Book Review

The Marketer’s Guide to Law Firms – How to Build Bridges Between Fee Earners and Fee Burners in Your Firm

by Elena Lonergan

Don’t be put off by the lengthy title. This little book is a gem. Its authors, Genevieve Burnett and Sally King, have both spent years working at the coal face in law firms – Burnett as a lawyer and communications specialist, King as a marketing, communications and business development professional.

The authors have the insight and the courage to tell it like it is. And they do.

In case you weren’t aware of it, most law firms in Australia – around 70% - are still run on a partnership model. The book likens this arrangement to the pyramid structure of medieval feudalism.

Under this system, the managing partner is like the king or queen. The partners are the aristocrats, who don’t necessarily like or trust each other, or even speak to one another. Lawyers are like the tradespeople or merchants in a feudal society, while C-suite officers are like ambassadors from abroad. And everyone else, the “non-lawyers”? The book doesn’t specifically say, but it’s safe to assume they’re the servants and peasants, no matter which department they’re in. (Maintaining a medieval castle is very labour-intensive, alas.)

The obvious question here is, why should any business in the 21st century persevere with a medieval structure when the rest of the world has moved on? Perhaps wisely, the authors avoid asking this question, focusing instead on how those in the marketing department of a law firm can make the best of the situation they’re in.

The book is brutally honest about the perverse nature of law firm leadership, commenting that “many lawyers who end up in managing partner roles have no training in management, leadership or finance”.

Frankly, this is a generously short list. Chances are they don’t have any skills in IT, HR or communications either. Or sales. Or business development. Almost certainly, they’ve never run a business of their own and quite possibly, they believe the internet is a passing fad. But I digress.

For anyone who works in marketing but has never worked in a law firm partnership before, the book provides an important revelation. The title gives it away.

The “fee earner” is a lawyer, someone who bills clients for their work. Their heroic efforts pay everyone’s salary and provide for the maintenance of that expensive castle.

The “fee burner” – that’s everybody else. Including those in the marketing department, who are viewed by many lawyers as ballast, as greedy mouths perpetually needing to be fed, as fluffy and superficial non-intellectuals who are running some sort of macramé class or interpretive dance workshop at the expense of those heroic lawyers.

The book makes this division crystal clear. Lawyers “look at the people in law firms who perform work that isn’t billable as second-class citizens”. Lawyers “see marketers as an inferior professional tribe that they don’t understand”.

Lawyers “tend to be suspicious of working with non-lawyers because they doubt that a person who hasn’t graduated from law school can understand what lawyers do”.

Fortunately, King and Burnett have an array of helpful suggestions for those of us who find ourselves working in the marketing department of a law firm.

Keep the communication channels open. Focus on demonstrating how you can contribute value. Learn to identify which lawyers appreciate the usefulness of marketing and cultivate those people as your allies.

Keep in mind that lawyers have a great deal of respect for evidence, so be prepared to back up your arguments with proof and specific examples.

All very helpful advice. You can’t change the nature of the beast, so be prepared to work with what you’ve got.

Lawyers are averse to risk, because they spend their professional lives identifying it and trying to reduce it. The book suggests that “you may need to point out that risk aversion is a common trait in lawyers and ask them whether they think that this mode of thinking is blocking initiative”.

Hah! You can just imagine that conversation, can’t you?

You: (timidly) Ah… do you think there’s a chance your risk-averse mode of thinking is blocking initiative?

Desk-thumper: Yes it is. Now shut up and get back to work!

Lawyers typically have only a hazy idea of what marketing is, so it is the marketer’s role to educate lawyers about marketing and explain that “marketing isn’t just a matter of applying a formula”.

The purpose of this educative exercise is to narrow the gap between lawyers and marketers, so that firms can go on to develop marketing strategies that have real impact.

As for the authors themselves, where do Burnett and King fit in to this medieval landscape? Let’s hope they’re the oracles who are consulted when the castle is in danger, not the felons who are put in stocks and pelted with tomatoes in the town square, or the witches who are burnt at the stake.

Elena Lonergan is a Sydney writer.

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