Marketing in a post-covid-19 world - Listen to our free podcast series with industry leading CMOs

Marketing Post-Covid: Pat Courtemanche, Chief Marketing Officer at Dorsey & Whitney LLP

Brian Erickson:
Thanks for joining the Cardwell Beach Marketing podcast. My name is Brian Erickson, Chief Strategy Officer and partner at Cardwell Beach. In this series, we’re interviewing senior marketers across industries to develop perspective on what marketing will look like in a post COVID-19 world. Today’s guest is Pat Courtemanche, the Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer of law firm Dorsey & Whitney, which assists clients, including a large number of Fortune 100 firms on matters including finance litigation, mergers and acquisitions, tax law, and more. Pat, thanks so much for joining us today.

Pat Courtemanche:
Hey, that’s very nice of you to have me on, Brian. Thanks.

Brian Erickson:
Great. Weathering the storm and hopefully we are through the eye of the storm and maybe on the other side as it relates to COVID-19, Dorsey & Whitney is a highly respected brand within the legal world. And former employees have included a Supreme Court Justice and a US vice president. Nonetheless, COVID-19 is proving to be a disruptive force across all industries right now. How have you thought about balancing the firm’s legacy brand with the need for adaptation and change brought on by the pandemic?

Pat Courtemanche:
Well, I think everything is going to change at least by degrees in our business and in terms of the operations and how we interact and who shows up at the office. So you’re asking specifically about branding, but I think to figure out the whole picture, those operational and sociological factors need to be figured in, and I think we’re going to have to wait for some of those things to reveal themselves over time.

But from a basic branding standpoint, I think that COVID-19 is going to accelerate a trend that was already happening over the course of years in terms of large law firm branding. For example, in the past decade we’ve seen many law firms including Dorsey & Whitney shift from a practice area-based branding strategy to more of an industry-based strategy. To be more specific about that, we don’t hold ourselves out now as mergers and acquisition lawyers or employment lawyers, but as food industry or healthcare industry lawyers. And part of that idea is that we approach our clients’ problems from the perspective of their industry and not just who we are. And we’re trying to generate more collaboration internally or an approach that’s geared towards facing our client’s entire enterprise.

So that’s kind of a move away from the hired gun branding that law firms used to rely on and to really align ourselves more with clients. And I think what coronavirus does is it accelerates that because what we’re seeing is that these collaborative, complicated enterprise-wide problems, kind of that VUCA concept have really stood out with coronavirus. And so how does tapping into a stimulus program while conducting layoffs and dealing with contracts that can no longer be fulfilled, how does that all come together? And then layering in if it’s the energy industry, for example. And so that goes way beyond the hired gun, I’m a litigator, I’m a great corporate lawyer. The coronavirus really highlighted the need for the collaborative team, and so I think it’s going to accelerate the branding in that direction that it was already moving in.

Brian Erickson:
It’s kind of interesting, and I’ve been hearing that folks across industries that really having a clear picture of what your core competencies and your core values are is driving quick pivots and the ability to turn on a dime as the situation presents itself, so it seems like you’re doing a little bit of that, too.

Pat Courtemanche:
From the marketing and the business development standpoint, this particular situation with the pandemic has really given us a seat at a different table, I would say, because more than I can recall in the past, we’ve been more at the table with our attorneys and the leaders of our industry groups and practice areas to figure out what are those strengths that we need to put together and how do we put them together from an operational and from a legal practice standpoint, and then go tell that story to the world. And so I feel like not only does the firm and its lawyers need to collaborate more in providing advice, but it’s also led to more collaboration between the day-to-day lawyering and the marketing and business development function.

Brian Erickson:
Really is a conversation. There’s no such thing as a brand narrative that you get to just tell to the world anymore. You’re participating in a conversation about yourselves and about the world as it’s going on. So while it’s not directly COVID-19-related, I did want to ask about your firm’s reaction to the death of George Floyd in your headquarter city of Minneapolis. Obviously, Floyd’s death has set into motion a series of protests, very important conversations about the role we all can play in increasing equality for people of color. How has Dorsey & Whitney participated in these discussions, if at all, and how have they played out?

Pat Courtemanche:
There’s very little else that I’ve thought about in the past few weeks. I think that can be said for much of the firm and much of the leadership of the firm. So we have been in a great deal of discussions. This theme of collaboration flows through to this topic very directly. I really could and would love to spend all of our time talking about this topic, and maybe some of that’s for another day, but what I would say is that I personally have learned lessons already, and to be specific about that, I was caught off guard in terms of the reaction of colleagues and particularly black colleagues the fact that many were feeling very isolated and feeling a great deal of pain. What I came to learn was that my lack of picking up the phone and talking to the people that I know and that I’m friends with, kind of the lack of an institutional response and acknowledgement was deepening that pain, and it was a blind spot for me.

I guess another blind spot for me is that I have lots of support systems built into my life. My employer isn’t in a way high up on that list the way it is for somebody who’s come to a city to work for a law firm, and they don’t have family in the city. They don’t maybe even have a lot of friends at this point or a community that they’re really connected to. They do look to their employer and, in this case, their law firm for support, and I think that was lost on a lot of people like myself, and it was a real stark lesson. So we’re trying to focus on those things.

And I think that one of the things that’s been really important in these conversations in society is that it’s been largely focused on police brutality because that’s what happened in George Floyd’s case. But it is, as you know, and as we all know, it’s having a direct impact on corporate America and how we approach this topic. And I think there’s been a shift in the language that’s been super important, which is to talk about systemic racism as opposed to talking about diversity and inclusion.

And I think that the diversity efforts of corporate America have been super important. They’ve resulted in progress, but it was really missing an element that I think language is going to help bring into the picture, which is the language of systemic racism, which means you have to look at the problems with the institution rather than just let’s add a mentorship program, let’s add a committee, let’s add some policies. Again, I think all of those things are important and we need to continue to do those, but we need to get to the core of the issue, and I’m optimistic that there will be change. I also will say this is my personal problem that I have to deal with in the way my own mind works and the way I operate at work. It’s going to be a lot of work for a lot of people and we just need to do that.

Brian Erickson:
Yeah, I think it’s worth it. It’s been avoided for too long, either intentionally or unintentionally, and I think it’s just critical that we all spend the time and reflect and try to make substantive change.

Pat Courtemanche:
I feel very fortunate, and I will leave the word privileged out this time, fortunate to work with people who are taking this very seriously and personally, and the leadership in our firm is very focused on it. And then I’ll put the word privilege back in. Many of the people in leadership are working from a privileged position. I know I am, and we need to take a closer look at ourselves like you are saying. I really agree with you. It just starts with introspection at the individual level.

Brian Erickson:
Definitely. I think we’re just in such a period of change and evolution and in so many different regards, simultaneously, I guess, looking forward for marketers, I would ask specifically within the legal industry, are we ever going to return to pre-2020 reality or are we entering a new normal that we’re going to take some lessons on a number of different levels away from, and how do we apply that to a marketing approach and a communications approach that’s responsible and of course, effective?

Pat Courtemanche:
I think everything’s changing right now. That’s not a profound statement. I think everybody who’s paying attention would agree with that. And will it be a new normal? Or maybe normal is a word we don’t need to use quite as often because 2020 is a historic time. In my lifetime I can point back to certain historic periods that had profound influences. I’m just old enough to kind of remember Martin Luther King’s assassination. I’m certainly old enough to remember Nixon resigning. 9/11 is another example. And we are watching history unfold on a larger level than some of those examples. So I do think that looking at the pandemic piece of the puzzle for a minute, I do think that this focus on complex solutions to kind of enterprise-wide problems will continue to grow in the law firm marketing space and in the law firm operations space.

As far as other parts of marketing and branding and the law firm environment, everything from strategy and mindset to tactics are going to be affected as we start to return to the offices, and I would say we won’t return quite as much as we used to. Something I’ve said for years, just as one example, is that there’s nothing as a marketing person in a law firm and a business development person that I would rather spend money on than putting lawyers on airplanes to go visit clients or potential clients face to face. And I’ve consistently seen that pay off better than advertising or sponsorships or dinners or anything else. There’s just nothing like being in the room and talking about a client’s business, but I don’t know what’s going to happen with that in some ways. I think we will return to that activity. I don’t know exactly when, and I’m very confident that we will not return to a hundred percent of the level we were at before the coronavirus.

So part of the challenge for people like me is trying to figure out how do you optimize that balance between getting on airplanes versus Zoom meetings and in other ways that we’re connecting during this lockdown period. So I think strategically, tactically, whatever the new thing is that we settle into, whether we call it normal or not, really very little will be untouched by this. And then when you layer in the things we’re talking about in terms of racial injustice and what’s going on with protests in the world, really the changes will be dramatic, and if they’re not, we missed a big opportunity.

Brian Erickson:
Yeah. I mean, definitely a huge catalyst for meaningful change. I want to unpack additionally something that you said there as to how this is going to flow into a tactical shift that you’re seeing. Obviously a lot of huge foundational core moves that needs to be made on a number of different levels, but in the short term, how are you triage responding and adjusting on the ground as the environment shifts on a marketing level?

Pat Courtemanche:
Yeah, there’s been a lot of shifts, as you would imagine, like everybody else. Law firm marketing, and I call it marketing for shorthand, but as you noted, my title includes business development as well because those concepts really weave in and out of each other in such a relationship-focused business like the one I’m in and the one you’re in, Brian. And so a big part of our tactical mix is putting on programs for clients where we gather a hundred people in a room in our Minneapolis office and put a panel of experts up to talk about a specific topic. And I already said that one of the most effective tactics from a business, that’s more marketing on the business development side. Our most effective tactic, as I said, was get on an airplane or go down the block and visit a client and talk about their business. Those have been taken off of the menu for the last three months or wherever we are in this timeline. It’s been easier to move the tactical to do the pivot on the tactical part of programs for clients because it’s actually created an opportunity in many ways.

There are a lot of legal issues that are of great interest to clients, including stimulus packages and other governmental activity that’s going on that affects our clients deeply. And so we’ve been putting on virtual conferences, demonstrating thought leadership. We’ve been producing a great number of articles with thought leadership, in fact. Again, topic for a completely other long conversation is not spamming your clients and driving them crazy with all of this thought leadership, which is something we really had to address and tackle. And so that whole piece of it, I think, that it’s been an interesting pivot from which we will learn a lot and have learned a lot. And we’ve done a good job of making that move as have many, many law firms and other service providers.

The other one, the getting on the airplane, that’s harder. Figuring out ways to stay connected with contacts on more of a one-on-one basis, that has been more difficult. People have been very creative about that in using the different platforms that are out there like Zoom and Ringer and have good luck. And interestingly, we’re finding that there’s actually more access to some people on this front in the sense that they’re sitting it home craving interaction with other human beings, and they’ll even meet with lawyers over a virtual meeting because people have different schedules and they’re craving that interaction. And so we’re doing well on that one, but I think it’s easy to let down a bit on the one-on-one interactions, and so that’s been a big focus of us to maintain good reasons to stay connected.

Brian Erickson:
There are pros and cons to any situation. I think just having, for lack of a better term, a captive audience sitting at home with not as much disruption or noise in a day-to-day hustle and bustle commute sort of situation can be beneficial in terms of just having some focused attention and having people kind of listen to what you have to say.

Moving from that into more of a strategic lens, in terms of differentiation, as we’re settling into the new normal or whatever we call this new phase of business in the world that we’re entering, we’ve talked about this offline that many firms in the legal space have historically struggled a bit with committing to a strong point of differentiation. Can you unpack why that is and if you think that will change moving forward, or any directions that you think might be worthwhile to pursue for folks who are really trying to not just say, Hey, we provide great outcomes for clients or got some really talented attorney or we’ve got some really talented attorneys or we work with big names? How can folks move beyond that sort of cost of entry language and differentiate moving into this new normal?

Pat Courtemanche:
Well, you put that really well because there is a phenomenon in law firm marketing where it’s Insert Firm Name Here and you read different websites and brochures and you don’t really get that differentiation. You asked about unpacking it, which is worth a minute to do because I have some pretty strong feelings on how we got there. You don’t have to go very far back in time when the in-house legal functions at many companies were small or nonexistent, and that includes some very large companies that were just really completely dependent on outside law firms for all of their legal needs. And you only have to go back 20 or 30 years to get back to that environment.

And so the result of that was that the large business law firms could not only get by, but they kind of needed to be “full service” firms. And branding was not a phrase that you really heard talked about with law firms so much 20 years ago. You actually went out of your way to present yourself as all things to all people within the space of big business. Really large law firms didn’t need to present themselves that much in a marketing sense. 30 years ago, there was almost no law firm marketing function in existence at firms like Dorsey where I work. It just wasn’t in the industry, law firm marketing, in some ways. And people joke that marketing back then was picking up the phone on the second ring instead of the third ring. There was some truth to that because there was just so much demand for this sort of very specialized expertise.

But businesses, of course, figured out that that was not a good model for them to be beholden to expensive law firms, so they started building up their in-house function, and now a large company might have hundreds of lawyers in-house, and many, many do that are the size of a large law firm, and so they don’t need outside law firms for routine matters like they did 20, 30 years ago. They don’t need outside law firms for many of the complex matters, for that matter. So firms have been playing catch up in this relatively short history of law firm marketing and adjusting to the growth of the in-house function, and there just wasn’t a requirement to be that entrepreneurial back then that you have now. So law firm marketing’s a relatively young discipline in the scheme of things. It’s changed a lot and it will continue to change a lot, and we’re playing catch up in many ways. So I go back to the idea that you need to differentiate yourself by how you put your particular strengths together to really serve a client in their business as opposed to the hired gun strategy.

Brian Erickson:
Excellent. And I think on firm-wide level, it’s really important to focus on differentiation and also on an individual level, even in our jobs in the marketing function, as we near 15%, 20% unemployment, who knows what the actual number is if we didn’t have the stimulus money, propping some of these statistics up. Many marketers are going to find themselves as free agents right now, maybe weren’t expecting to. So how can folks in our profession position themselves and their skill sets for this moment and maybe what sorts of attributes do you look for in folks for your own team?

Pat Courtemanche:
Well, it is interesting how this whole conversation just connects together because my views on this question is that for those who are trying to figure out what’s the next move, and there are many marketing people that are finding that they are becoming free agents right now, and there will be a time when marketing groups build back up. This is the cycle. We’ve seen this before, and there will be jobs, and hopefully the cycle will be relatively quick in that regard. But in that interim time, I think it’s good for a little introspection just like we’re talking about for privileged white males like myself, like we’re talking about for the pandemic and what it means to how we’re going to actually operate when we return to whatever this new thing is.

So I think a little introspection about what is it that I bring a broader perspective on than simply saying, “I can put a pitch book together for you” or “I’m really good at social media strategies” and talking about a broader context of where the marketing function fits. And again, I’m very focused on professional services in that regard, but I know it applies in that setting. So thinking about what’s going on in the world and thinking about your craft in those terms. And so that’s kind of vague and philosophical, but the same old song and dance is not going to play very well when we rebound, and just like law firms themselves, the “I’m great. You should want to work with me” is kind of the table stakes. We want that.

What I would like to see from people who are looking for a career where we have openings is that they demonstrate some multidisciplinary approach to it and they don’t just view themselves as the tasks that go into marketing. And I realized that when you’re newer in your career, it’s more difficult to do that, and that’s okay.

But I think that people need to differentiate themselves in this regard, and so that is bringing a particular perspective about collaboration, for example, and how it should work and what that means to how you’re doing your marketing. That would be a conversation that would resonate well with me in an interview. Just generally again, there’s this dichotomy, which is that in most jobs, and I think it’s true in marketing and business development and in law firms, most jobs, there is an increasing requirement for specialization, and we have focused on that in our own group as kind of following the model of law firms, don’t try to be all things to all people.

But at the same time, we can’t be in silos. We need to collaborate. We need to collaborate beyond the marketing world and discipline and really find ways to partner with, in our case, the lawyers, the clients, other constituents that make our world spin. And so I think a lot of it is kind of vague and philosophical, but that’s what I look for.

Brian Erickson:
So if I’m hearing you, you’re saying maybe more of a focus on becoming a T-shaped marketer where you have a deep area of specialty and you have that ability to maybe work a little bit more cross-functionally, even if you don’t have the same level of depth in multiple different disciplines, at least you can speak the language and conceptually understand how to operate.

Pat Courtemanche:
Absolutely. And I will say that you kind of nailed one of the important pieces there, which is speaking the language because that’s the biggest thing that separates law firm marketing people from lawyers is the ability to speak the language. And full disclosure, I am a lawyer. I practiced law for 12 years and then decided that that was too stressful and hard. Done various different pursuits since that time and ended up back in the law firm world doing the work that I’m doing now. And so I’ve got a big leg up on the language thing and it’s been a great advantage, but that’s a gap worth closing in highly specialized businesses.

Brian Erickson:
Yep. Yeah. You need to be able to communicate, and this is a communications role that you’re in.

Pat Courtemanche:
Right. Correct.

Brian Erickson:
So the more that you can speak with the folks who have the technical expertise that you’re selling and really translate that into a more digestible format, the better you are. And that requires sometimes diving in a little bit. Maybe it doesn’t always require becoming a lawyer, but certainly can’t hurt, right?

Pat Courtemanche:
Yeah, no, it doesn’t. And I will tell you, I’ve seen some just incredibly talented people on my own team who are not lawyers, were never lawyers who have bridged that gap and who do an amazing job. And I can tell you one of the things when I first started in the law firm marketing role, more than one person said to me, “I suppose you’re going to hire all lawyers now and ignore the marketing community,” And that was not at all the case. I was starving when I was new at it. The lawyers are starving for marketing expertise and business development expertise, and it’s a highly valued skill, but if you don’t connect on the language to some level, it’s really putting a ceiling on it. So we need both disciplines in the mix, and there are just people who are just terrific at it who’ve never been to law school.

Brian Erickson:
And that’s what makes great teams, is just having multiple viewpoints represented in any area.

Pat Courtemanche:
Absolutely.

Brian Erickson:
So if you could give one piece of advice to mid-market and small business marketers and maybe folks in single attorney practices in the legal industry right now, what would you say is the most important thing from a marketing perspective to keep in mind?

Pat Courtemanche:
Dorsey, where I work, is an Am Law 100 firm, and that means a lot to people who are in the legal business, more or less the hundred biggest firms in terms of revenue. There are thousands and thousands of law firms outside that Am Law 100, and I think that a lot of what we’re talking about applies every bit as much to mid-sized and smaller law firms and even solo practitioners. The concepts are not terribly different, but the first thing I would say is figure out who you are, because just like we’re talking about how you differentiate a law firm, there is a need to differentiate yourself if you’re on your own or if you’re a smaller firm, but take that a step further and say, figure out how to take work away from the Am Law 100, Am Law 200 firms.

All of these trends I’ve talked about are relevant. The customer, which is often the in-house lawyer at a company, they’re more savvy than ever. They’re very savvy customers. They’ve done great things for their businesses in terms of just the operational impact of having good lawyers inside, and they really, the more savvy they are, the more entrepreneurship they seek. They’re happy to go to smaller firms than the Am Law 100 when they can get their great service done. There’s so many great lawyers at every size firm. Value is very important. I don’t want to focus too much on cost, but clients care very much about predictability and cost, and there’s money to be taken off of the table of firms like ours by smaller firms. But again, it goes back to knowing who you are, knowing what that value is that you add, and telling the story because you need to get there and you need to connect and resonate with those savvy customers.

Brian Erickson:
Well, that’s some great advice and I always appreciate inviting some healthy competition, so I like that.

Pat Courtemanche:
Well, not everybody will like to hear me say that, Brian, but I’m going out on a limb here now, but it’s true.

Brian Erickson:
Awesome. Well, Pat, thank you so much for the insights and taking the time to talk with me today. I really it.

Pat Courtemanche:
Thank you for your time and interest in that. I appreciate you having me on.

Brian Erickson:
Great. Well, please make sure to look up Pat Courtemanche on LinkedIn and other social properties. He’s got some great content that he’s putting out on both a professional and personal basis, so feel free to reach out and connect with him. This is Brian Erickson with Cardwell Beach. Thanks again for listening, and please make sure to check back for more senior marketers sharing their perspectives on what marketing will look like in the post-COVID-19 world.

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