Interview with Joe Calve, Chief Marketing Officer at Morrison & Foerster LLP
By Katherine Giaccone, from Volume 1, Issue 1
Careers in the law go far beyond practicing attorneys, politicians, judges and law professors. Every industry requires profes- sionals with a practical knowledge of legal codes. In this column, the Review will explore unconventional careers in the law through interviews with leaders in a variety of fields.
Law firms, like every other businesses, need to grow their clientele. Using strategies that improve business development and communications, legal marketing specialists are hired to expand relationships with existing clients and to bring in new ones. Though small firms may only be able to afford part-time marketing specialists, larger firms typically maintain a full-time, full-service staff. These professionals research the competition and markets (“competitive intelligence”), develop and promote the brand, and devise new strategies to use in an ever-changing marketplace.
The Review spoke with Joe Calve, the current Chief Marketing Officer at international firm Morrison & Foerster LLP. After practicing law for a short time, Calve followed his interest in legal journalism and began a career as a reporter, editor and busi- ness executive with American Lawyer Media. Fifteen years later, Calve shifted careers, leading the global business development team at White & Case before moving to Proskauer Rose LLP in 2005. Under his leadership, Proskauer topped Marketing the Law Firm’s annual list of the best marketing and communications teams in the country for three years in a row. In February of this year, Calve became the CMO at Morrison & Foerster, better known by its notorious nickname “MoFo.”
Calve shared his experiences, discussed industry trends, and otherwise dished up valuable advice on legal marketing:
Were you ever a practicing attorney?
I practiced law briefly – very briefly. I never wanted to be a practicing attorney. I went to law school specifically to get into journalism.
If you were interested in journalism, why law school? Why not journalism school?
When I spoke to people in the field – people who knew what they were talking about – they told me that it would be better to get an extended liberal arts education than to go to journal- ism school. From there, they told me to go to business or law school. I chose law school because the field of legal journalism was starting to take off.
Why did you make the leap to legal marketing?
I only ever wanted to work for American Lawyer, which was founded by a Yale law grad and true visionary in the legal space, Steven Brill. I got that opportunity. After I reached the level of vice president, I knew I wasn’t going to go much further at Am Law, which had been sold to a private equity firm, and the business environment was getting very tough following the dot-com bust. I saw the handwriting on the wall and made a break for a new career. So I looked into another, lateral field.
How did you get started in legal marketing?
I made a list of attributes of the type of firm I would want to work for. I knew I wanted to be at a highly global firm. Ameri- can Lawyer had a very national focus, so I wanted something different, something more in tune with where the market was going. I also wanted a firm that was in the top tier and that was starting over in terms of marketing. I figured there would be a lot of opportunity and I wanted to move ahead quickly. White & Case had everything I was looking for: it’s a global US firm that was redoing its marketing department complete- ly. It is also definitely top tier.
You left Proskauer Rose after helping it hold the top spot on Marketing the Law Firm’s annual list for three years running. What strategies did you imple- ment while you were there and why did you move on to Morrison & Foerster?
My first year at Proskauer, we made the top ten, which had never happened before. Then we were number one for three years. The main reason we got there was the firm’s willingness to do what it took to bring in high-quality staff. The firm gave me a lot of leeway and support. I didn’t immediately go into the firm and say that we need to concentrate on branding, new colors, or remake the website. Instead, we were going to concentrate on business development, increasing our com- petitive intelligence, and making sure that the staff who deal most directly with the practice and firm leaders are providing knock-your-socks-off support. Once you get that traction, then you can think about branding and other stuff.
What is the difference between a strategy based on business development and one based on marketing?
In law firms, you have to be careful, because people wear a lot of hats. Unlike in a corporation, functions in a firm are not totally separated. For business development professionals, it’s about understanding the practices, how the firm works, devis- ing strategies, targeting clients, knowing marketing generally, and marshaling support strategies. The communications func- tions are equally important, but they serve to support the busi- ness development strategies. Everyone has to work together to integrate all the elements of business development and com- munications into a coherent go-to-market approach.
Morrison & Foerster infamously rebranded to “MoFo” a few years ago. Why that name?
I’m not sure why or who came up with that, though it’s kind of obvious given the firm’s name. But when the web came along, “MoFo” was a natural URL. And in many ways, the market brands you. There was a bit by Jay Leno about an advertise- ment we were running a few years ago the included “MoFo,” and it helped propel the MoFo moniker. If you think about it, “MoFo” is one of the most recognized legal brands there is. That’s pretty fortuitous, in my view. You can’t buy that kind of recognition.
“Mofo” is also featured in a Trivial Pursuit question. What sort of impact has the media attention had on the firm?
You’re going to get your share of jokes, but I think the firm handles it well. We try not to take it too seriously, but we take our work extremely seriously. Brand recognition is hard in this industry. In the Big Law world, differentiation is tough.
What other strategies does Morrison & Foerster use?
Most of the same tactics used by other firms, plus a few wrin- kles, such as the iPhone app we recently launched. But basi- cally there is a sort of kit that each firm has to work with. Some firms emphasize one area more than another, like advertising over business development. Bingham, for example, put a lot of time, effort and resources into advertising.
Direct business development, which involves meeting with clients and knowing how to target specific industries and clients, is given a lot attention at other firms. Most firms do a mix, and I think we have a good mix of marketing tactics and business develoopment. Your tactics are going to vary a lot based on geography, the size of your firm, your culture. Our tactics are going to be different than those of other firms; but the tools in everybody’s kits are going to be similar. We just use them differently.
What are some of the trends in the industry right now?
With the economic downturn, there has been a decided shift away from traditional marketing communications and brand- ing toward direct business development. Business development is more about research and there’s a perception that it “makes the cash register ring.” The tactics that you use now are part of longer-term strategies. Some people think that turning away from branding is a mistake, and the pendulum may well swing back. There’s also a better use of technology, with more tools out there and more coming every day.
What advice would you give to undergraduates who want to prepare ourselves to do what you do? Should they concentrate on marketing, law, business, all of the above?
If I could give one piece of advice, it would be to learn how to write. A lot of what we do is communications, and there’s an increasing need for people who are really good communicators, orally and in writing. Being a good writer can distinguish you in this field.
Also, steep yourself in the industry. That doesn’t mean that you have to be a lawyer. I’m a lawyer and I don’t know if that makes me any better or worse than anyone else in the field. I don’t think so. In fact, I know people who are not lawyers who are great at legal marketing. I also know some people who are lawyers who are not very good at it. It de- pends. This is an industry, it’s multifarious. To really steep yourself in it, read the trades and blogs and keep up on what’s being written and you’ll get a good idea of trends; you’ll build your knowledge of marketing tactics. And if you’re looking to be a functional specialist, such as a media relations person, get experience through an apprenticeship in media relations.
You also need a high level of emotional intelligence. Law firms are difficult environments, and navigating relation- ships with the partners, who are all owners and have a claim on your time and attention, takes a certain kind of balance. I don’t know if that is a skill that can be learned, but try to have it.
One more little thing that’s helpful: learn and practice ac- tive listening. That is a skill that can be developed, and it’s very important in the legal marketing space.
People in legal marketing tend to move from one firm to the next after only a few years, what does that mean for job security? Do you think that trend might change?
I think it’s changed already. The tenure has lengthened. This is not a new field, but it’s new in its current shape. It was not surprising that people moved around years ago. When I got into the field, that movement was just start- ing, everybody was hiring, making “misstarts,” and starting over. At that time, the biggest opportunity to increase your stature and salary was to move. The field has grown and it’s definitely still growing. As the field has matured, the musical chairs aspect has died down.
What changes do you see for the industry down the road?
I see increased specialization at the practice level and functional level. There are more and more people in the field who have come from other professional industry back- grounds. There’s a growing appreciation of strategic input that really good business development people can bring to their firms. Firms are hiring chief strategy officers from the legal marketing community, which is good. It means that there is a growing respect for the industry.