One Marketer's Trip Through Hell

The following is a true story.  Only the names of the marketer and the law firm have been omitted.  The marketer has more than 25 years of marketing experience, including 9 at law firms. Most professional staff marketers at law firms have horror stories to recount, but this one makes others pale in comparison. An experienced veteran, this marketer had previously worked at a major metropolitan firm with more than 500 attorneys with numerous offices.  The average tenure of a law firm marketer is 3 years, but this marketer was able to endure less than two years at this 350-lawyer firm in a major metro area. After you read the story, you'll know why.

It is a long, ugly story. In a nutshell, my 15 months at the law firm provided me with the worst professional experience in my legal marketing career. I was the third CMO in 2 years and in spite of working my heart out to make the job a success, I literally became their "intellectual punching bag." They were taking their anger at the previous CMO out on me. She had quit after less than a year and tried to recruit their best associates as she was leaving.

It was a totally schizophrenic environment. I was told I was doing my job too well and that caused the partners to revolt. Huh?  I never knew what was wrong. I was just wrong. Even when I thought all was going well. Here's an example of one of many encounters: the Managing Partner called me into an office with the COO.  The Managing Partner ("MP") told me that another partner complained about me and we had to address the issue.

Me: I'm sorry to hear this. Can you tell me about problem?

MP: No.

Me: Can you tell me the partner's name?

MP: No.

Me: Can you tell me the practice group?

MP: No.

Me: Can the three of us meet with the partner so he/she can tell me what happened?

MP: No.

Me: If I don't know the who, what and why, I can't know how to fix it.

MP: Well, that's your problem.

Me: I'm sorry, I'll make an effort to be more sensitive in the future.

Exit.

I swear this is a true encounter and one of many similar encounters.

Made up rules as they went along

The firm has no formal marketing policies or guidelines, so they made up rules as they went along. The MP would also change the rules in the middle of the game. Naturally, I was not advised. As a result, I actually became quite adept at crisis management. I also took to carefully monitoring every activity that came into and out of my department.

  • The MP cancelled contracts that were approved by the Executive Committee in the middle of their run.
  • The MP entered into sponsorships only to delay payments until the organization threatened the firm with collections agencies.
  • The MP would overrule practice group leader marketing budget requests and led the PGLs to believe that the decision to veto a marketing expense was mine and not hers.
  • If I recommended an expenditure of $10,000, the MP would demand that I make it $25,000. When the Executive Committee would not approve the higher figure, the MP would turn around and demand that I reduce the expenditure to $7,500, even though she knew that $10,000 was the minimum.

And so on.   

Although the Executive Committee approved my hiring, the MP hated me from day one. She was totally indecisive and easily swayed, whereas I am very comfortable making decisions and taking control of given situations. She decided to create a Marketing Committee and appointed partners who were demonstrably hostile to any marketing effort and completely ignorant of even the basics of law firm marketing. The head of the Committee believed that "glad-handing" was the only way to market and didn't know the difference between a design firm and a P.R. firm.

I would go to meetings and be completely ignored. They would talk around me as if I weren't there. Naturally, being me, I wouldn't let them ignore me and even went out of my way to offer meeting agendas so that they would have something to work from. I circulated marketing articles that I thought would be helpful and informative only to find them thrown away in the meeting room garbage can. However, one of the members of the committee decided to make crib notes on 10 marketing books she thought would be useful to the Committee. She produced 47 pages of notes, with chapters, sub-chapters and sub, sub chapters.

Add to this mix, a back-stabbing, undermining manager who wanted the CMO position but was considered not capable of doing the job and you start to get the picture. For the record, I tried to fire her and had enough data on her to fire anyone else, but was not allowed to do so. She was and still is very close with a male member of the Executive Committee and therefore untouchable.

In spite of this, I accomplished quite a bit in the 15 months that I was there:

  • I completed and launched their first national advertising campaign
  • Restructured the marketing department
  • Hired 5 marketing professionals in six months
  • Redesigned and repositioned the firm's intranet newsletter
  • Developed an internal attorney referral site for cross-selling purposes
  • Finished and launched their Web site
  • Worked with the Strategic Planning Committee on issues of law firm leverage, making presentations to the offices and practice groups on the strategic use of leverage in generating revenues
  • Created a marketing budget accountability process
  • And more. 

I was determined to make the best of an ugly situation, but it was grueling and I put on 30 pounds out of sheer frustration. I was treated so badly that I didn't even know how to address it.

I stayed only because during my tenure at the firm, I found and bought wonderful house. It is my dream house. I fell hopelessly in love with the place, pure love at first sight, and I decided that I would do whatever it took to buy it. If you've ever fallen in love with a house, you will understand why I would do nothing to compromise or jeopardize this purchase. The house continues to be one of the great joys of my life and is my sanctuary from a cold, cruel world.

Backstabbing manager

They fired me two days before the backstabbing manager returned from vacation and turned the department over to her. I was told to leave immediately. I was stunned. I heard rumors that they would pull something like this, but gave the firm credit for more class. I was wrong. They treated me like a criminal. They wouldn't even let me transfer my files or notify people that I was leaving. The HR Director let me get some of my personal things and some of my staff assured me that they would take care of my things. Members of my staff were equally stunned and couldn't even talk.

I did nothing to deserve this kind of treatment. It is my understanding that most of the partners were not told.  I've never been fired before and became extremely depressed and extremely angry. I wasn't fired because I wasn't competent. I was fired because the firm and I were a bad cultural fit and an incumbent was hell-bent on getting my job, and there was nothing I could do about it.  I am consoled by the fact that she was not given the position and was named "Acting Director" until they decide on another CMO.

There's so much more to my trip through Hell, but I think you get the picture. By two months after I lost the job, I was over the anger and depression and was truly glad to be free of the place. I want to find a firm that needs a proactive CMO to run their department. I have an impressive resume and an otherwise sterling track record in legal marketing. Hopefully, I won't be out of work for too long. For now, I am enjoying the rest and catching up on my readings and writing.

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Michelle Golden - January 16, 2006 1:09 PM

This sounds awfully similar to my own experience in a similarly-sized law firm. My condolences to the marketer and my best wishes for his/her next endeavor. The good news is, not all law firms are quite that horrendous though the bigger ones are worse than the smaller ones. I find the best firms do have fewer than 50/60 attorneys. I also think the the ED/administrator can make or break the marketer's success. If the marketer and ED work well together, and if the ED is not threatened by the marketer's presence and ideas, life can actually be pretty good in a firm.

Marketing Headhunter - January 16, 2006 8:35 PM

This is a great story. Sometimes people ask me if it's stressful being self-employed. Sometimes I say "Sometimes." But mostly I say "No" because I think it's much more stressful to work in environments like the one so vividly described above.

Danielle Waters - May 15, 2006 11:30 AM

Did anyone stop to think that maybe it was the CMO? No one wants to see their own faults. I've read stories like this before. It wasn't the firm, but the person. There are always 2 sides to a story. I'm sure the firm would have a different view than this person.

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