications team, which really there was no internal communications function at the firm from a formal standpoint and then digital brand rankings. And that's where we are today.

Will: Wow, that sounds like they didn't take a risk at all with that resume. I think most people would bite your hand off for that sort of history on the CV. It also sounds like in terms of your role and title doing the homework on Vinson & Elkins, it's quite a unique set up, because you guys, I was on a live podcast yesterday with Michael Rynowecer from BTI consulting and it was all about, you know, talking about the role of the CMO lateral hires and what that looks like now, you guys don't have a CMO, right? So you have these two Chief roles, Chief Business Development Officer, Chief Innovation Officer, and your own Chief Communications Officer role. What do you think the key to getting those roles to blend together and work successfully is?

Allan: Yeah, that's a good point. We don't have a CMO and I noticed in listening to previous podcasts you've done and having other CMOs, you know, I think we are definitely unique in that aspect, but I don't think, it clearly doesn't hinder us or what we do. I work very closely with the Chief Business Development Officer, Randi Revisore, and our Chief Innovation Officer, Aubrey Bishai. I think the three of us have a really you know, from a relationship standpoint, I would say the core of it is we really trust each other. All of us feel like we own the marketing component to Vinson & Elkins, we do, we are not territorial. We work really closely together. We're consistently bouncing ideas off each other. I'm fortunate enough that Aubrey is located in New York, I get down to Houston enough and, and Randi gets up to New York enough that I see Randi. The three of us are, you know, regularly speaking with each other and, you know, we function as sort of one team, I think not three separate operations. So where Aubrey might be running from an innovation standpoint on an AI project or with a vendor, you know, she'll loop myself and Randi in and we'll talk about the various components and how we can use that internally and externally from a positioning standpoint. And then Randi from the business development standpoint, there's a number of pieces of content that overlaps with my team. It's a very nice Venn diagram where we can work together and think about all of the aspects uh whether it's a CRM initiative and getting potential leads and contacts through JD Supra or just getting contacts in from the website. And so there is just this underlying relationship built on trust that works really well. I view both of them as my own mentors having been at the firm only three years and coming in, I need them both uh from a standpoint of just understanding where we're going. And I think that they both you know, view me with my experience as something that's just very different and I have a different perspective and it just, it works really well.

Will: The way you talk that through makes absolute sense. You know, you've actually got, you've got peers that you can a rely on that you trust and then of course, you can bounce ideas off. And I think we often hear, you know, actually being a CMO on your own is can be quite a lonely experience. Again, we've heard sometimes you don't have a route in as a CMO to managing partner on a regular basis. And I suppose you having that layer where you've got three chiefs that you can talk to. Yeah, I can see the really powerful impact of that.

Allan: I like to think, Will, you know, my own view that, you know, nothing sits in a silo, right? So you might have a, whether it's a piece of content or an event or an initiative with a vendor, it just doesn't sit by itself. So the fact that Aubrey, Randi and I can just stay so connected and really rely on one another, just builds on that relationship that the three of us have.

Will: Getting more specific to your area of expertise, which it sounds like it's grown even more being, being at V&E how is the role of communications in law firms sort of evolving and how, how's the landscape changed?

Allan: Yeah, I will use my nearly three years of experience in the industry, tongue in cheek, to sort of step back and think about, you know, how I've used law firms and worked with law firms at other jobs. And then where I see it evolving, I don't think anybody is gonna be surprised, but the growth and importance of the legal sector has really just given the rise to more eyeballs on the industry itself. There's more pressure to recruit talent, there's more focus on the brand and differentiation and there's certainly more of an emphasis on protecting and promoting the firm's reputation. So all of those factors coming together really are placing more of an emphasis on the role of communications, both internal and external. So my view is, you know, having that trusted advisor internally. And I think this is where Vinson & Elkins had that sort of vision when they were recruiting for this job, they could see that and knew that,you know, the  industry itself was evolving. And so I think that firms that get it, get it and they understand that communication really is being woven throughout the fabric of a firm and its clients and its partners. And then I think the other thing that people, I clearly don't see that, you know, I'm fortunate enough to, to have an inside view on for everything you see externally that a law firm is doing. There's probably, I don't know, five times as much activity happening internally whether it's through various meetings, communications, cross-selling and efforts. And so there's uh there is a need internally as much as there is a need externally from the communications front.

Will: Yeah, I suppose that fits in with some of the other podcasts I've done where, you know, lots of CMOs or marketing teams treat partners as a client. So there's different comms that need to go internally and then there's obviously the client on the outside as well. So, yeah, absolutely. What you're saying there fits in with lots of, lots of other CMO comments. You talked about culture, you talked about having these eight interviews, and straight away, well, not straight away but you, over those eight interviews you sort of had a good grip on these are great people. This is a good firm. They're going places. So, I suppose what you're talking about is culture there. Weaving that in what sort of key projects when you came to the firm, did you want to get started straight away and what ones have you sort of, how have you got on the back burner, you know, they're moving down the line?

Allan: Yeah, I had some great advice when I started from some of the key partners and it was really take your time and listen, take a couple of months, work your way around the firm, get to know the people, their practice areas, you know, don't get off to a sprint start here. And that advice was well heeded. I made sure I did a strong listening tour and my main focus really was just to get to know the firm inside and out. And that also included talking with external people that work with the firm and getting their viewpoint because I think that that was just as important. And then so having completed, I wouldn't say completed that because in some ways, I still feel like I'm doing that. I think that's part of our job as communicators is to constantly have our finger on the pulse of the firm. But it was after a couple of months, it was really starting to shift into more thought leadership mode and how can we start and how can I help the firm start to build out content and position the lawyers, not just as great lawyers, but I have this view. And II I talk about this internally often about look, our lawyers are some of the smartest business professionals in the world. They're not just smart lawyers. They are needed by businesses to help them solve problems around infrastructure and technology and risk and energy. So having that lens, it really, really moved me into more thought leadership initiatives and that's where we started to focus on and I started working more with Randi and Aubrey and others on building up thought leadership content. And we have so we have a really great strategy now and and pipeline of how we look at content and look at it a little bit differently. And then I also would say that I had a couple of attorneys thankfully who I didn't interview with, but were excited to have me on board because of my experience that really took me under their wing and wanted to work with me on their own sort of thought leadership. And that also helped sort of catapult me internally of showcasing what we could do and how I could help attorneys position them, not just again, within the legal press, but within the Business Press. And that sort of just grew from there. And we've really now built out a strong sort of ecosystem of content when we get ideas, when we think about how we can help the practice group.

Will: Elements of your answer there have sort of answered a bit of my next question. But I wondered if you could maybe dive a bit deeper in terms of when you're bringing a project like that with thought leadership with building the brand of a practice group or an individual attorney. How do you go about demonstrating the value that you're bringing, you know, especially to the senior leadership when you're doing something like that?

Allan: Yeah, you know, I'm a big believer that value is really different to everybody. It could mean more web traffic to uh an attorney's profile, could be more traffic to a specific LinkedIn post. We're trying to focus on, it could be gathering more potential client leads and contact details. It could be meaning, you know, just winning business getting in a new pitch proposal. There's a lot of ways to look at value. So I don't have a silver bullet per se on what value is because it means so many different things to so many different people. Now, the way, you know, I look at it as you have to, you have to measure things in order to manage them. And if you're not measuring things by any number of ways, it's difficult to manage. So every month, I work closely with my team, we send out a one-page visual graphic and 3 to 4 bullet points analysis of the things that we've accomplished for the firm and the various practice groups for the previous month that goes to the entire business development team, the marketing services team as well as to our executive committee. And then on an annual basis, we gather and aggregate all that information. So then I can look back and I can tell you when we build out an infographic that we send around to the firm. I could tell you our top 10 spokespeople. I can tell you our top 10 publications we went to, I know that um last year, for instance, we had almost a 40% increase in time spent on the website. I can tell you we have a 75% plus open rate on our newsletters that we send around internally. On average, we had a 40% increase in chamber rankings over the last two years. Like I have data on data on data that I can continue to go to and look at. And when I meet with my leadership team on a biweekly basis, we talk about these things we talk about what metrics matter, what they're hearing, what they wanna look at a little bit deeper and we know that the value component does come somewhat from the data. But it also you have to look at understanding what's working and more importantly what's not working. So we try a lot of things, we continually look at the data, we get feedback. So it's a long way of answering where you get value from and how you demonstrate it, it's gonna be different to different people. But I love having just this whole visual view of the landscape of what we're doing and then we can decide where we wanna go forward from there.

Will: Yeah, it makes absolute sense. You always need the data as well, I suppose to your point to back it up with certain partners. We often get, you know, that as feedback that partners need data now. But to your point, some like the anecdotal stuff as well. So I suppose you need a lot in your toolkit to show that value. In terms of achievements. And I imagine you've had quite a few over your career in your specific role at V&E what would you pick out is your greatest achievements? It doesn't need to be a single one. But are there any that spring to mind?

Allan: You know, we have done some really interesting things, as I mentioned earlier, right, not having a formal internal communications function. That to me is a big achievement and all of the things we've been able to do in the last couple of years, pushing ourselves and digital content and doing more and more with digital. I think that that really is crucial to our future growth as well. But I think the one thing I'm probably most proud of because it involves so many people. And again, I'll go back to like, I love seeing people win is really our focus on and work around culture. You know, I go back to my interviews and how I talked about it was a great cultural fit. I could just sort of tell from the energy and the vibe I had from the discussions. There was always a lot of talk about how culture’s great at the firm. And if you go around and you could probably look at various law firm websites, they all talk about culture. So I really wanted to do more around what this means. What is culture, why is it different or why is it so unique at Vinson & Elkins? And we did the talent team and HR team did a firm-wide survey of everybody about a year and a half ago. It is the first time we had done it and some great insights came back from that. A lot of positive things that reinforced what we were doing. So then from there, it was a matter of, OK, let's put fingers the keyboard and a number of us started working on. OK, what does all this mean? Where are our pillars for success? What makes us different? What makes us unique? And we worked with the executive committee and all of this, I would say, you know, this is not an overnight project by any means. So if people are gonna tackle culture, you know, I would say buckle up, it's a long process. It's gonna take some lengthy conversations. It took us about 8 to 10 months of really asking some hard questions. A lot of wordsmithing. What does this look like? How can we integrate this? Does this sound like us? And we got to a really good point and we came to a solution, we call it what connects us. And there were four key pillars around that about, you know, really committing to client excellence, being comfortable with complexity,  succeeding as a team and, you know, caring about the people in the communities where we work. And then we made sure it wasn't just about attorneys, this was for everybody. And that's the other thing I loved about. It was really an all encompassing exercise of, you know, what do we want to be as a firm? And how do we wanna work together with all colleagues? And then that doesn't stop there, right. There's really three things about culture that make a big difference and make it really work and one it has to be leadership driven. So top down. So having the executive committee buy in on it and work on it meant a lot to me uh behaviors across the firm from practice group leaders, the business professionals leaders, you know, we have to act in the way that we say we're going to act and then communicating that. So we've been for the last several months looking at all of our content, recruiting websites, even you know, in the interviews we do with media and, you know, how can we weave in and integrate some of this messaging. So it's been a huge project.  But something I'm really proud of and it really impacts everybody at the firm.

Will: Sounds like a really interesting project. And then with that culture survey, Allan, is the idea that you now, is that gonna be a yearly thing where you just sort of top it up and evolve the culture on a regular basis. So how does, how would that work? 

Allan: Yeah, I don't think we're gonna do it annually. But I do know there is an appetite to do it, regularly. So whether that is in every other year or every two years, I know that the insights from that were really um important to the leadership at the firm and you know, understanding where we are and what people are, are thinking of in terms of our own brand and our internal expectations.

Will: A nice, easy, quick-fire round that our listeners seem to love, and participants. So I'm gonna kick it off.  What's your favorite business and nonbusiness book at the moment?

Allan: All right, I read a lot. So this is tough. I had to choose two books. Well, I would say my favorite business-focused book is probably Atomic Habits by James Clear. You know, best selling author, most of your listeners are probably familiar with it, but just the whole idea and power of small habits transforming the way you take on insights and do your job, I think is a really powerful, powerful message and it's a great book and then let's see, non-business. I had trouble choosing one. I would say, The Obstacle Is The Way by Ryan Holiday. I enjoy reading about philosophy and stoicism and there's probably no better book uh or author that delves into the topic.

Will: What was your first job?

Allan: Oh boy. Don't laugh, but let's see. My first job was at a car dealership, out of college. I love this story. I'll shorten it, but essentially I had a number of issues with the car I had bought from the dealership. And I got to know so many people there from coming in the manager and I talked for a number of times and she ended up offering me a job as a community relations manager. And that was kind of my big first foray into marketing and communications.


Will: Always the communicator as well. Not mentioning the name of the car dealership.

What makes you happy at work?


Allan: I would say what really drives me and makes me enjoy my job is helping other people succeed. So whether you're leading a practice and we can get you a great feature story or we can get great results on a post that you've pushed out on LinkedIn, or you're, you know, on my team and we're trying to run through a problem and fix something or look at something differently. I really, really enjoy helping others succeed and find solutions.

Will: Perfect. And what are you listening to at the moment? Are you the same with your books as you are with music podcasts, audiobooks?

Allan: Ah very intuitive. That's correct, which is why Spotify has this great feature called the Daily Drive and on my train ride into work and back to my house after work, The Daily Drive serves up regular podcasts and some unique podcasts that I might not have checked out as well as music I enjoy and maybe music I might enjoy. So it's this nice little algorithm delivering me both audio content of podcasts and music that I enjoy. So I get a variety of things that I listen to on a daily basis.

Will: Nice, much easier than trying to sift through the CD collection that I used to have to do. Where's your favorite place to visit and why?

Allan:  I have been fortunate throughout my career that I have traveled to a lot of places. But I would say right now in my life where I enjoy traveling the most is where I am today in London. Having lived here for four years, knowing so many people here are having some great friendships coming back and being able to navigate the city very easily. And just being able to see people that I enjoy spending time with is really important to me. 

Will: And as we mentioned earlier, obviously, the listeners won't be able to see this, but you brought the Sunshine as well, which always makes any city better, Allan.

Allan: Anytime I could help. Remember, I love helping people succeed, Will. So if it's sunshine that I bring, I love it.

Will: Keep bringing it. Okay, it pains me to say, cos this has really flown by which means we've been having a lot of fun. It's the last question. So the question I always ask, what is your one piece of advice for communications professionals working within law firms?

Allan: All right. So I can't just give one, Will. I'll break it down. Well, I think one for the individual and then one for the individual looking at the firm. So for me, like my own personal experience and the only way I work is, I'm a extremely curious person. I wanna know how things work. I think curiosity is a key trait that contributes to a number of things around the effectiveness of communications. And there's no lack of things to be curious about. Whether it's a practice group, whether it's artificial intelligence, whether it's the broader economy and how those things are impacting our clients. Like I read and consume a lot of things. I'm just a naturally curious person. I want to ask a lot of questions and understand things and I'm not afraid to admit what I don't know. So I think curiosity can be really a game changer for someone in communications. You just have to be in order to understand what you need to do. And then I guess from the firm perspective, what I mean by that is that again, I would go back to the relationship I have with Aubrey and Randi. It's all about connecting the dots and that's, you know, as a communications profession, we sit at the center of everything that's happening at the firm internally and externally. So how are you making those connections? Attorney to attorney practice group, to practice group, attorney to reporter, you know, digital content to printed content. Like there's a number of ways that you can make things happen just by sharing information and getting other people involved that goes a long way to building your own credibility, but also building the brand and reputation of a firm.

Will: I knew you wouldn't pick just one thing but so insightful Allan, it's been an absolute pleasure having you on. This is gonna be a superb episode and I'm sure our listeners are gonna be all over this one when we share it to LinkedIn in our channel. So thank you so much for giving me your time.

Allan: Yeah, thank you again, Will. I really appreciate it. Maybe next time I'm in London, we can go for a run.

Will: We didn't even mention your running and looking at your times and how far you run, Allan, there's no way.

Allan: You could cycle next to me and I'll run next to you.

Will: Maybe that's the deal.

Allan: Thanks again.

Will: Thank you.


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