Lee Grunnell, CMO at Womble Bond Dickinson discusses the future of the multi-national law firm, the impact AI will have on the legal market, and how agency support can better prepare their clients for the changes coming to the legal industry.
Formed in 2017 as a result of a merger between UK-based Bond Dickinson LLP and US-based Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice LLP, Womble Bond Dickinson employs over 1,000 attorneys across 27 locations in the US and UK, offering services in 12 different sectors.
Lee Grunnell has been CMO of Womble Bond Dickinson UK since January of this year, having spent most of last year working on a consultancy basis, carrying out a thorough ‘root and branch’ review of the firm’s marketing and business development efforts in addition to their broader go-to market strategy.
As Lee shares, “I'm a professional services lifer, with my first proper job at EY which included roles as BD manager, Head of BD, Director of Marketing and BD. In terms of my broader background, I’ve worked across a mixture of in-house and agency roles.
The first half my career was quite focused on the business development side, meaning a lot of work on setting up sector networks, key account programmes, pitching and CRM approaches.
The second half was much more on the marketing side of things, which lead me to set up a virtual agency called Thirteen in 2014, focusing on positioning and branding projects for professional services firms.
This also allowed me to have more time to study effectively and learn the stuff I knew that I didn't know. Finally, in 2019 I went back in-house at and then joined WBD at the start of this year.”
Lee: When I was working at Thirteen, we used to talk about the process of helping firms to uncover, articulate, and demonstrate what it is that made them distinctive? How do you define your culture?
Most of the people that work at Womble Bond Dickinson could – if they wanted to – go and work somewhere else, but they choose not to. Meaning, there clearly is something there for the people, so how do you uncover what that is?
You can only do that by talking to the people within the business, talking to clients, and just having those conversations to identify common threads that come out. Then you play it back to people to see if what you heard, rings true.
At Thirteen, we used to put these common threads to the RAD test – is it relevant? Is it authentic? Is it distinctive? So, the first part is defining what that culture is, and then you've got to be overt in showcasing things that communicate and demonstrate that culture.
Therefore, your internal comms becomes particularly important, so when you've got examples of projects that people are working on or highlighting EDI, CSR or ESG initiatives – it’s about promoting actions and behaviours that demonstrate that culture, but also actively calling out things that maybe don't match it.
If a business is serious about their culture, their values, and the way they expect employees to act, this can become dissipated and diluted very, very quickly if you tolerate behaviours that don't accord with those.
Lee: The thing I'm most proud of us doing so far is the research piece, where we carried out 30 best-practise, qualitative client interviews, these were quite broad and unvarnished, as we wanted to hear from people on various aspects; how they find and choose a law firm? What are we good at? What other firms are good at? What frustrates them? And so on.
Then we turned those into two quantitative research surveys - one for the private wealth B2C part of the business and one for the commercial B2B part. In total those surveys covered more than 750 people — the sorts of people we want to be in front of and working with.
So, going back to what I said earlier, the world will give you the answers if you let it.
After going through the initial findings and the implications of those surveys with our research analyst – the answers are just there. You can see things like our performance against competitors, what is our level of brand awareness in the market? What is our level of consideration in the market? And what are the implications of that for our marketing and BD strategy? Or what are the implications of that for product development at different stages in the client journey?
I'm proud of us for doing this research piece and not rushing straight to the tactical stage but taking the time to do things properly.
We've also got a partner conference coming up, where I'll be sharing some of the highlights of that research. There are things in that piece that have surprised me, where my instinct would have been to do X, but the research is telling me that the right approach is Y, which challenges your own perceptions.
Lee: In the legal market, there's a few interesting firms that I can look to, one is Slaughter & May, they have clear culture and expectation of what it means to work at the firm. They're still a traditional partnership, they're not limited liability partnership, so all the equity partners are fully liable for what may or may not happen at the business. Also, the partners don't have individual billing targets because that counters to the right behaviours.
On the other side, a firm like DLA Piper is interesting, which has gone from being a small firm based in Leeds, to the biggest law firm in the world through incredibly focused vision, strategy and ruthlessly pursuing objectives that were set.
Another is Mishcon de Reya, they were certainly the first and I'd say probably still the only firm that has properly embraced the power of brand, and what it means to build a strong brand.
Lee: The legal market is probably quite ripe for AI, as so much of the work that we do is based on existing information, therefore any tool that has brute processing power and the ability to analyse documents at speed, filtering through 45,000 contracts, could be quite disruptive within the industry. But I don't think AI will change or impact the market much for a while.
I think there's also the question of, are we as an industry, looking to use technology or AI to do things differently and better? Or just do the same things more quickly? I don't think we know the answer to that yet as we don't really know the capabilities of these tools yet.
Lee: I like to have a roster of agencies, who you know are good at different things.
I often talk about a sort of creativity scale. If you imaging that scale going from nought to a hundred, one might be taking some marketing materials you already have and making them look a bit smarter, and 100 might be coming up with a genuinely revolutionary idea. In my experience, all agencies naturally sit at different points on that scale.
If you've got an agency that's naturally good at that sort of ten to fifteen point, trying to push them to be far more creative is nearly impossible. Likewise, if you've got an agency that defaults to 99, trying to rein them back in can be equally as difficult.
So, I think if you have a roster of agencies, you can kind of build that appropriately. As sometimes you just want something delivered quickly and other times you want something genuinely creative.
Furthermore, with some agencies the relationship can be solely transactional, you don't necessarily need to spend a huge amount of time with them, it's kind of just delivering a routine product or service.
Then with other agencies, things are much more involved, such as the research work that we have done – there were conversations every week, emails going back and forth, almost daily, so communication is intensive to deliver that piece of work.
Once a particular work or campaign is completed, that communication from brand to agency is cut-off for many months until they’re doing something different.
The ideal scenario is to have your roster of agencies, and at the beginning of each year, sit down with all of them to discuss the two or three big things you’ll be focusing on in the year, what the research says and what your marketing plans are, so that everyone involved understand what needs to be delivered, what's important to you and the scope of each project.
It’s also important to find agencies and people with the right personality, cultural match and have a broadly similar viewpoint to yours when it comes to marketing and business development, yet can also spot the things that you miss in particular areas.
For example, I know quite a bit about targeting and positioning or campaign briefing, but bring in a good marketing or creative agency who genuinely know their stuff, they're going to take what I know and turn it into something that I would never be able to in a million years.
Lee: I particularly like those conversations where there's an element of a shared interest. That does not mean to say I want to pick the people that have for example – only read the same books as me or listen to the same podcast – but having that degree of empathy around shared interests and ability to have different perspectives on certain aspects always creates a good first impression.
Agencies that demonstrate different outlooks or perspectives on your activity, start to build up a sense of knowledge or intelligence and creditability.
Lee: According to Sturgeons Law, 90% of everything is rubbish, and I think that applies to the marketing industry. So, for me, it's looking at can this agency cut through the 90% of rubbish that exists in the industry? Is it an agency that doesn’t jump on every new bandwagon or get obsessed by every shiny trend?
If an agency starts telling me how web 3.0 is going to revolutionise marketing, I know pretty much straightaway, I'm not going to work with them. If it's an agency talking about how I need to really embrace NFTs to propel my law firm’s growth into the future, I'm pretty sure I'm not going to work with them.
But if an agency tells me what really delivers effective work, then I'm really interested.
I think it comes to that critical thought piece – let’s just stop and think is this right for the business or are we just jumping on the bandwagon. You see it with various research reports, ‘70% of consumers say they'll only shop at a supermarket with strong ESG credentials’ and therefore ESG must be the future of everything. But no one's stopping to say – Is this actually right? Will it deliver?
The same goes with AI now, you've got people proclaiming to know exactly how AI will revolutionise the legal market. We might have ideas about how it could be deployed and where it could add value, but nobody knows exactly.
Lee: I think from the client side, unless there's something that's confidential, it’s about being transparent from the start – this is our strategy, this is what we’re trying to do, and this is where we want to be.
Then it’s clear briefing – who is your campaign targeting, relaying what the research says about them, what’s your positioning, and so on. Then from the client side, it’s knowing when to take a step back and letting the agency take over. It's a little bit back to what I said earlier — if you've brought the right agency in, they'll have skills that you don't, so just let them get on and do their stuff.
From the agency side, it’s important to share what the broad project timetable looks likes, this includes the costing, the project plan, and if things aren't going to plan, letting the client know early – don’t tell me the day before we're due to have a review meeting or we're not quite ready.
I think the other thing is striking a balance between brand and agency, in terms of what is a convenient process for both – when my team or firm are being funnelled through a particular process because it's good for the agency to work that way, that just always feels uncomfortable.
Don't make me go through a process just for the sake of having a process – you often see agencies use platforms such as Basecamp, Asana and Nero Boards, but what the client really wants is a spreadsheet that displays, what's happening and who's doing it.
The final thing, from an agency perspective, is ‘be brilliant’. We often see creative agencies present three ideas when working on a campaign, one that’s quite safe, one that's really out there, and one that’s somewhere in the middle. I’ll argue if you've got one great idea, show me one great idea, if you've got five great ideas, show me five great ideas – don’t show me work that you wouldn't be happy to run in the real world.
Lee: I'm not sure they can. I'm not sure it's fair of clients to expect their agencies to deal with that, other than, helping their clients win work, boost their brand equity, and do all the great things that will implicitly help protect the business and build it for the future.
Jordan Brownlie is a Brand Partnerships Manager at GO!, connecting Legal and Professional Services with agencies that are the right fit for them. You can learn more about what we do at GO! and how it works here, or get in touch with Jordan any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.