Creating a Living, Breathing Strategic Plan [Podcast]
Undergoing a strategic planning process is a worthwhile endeavor—but only if it’s done with the support and involvement of everyone in the firm. Getting that buy-in can be tough, but Kate Pearch, Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer at Morris, Manning & Martin, LLP, offered her best techniques on the latest episode of the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast. Read her conversation below with host Sharon Berman, Managing Principal of Berbay Marketing & Public Relations.
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast. Today, my guest is Kate Pearch, Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer at the Am Law 200 firm of Morris, Manning & Martin. She’s based in their Atlanta office. Kate works closely with management and practice leaders to design and implement programs to strengthen the firm’s brand and position, including marketing and advertising, PR, practice growth and strategic development and leadership succession. She started with the firm in 2005 as a marketing manager, and the fact that she’s now CMO is a testament to her success and the respect afforded her by the firm. Kate, thanks so much for being here.
Kate: Thank you, Sharon. I’m excited to be here.
Sharon: We’re glad to have you. Kate, you have significant experience in marketing, sales and business development. Can you tell us about your career path and how you came to legal marketing?
Kate: Yes, I’d be happy to. I started off working for a big advertising agency. I was an advertising major in college. I was really drawn to that because I loved the blend of creativity and psychology and getting into the mind of the buyer, and it was really fast-paced. I learned a lot, but I didn’t feel like I got to be very creative, because I was working mostly with a client who was very price-driven. I moved into event planning and sales and my companies were small and a little unstable, so I found myself in my mid-20s with no job. I thought, “What kinds of companies do I really want to work for, and what kinds of skills do I want to focus on? What do I want my career to look like?” I started researching companies that were rated as great places to work. There were several law firms on the list in Atlanta, and I was researching what people did in law firms. I grew up in a family of lawyers, so I thought of lawyers and legal assistants, but I realized there was this growing field of legal marketing, and I thought, “Man, this might be a fit.” I started looking for jobs, and this was the job I got, the marketing manager role at Morris, Manning & Martin in 2005. I feel so fortunate that I found it. It is such a fit for what I enjoy, which is learning how to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace and focusing on other intangibles that make us different. I feel like that’s a great opportunity we have as legal marketers, to work with our attorneys and our firms to find a way to make us stand out. It can be tough, but sometimes it’s also a really fun challenge.
Sharon: That’s a great story to hear. That’s luck and a lot of strategy, so I give you a lot of credit.
Kate: Thank you, Sharon. I definitely feel fortunate. I think luck was a big part of it.
Sharon: We have to be prepared as they say. It’s luck and being prepared.
Sharon: You told me that about nine months ago, your firm completed a very extensive strategic planning process, something which you spearheaded and got off the ground despite the initial resistance. Can you tell us what the resistance was, and how you overcame it? It sounds like a fabulous story.
Kate: It definitely wasn’t something that happened overnight. I think I campaigned for it for about three years, so if anyone listening is trying to start this process, don’t get discouraged easily. Part of the resistance was something that was residual before I even came to the firm. The firm had gone through a strategic planning process, and they didn’t have a great result. They didn’t feel like it gave them any tools they could work with. They spent a lot of money on it, and they spent it on people they felt didn’t really understand the firm or get what was special about us. Basically, at the end of this very expensive and time-intensive process, they came out with a huge book of a plan that no one ever looked at.
The people thought, “Kate, that’s not something we need,” so I really built the case for it. I did a ton of research, a ton of reading, and thought about ways this would be something that could help our firm. I was fortunate that I had access to firm management and I was able to hear from people who were involved with the first go-around about what didn’t work, what the pain points were, and how I could make the process better. After a lot of campaigning, I was able to convince the management committee that this was something they should consider. I made a presentation—it was probably about 45 minutes long—where I strived to educate them on what a strategic plan could be, what it should be, how it could help. I pulled numbers from the old plan and compared them to where we were a decade later. I showed them where we had been successful and where we had fallen short, and how a plan might have helped them achieve those goals or get closer to the ideal they had in their minds. Luckily, they trusted me enough to say, “O.K., let’s give it a shot,” and that’s something I feel really fortunate to have here. They encourage you to go out and try things, and they don’t penalize you when you make a mistake. Although it was terrifying, I was really grateful to have that opportunity.
After the presentation, I had a handful of volunteers, people on the management committee, who said, “O.K., let’s try. I think you’re the right one to lead this and we’ll help you.” They were very involved in helping us find the right consultant to work with us. We did feel like that was an important part of the puzzle, to have that unbiased, outside perspective of the big picture of the firm. Our plan focused on many areas, including growth, branding, succession planning, governance and management, compensation, all these tricky subjects that all firms are dealing with. So we wanted someone who had that unbiased perspective, but also a larger global view of the legal market, so they could help identify where we fit into that. We found the right people, long story short, and I had partners that volunteered to help me get more buy-in from the partners committee. They’re not the management committee, but we needed their participation in the process, too, and that really helped me overcome any resistance that we met throughout the planning process. Having that smaller driving committee was a big key in getting it done.
Sharon: I was really struck by the word you used, “terrifying.”
Kate: It was.
Sharon: But you forged ahead. That’s the important thing, and it does sound like it was a process that took a lot of patience. I think that’s a good message for anybody listening, that it’s one by one. You have to keep on keeping on.
Sharon: Tell me how the firm benefitted from the process, through doing the process itself and how you use this strategic plan today.
Kate: I was surprised by the benefits we got; there were things that I didn’t even anticipate. My goals going in were to have a clear vision of who we were and who we wanted to be, what tactics we wanted to use to get there, and to have more agreement within the firm. When we started the process, I wasn’t sure if there was a ton of agreement around who we wanted to be.
For those who aren’t familiar with Morris, Manning & Martin, we are about a 200-attorney firm. We’ve grown a lot. Since bowing this out, we’ve added about 25 attorneys to our head count, but we are a mid-size firm that practices all over the country. Some people wanted it to be bigger; some people didn’t want to grow, so I was afraid that we would have some fracturing through the process. But, honestly, it was very unifying. Early on in the process, I had lunch with a managing partner who had gone through this process at his firm, which was based in the U.K., and he said, “You may lose people.” That is what happened to us. At the end of the day, it was the right thing for those people to leave; they weren’t rowing in the same direction and it expedited that process. I was very nervous about that, but that wasn’t what we experienced at all.
We had a session during the strategic planning process, focused on vision and looking at the big picture. We were all in small groups, and our consultants said, “Take 15 minutes, don’t talk to anyone, and let’s write what your partner retreat is going to look like in five years. Describe what the partnership looks like, what the firm looks like, the big achievements that you’ve had over the last five years.” Everyone did it, and then we had to stand up and read it out loud. People were so similar on where they wanted to be, and that was very helpful. It really was. The tactics might be a little bit different, but the big picture didn’t look that different for anyone. We had to focus on getting more buy-in, but that’s where we were. I began to realize we all wanted to go to the same place, and it helped us realize we don’t want to be a megafirm; we don’t want to have thousands of lawyers and dozens of offices. We just want to be the best Morris, Manning & Martin we can be. That culture is really important to us, and we want to preserve that as we grow.
Sharon: How are you using the strategic plan today to reinforce your culture and make sure you’re going in the same direction? How do you use it, as opposed to just putting it in a drawer?
Kate: We have a lot of methods that we’re using to track it. We broke the big goals into smaller, achievable chunks, and we set priorities for the first year. We looked at the big picture, how far we thought we could get that first year, and what our biggest two or three priorities for the firm were. That doesn’t mean forget the rest of it, but you put more energy behind those.
We went through a big change this year; we elected a new managing partner about three or four months after we rolled out the plan. So, part of our goal with the plans of that year was to break down pieces of the guide to pick the right person. We’d come to an agreement about where we wanted to go, so who was the right person to take us there? We ended up with an amazing managing partner who’s really excited about the plan.
This year we’re choosing other priorities, and we’re trying to choose a variety. Some are around head-count growth; some are around client growth; some are around reevaluating our governance structures. We talk about it all the time and that is really what’s keeping us accountable. We share a page in our internal newsletter that everyone gets. We talk about it every month at management committee. A handful of us who were really involved, we meet every month before management committee and say, “What do we need management committee to focus on?” Then, we try to check in every quarter to see how we are progressing against those smaller goals for the year. Are our tactics working, or do we need to reevaluate? It’s become a living and breathing thing, which, I think, is the purpose of the plan. That was my intent with it, for it to become part of the fabric of our management process.
Sharon: That’s exactly what I was thinking, “Wow, that really is living and breathing.” It sounds like it’s doing what it was supposed to do. We also talked about the fact that you’ve been instrumental in starting and keeping your firm’s women’s initiative going for six years. You’ve also gotten the recruiting, training and retention committee up and running, and you’ve made a difference in the firm through both. Can you tell us about some of the things you’ve done that have made a difference?
Kate: Absolutely. I think it’s interesting to look back six years ago and think about where we started. We started with the Women’s Initiative. That is the older of the two, and we created it because we wanted to give a voice to the women in the firm. We wanted to grow the women at the firm. I think both of these initiatives are addressing issues that lots of firms face—promoting and supporting women and retaining the top talent that everyone is competing to get and wants to keep. When we started with the Women’s Initiative, as we looked at the challenges that women faced in our firm or the legal career broadly, we realized a lot of these issues also affected men, and we didn’t want to just focus on the women’s aspect of it. When you are looking at these broader work-life issues and helping law firms evolve into the modern workforce, we realized that we needed a voice to advocate for all the younger attorneys at the firm. So, that was the birth of the Recruiting and Retention Committee.
Both initiatives have given a voice and support to these issues, and also helped us to just carve out time to think about them. It’s really hard to make progress. These are tough issues that everybody is facing, but it made us sit down once a month, talk about it and measure our progress. That was really important to their success, because it is slow progress that we were tracking, but we could see we were making a difference, and it gave us a voice to put these issues at the management level. We had management participating in these meetings. While they may not have been doing the day-to-day work to try to make the change, they gave it their blessing and support, and that was a big part of their success. As we look at the difference we’ve made over time, we’ve seen our percentage of women at every level grow by more than eight percent, and we’ve seen our attrition with associates decrease by 20 percent. It shows us that we’re doing things right. I think half the battle is showing people that you care; you’re aware, you know you’re not perfect, and you’re trying to get better.
Sharon: It’s very important to carve out the time to focus on this, because everybody’s running around saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I have to think about it.” You have to sit down and talk about it and be intentional.
Sharon: Based on your experience, if another legal marketer asked you for advice to launch similar initiatives at their own firm, what advice would you give them?
Kate: First, find the business case. Look at your firm and figure out the issue or problem you’re facing and how an initiative like this can help the firm be more successful. I firmly believe that in order for your firm to be successful outwardly, in client development, branding, and those external aspects, you have to be strong internally. It’s important for firm leadership to know as well, so find ways to demonstrate that. I think I said this earlier, but I would say it again, and that’s to not give up easily. These things all take time to show progress, and as you said earlier, Sharon, it’s one by one. If you get one more person to stay or one more person into that leadership position, that’s success. Track your efforts so you can go back and remember that you are making progress, because it can be discouraging sometimes. These are not simple issues; they are universal. Lots of law firms are facing them, and as the non-billable people in a firm, we are in a great position to help these firms get stronger and tackle these tough issues.
I also think it’s important to partner with other administrative leaders in your firm. I have great relationships with our CFO, with our Chief Technology Officer, with our Head of Development and Recruiting, and they have all been really valuable pieces in getting these initiatives off the ground. In fact, our Director of Recruiting and Development is really running with the Recruiting, Retention and Training Committee and our Women’s Initiative. Her insight has been so valuable in getting these programs to grow and be successful, and as we encourage attorneys to collaborate, we need to do the same thing. It helps us be stronger.
Sharon: Those are great words of wisdom coming from somebody who has all the experience. I really do give you credit for your patience and your persistence. It also takes a lot of belief that you can make a change, and I think that’s more than half the battle also. Congratulations and thank you so much for taking time to give us your take on legal marketing. To everybody listening, that wraps up another episode of the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst. If you like what you heard and would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest who can help move your firm forward. Thank you so much for listening.
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