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| 13 minutes read

CMO Series EP132 - Hugo Peña of Gonzalez Calvillo on The Formalization of Law Firm Business Development

Across the legal industry, firms are seeing the increasing need for a professional and high-performing business development function. 

Today, on the CMO Series Podcast, Cam Dobinson is joined by Hugo Peña, Director of Business Development at Gonzalez Calvillo, to discuss the change he has witnessed throughout his career and what the formalization of legal BD means for firms and business development professionals.

Hugo and Cam discuss:

  • What "formalizing legal BD" means and why it is something that those in BD & marketing roles should be aware of
  • How this trend is playing out differently in Latin America and what can others learn from what is happening in the industry
  • The ideal role and structure of BD teams in a modern firm and how they are organized
  • The distinction between marketing and BD as well as lawyers and BD
  • Key challenges or focus points that have arisen as part of the formalization of BD
  • Advice for aspiring BD leaders looking to formalize their BD approach 



Cam: Across the legal industry, firms are seeing the increasing need for a professional and high-performance business development function. I'm Cam Dobinson from the commercial team at Passle, and today we're joined by Hugo Peña who has seen and led this change throughout his career. Join us to dive into what the formalization of legal business development means for firms and for BD professionals. Welcome to the Passle CMO Series, Hugo.

Hugo: Hi Cam, thank you for having me, it's been a pleasure.

Cam: Hugo, to frame our conversation here. Many of our listeners will already be familiar, but what does formalizing legal BD actually mean and why is it something that those in business development marketing roles should be aware of?

Hugo: I think probably for the last 20 years or so the legal industry has experienced a level of institutionalization that has never been seen and that has transpired into different departments that come around what law firms do on a regular basis. There's an aspiration to become much more business-friendly and business-oriented and that means also being much more focused on a company's way of doing things as opposed to just having the typical law firm arrangement from many decades ago. And that specifically for BD and marketing has had a huge impact because whereas before, departments used to be much more reactive. Now, they see their BD and marketing professionals are really trusted internal advisors so they can just go to and they can liaise with, either with their clients directly or with other people involved, and that specific element for me, from my perspective, I think that it has been the driver into not be seen just as a department to get solutions from, but someone that you can really trust and that awareness it's different depending on the type of law firm, the location of this and that is something that firms, the big ones in big markets have come to realise a few years now and that has changed. Definitely, I've seen it in the UK, I've seen it now here in Mexico and it's a very interesting perspective because it all goes in different gears. Obviously the UK and the US market are way more advanced on this and other jurisdictions are getting there on a faster pace, but it all depends, right? You can have the  AM Law 100 firms doing this now for a number of years, but then you have a niche, particular firms also thinking about how they can do it because they see this not as a necessity but as an asset to have and that has definitely changed the way in which lawyers conduct business before the clients.

Cam: And you mentioned that you've worked in the UK and Mexico and also operated with a lot of US firms, and you've obviously worked across the world in many different roles. How do you find the trend playing out differently in Latin America and what can others learn from what is happening in that industry?

Hugo: Yeah, I have eight years of experience working in the legal industry in the UK and when I started off this many years ago now, that was something that firms were realizing back then. So I think for me was very circumstantial to be in a very big market where this was the big trend and people were aligning into it. The difference with Latin America is, and I think that it's obvious it's a huge region, you see South America moving at a different speed than Central America or Mexico and it's interesting because law firms here on that institutionalization process that they are eager to continue building from, have realized that yeah, video marketing is something that they need to do. Whereas, for instance in other jurisdictions now you have separate teams from video marketing. Over here, it tends to be that perhaps they just need someone to handle everything and it's a very back office kind of element, whereas in other firms now they see the advantage of having someone much more client-driven, client outspoken, that it gets things done, not necessarily internally but also externally. So the different levels of the roles with law firms in Latin America, it's a big blend. And on that, I think that it's catching up with what the North American and UK folks and the rest of the European community is doing and to be basically balancing out. Whereas before, perhaps the region was following the trends from the other jurisdictions. I think that there's a little bit of a shift in the region, setting up its own trends that can be followed from other parts of the world.

Cam: And you mentioned there how some of the bigger firms in particular have separate BD and marketing functions. What do you see as the ideal structure and sort of role of BD teams in a modern firm? How have you seen those organized and how do they feed back and how do they engage with the partnership as well?

Hugo: I think it all depends on the context of the firm at that stage, right? If it's a younger firm, very ambitious and they wanna get this up and running, they perhaps, they don't need a very big platform or functionality or a team behind them to support them of all these functions. So that's the reason perhaps why it all starts with just one single person and then anyway gets too big then perhaps thinking about how to grow that. But in the big law firms now, it's quite of a big trend splitting up the functions just because they're very different. Right from the outset, I mean the things that are done from the marketing aspect tend to be on a branding basis. Whereas perhaps the ones that are more related to BD are more around clown outreach. And that is not necessarily something that a marketing professional has the background, if they don't come from the industry. One of the challenges that we have seen around splitting them up or keeping them together is where do you get the talent from? If you get someone that is very good at marketing because they went and they did this at other industries and then they just came over to the legal one, they ended up having a bit of a shock because they don't know in certain elements how to proceed. Whereas if you have from the other end, perhaps lawyers that have transitioned into these kind of roles, it tends to be easier to navigate because somehow, and I include myself on this, we know what to expect. I think there's no essential or a desired element as to how it can be structured, I think that it needs to be reviewed also around the culture of the firm, the plans on the firms at that stage, or one of the short or long term planning around this. I think eventually everyone will end up with this structure but I think it's very new as to around what the firm plans are.

Cam: And you've said that a lot of it is sort of dependent on the firm's plans and objectives, but in the same sort of ideal situation, how do you see the distinction between marketing and business development and also between lawyers and business development?

Hugo: It's not a linear answer. I think that it depends also who you ask. I think that with this specific discussion, I haven't found anyone who has given a consistent answer across the board and everyone has different opinions on it, but however, from my perspective, I think that the marketing and the communication piece goes more out around branding and how the firm is perceived and what are they doing against their competitors and their peers in the positioning in the industry. Whereas the BD aspect, the business development has to do much more with the strategy around clients and how we can devote more time with them to understand their needs, to get more clients, to understand how to get more clients and in the best way, to capitalize from the functions that we have here to make sure that lawyers lives when it comes to dealing with clients, either potential prospects or whatever it is that is involved, that they get a better sense as to how to build relationships because sometimes what happens with lawyers is that they're very good at what they do and they tend to be quite technical savvy, but they don't have perhaps a social skill or something that makes them persuasive against the client or before the client, I'm sorry, and that sometimes it's critical because where you're trying to build this trust with your clients, trust is the biggest element there and that's something that perhaps on the BD function, it's much well noticed and it's not so much on the marketing because marketing sometimes tends to be seen but not projected.

Cam: And the reason I sort of ask is obviously you've got quite a unique background, having trained as a lawyer, and now finding yourself as a BD professional, but are there also any particular key challenges, focus points, or anything else that you are spending your time on that has arisen as part of the formalisation of business development?

Hugo: Certainly, and I think that it's a challenge that it won't, hope that it would be a mindset shift in a few decades time. But what lawyers and law firms need to understand is that everyone in their firm, irrespective of their position or hierarchy or whatever they're doing, everyone is an ambassador for the firm. Everyone can bring clients. Everyone is a representation of what the firm entails. And that is something that sometimes gets to be overshadowed because legal professionals tend to be, or the lawyers itself, much more focused and I'm the one bringing the clients and the rest of them are just helping me out. Whereas it not gets together as a team, I think that is definitely shifting we've seen in other jurisdictions and we've seen it here definitely, but it's something that is still, it's work in progress. And everyone- I think that culture needs to transpire or it needs to be learned from other industries because that has happened elsewhere. And whereas here we tend to be much more rigid, I think that that's just the nature of what the legal industry does. But there is the realization now of capitalizing from it. In my particular perspective, the other big challenge that I have seen is how to make sure that we use marketing and digital marketing as a real tool to bring up business on a way in which gets to have proper understanding from lawyers. Sometimes I think that the marketing piece is the one that is the most challenging for them to understand because they see it more as an expense as opposed to an investment. So us as BD and marketing professionals need to make sure to be persuasive enough to make them understand with proper results and KPIs and everything around that, as to the importance that this has and not only that it's gonna be a one off, it needs to have certain planning continuity to make sure that it continues to be successful. And also a lot of what we do, it's a trial and error kind of situation. So perhaps we build up initiative and we wanted to make sure that it was gonna go well, but perhaps it wasn't as successful because X number of factors, the difference is to make sure that you build the platform around yourself in which you can make sure, yeah, this didn't work, but we will try this other now, this new stuff now. And having the space and the firm around that can help out and understand those needs, it's critical for video marketing professionals to make sure that they work together.

Cam: I really like that idea or notion that all staff are ambassadors. I think that's something that a lot of firms can work on and increase the amount that they're pushing. Hugo whether business or socially, what are you reading or listening to at the moment?

Hugo: Thanks Cam. I've been reading the biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It's called: In Her Own Words. It's very interesting, I got it after Christmas and well, everyone knows about notorious RBG, but I've never read anything about her and then I got it as a Christmas present and it's a fascinating story like you get to know the last years of her life and everything that she has achieved, but you never get to know the person, so I think that that was a very interesting kind of way to get involved in and I don't know, doing a little bit of history and it's very inspiring. 

Cam: And what is one thing you couldn't live without in your working life?

Hugo: Definitely my cell phone, I feel completely out of this world if I'm not checking up on things and being able just to connect, I don't know, instantly. 

Cam: I think probably quite a few culprits of that as well. And are there any habits that you think have particularly helped you throughout your career so far?

Hugo: Yes, definitely. Whilst I trained as a lawyer, I've always seen the law as business and I think that that somehow has helped me out to navigate the difficulties of the legal industry on a very social and confident kind of way. I've always been trying to transpire confidence to the people that I'm relating with and putting that social element into it has been the way in which I think that I accomplished a lot of things. That's a little bit more of diplomacy, I try to be very diplomatic, but also because of my background, I'm very upfront so it's a very good way to navigate both, but I think definitely, those two have been part of it and also try to be persuasive and persevere around everything that I do.

Cam: Yeah, it's a fine balance to be struck between the sort of being upfront and diplomatic as well. Final one is, what's your favourite way to unwind Hugo?

Hugo: Oh, that's a good one. I'm a keen runner. I've been running now for a long long time. I started off with 10Ks and then I ended up doing the London marathon and then I did Paris and Mexico City just last year, so I've always found that way in which I could just like completely unplug from what I'm doing and just focus on running the best way just to be completely removed from all pressures and stress and focus on the things that I need to do in a different way.

Cam: I don't know from your experience that, I'm sure it was a great way to see certain cities that you've lived in as well.

Hugo: Oh definitely. I'm a tourist when it comes to it. You just sign up for the next race somewhere, then you just go.

Cam: And finally Hugo before we sign off as well, It's been an absolute pleasure to have you on. If you had one piece of advice for aspiring BD leaders, what would that be? 

Hugo: Be creative, be persuasive, learn how to build trust, and on top of everything, ask. Don't wait until they get to tell you what to do. I think that the main difference around what we do is that we need to go out and chase everyone around and that's something that the more that we do it, the more confidence is gonna build with the community around us, not only with lawyers and people, automatically it's gonna start coming to you to either discuss their challenges to come up and solve problems with you, and it will somehow be a big boost for newer generations to continue this instant transformation process that we have for BD and marketing persons in the industry. I think definitely for the newer generations to come and those that have paved the way before us, we're in a very interesting time of change, but what they definitely need to make sure that they focus on it to build trust, and make sure that there's a perception around trust around what they do, it's gonna be critical for them in years to come.

Cam: Hugo, Thanks so much, that was very insightful. Thank you so much for featuring on the podcast and I'm sure our listeners will have a lot of fantastic takeaways.

Hugo: Thank you Cam, and it's been a pleasure to discuss all this and I'm sure that the conversation will continue with our peers at some other stage. 

Outro: This episode of the CMO Series podcast is brought to you by Passle, the content marketing platform for professional services firms. Passle puts the power to create genuinely authentic and helpful content in the hands of your professionals and it allows your brand and marketing team to effectively manage, distribute, and see the impact of your content. To start showing the market the true knowledge that your firm holds, visit to get a free online demo of the platform.


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