“Cultivating a Business Development Mindset with Associates” with Katie Munroe 

On a recent episode of The Market Leaders Podcast, David Ackert interviewed Katie Munroe, Chief Marketing Officer at Zuckerman Spaeder LLP in Washington, D.C., on the topic of creating a business development mindset with associates.  

Asked to share come background Katie began, “Zuckerman Spaeder is a boutique litigation and investigations firm with just shy of a hundred lawyers. Just two weeks ago, I celebrated my second-year anniversary with the firm after spending about 13 years at Covington and Burling LLP.”

Getting Associates Started with BD 

David noted that in the two years that Katie’s been working at the firm, she’s introduced some new ideas that have been implemented, especially at the associate level, when it comes to business development and asked her to speak about them.   

Katie shared, “As is clear from my title, marketing is really the focus of this particular role in our department at Zuckerman Spaeder but having worked on the business development side of things for so long before joining the firm, we really saw an opportunity to do more in that space in a very concentrated way, and not just with the partners.” 

She continued, “It’s so common that associates are kind of left out of the business development conversations, and I think firms have been doing a better job in recent years of bringing them into the fold earlier on, which serves to prepare them for when they have those partnership responsibilities. But I think that there’s a lot more that we can be doing at earlier stages in people’s careers. And so, in the last two years that I’ve been with the firm, we’ve really focused on implementing a more rigorous program for our associates, including regular trainings and one-on-one conversations so that we can check in with the associates, see what’s resonating with them from our group trainings, and help them to really identify what is their calling card when it comes to business development.” 

Working with Willing Participants  

David asked Katie if she finds that associates are sometimes more willing participants than partners when it comes to training and talking about goals and where they’re headed.  

Katie commented “I do think so. I’m not sure if it’s a generational difference or just something that comes with an appetite for learning. At the associate level, they’re not so saturated and totally overcome with super demanding work schedules so I think that they might have a greater appetite to learn about things that set them up well for partnership. By the time we’re working with partners, many already have their own habits, preferences, and ideas on how business development and marketing should be done. But if we get to those folks at an earlier stage and help them to build muscles in relationship development, network cultivation, profile raising, etc. I think we help them figure out ways to incorporate those behaviors at more regular and intentional intervals and it really does pay dividends.” 

David added that when you meet with someone who genuinely wants to get clarity on what their practice is going to look like and how they’re going to be successful, you have the buy-in that’s key in getting their full attention on the process of training, planning, and ultimately executing a plan. 

“I think that there’s a lot to that in terms of how law firms are run,” Katie agreed. “For a lot of associates or junior lawyers, it’s kind of a black box when it comes to promotion. And demystifying elements of what makes you an effective partner, or things that are becoming requirements as you grow up in a law firm can be really helpful. So, I do think there’s a motivation and an interest at the associate level probably related to that.” 

Meeting Associates Where They Are

David asked Katie to share how she and her team are meeting associates where they are in terms of their interest level and the kinds of training that seem to resonate with them, and what she sees that’s working.  

She commented, “We have the good fortune of having someone on our marketing team who plays a hybrid role between helping recruit associates to the firm and working within the marketing team. She’s really useful in a variety of ways, not the least of which is keeping an ear to the ground as she onboards people about where they feel like they need help and what things are of interest to them.” 

She continued, “So we do have an introductory conversation when we onboard people to share with them about the marketing department, the types of ways that we can be helping them at all levels of their career, and also asking them if they have particular interests they’d like to pursue. Those initial scoping conversations have really been informative when we determine what is going to be the ‘curriculum’ for the year based upon people’s interests.”  

Katie added, “We do have the benefit of having a relatively small associate class. That also means that we have people across years of experience. They could be coming off of a clerkship with two years of practical experience, or they could be seven years into their time as an associate, and that could be difficult, but in this context, we’ve found that to be really helpful because we’re able to draw on the more senior associates for anecdotes and experience that helps to really ground what we’re sharing with the more junior associates as they familiarize themselves with blogging, or keeping up with their classmates on LinkedIn.” 

Getting Industrious with Social Media 

David asked Katie if blogging, keeping up with classmates, and social media are themes that emerge when she talks to associates about what they’re interested in. 

“They’re definitely the most accessible,” Katie confirmed. “And our associates have grown up with social media, so I think there’s a comfort level there that people might be more willing to start with. It doesn’t seem as scary as some of the other things like conference attendance and walking into a room with 600 people where you know no one. But what we work with them on is trying to make things less scary.” 

David noted that some may view social media as a waste of time and asked Katie if she has had any results that demonstrate its value and helps associates stay motivated and consistent with their social media efforts.

Katie shared, “LinkedIn is an obvious one, and I think many of us can point to examples where we’ve been able to stay connected to people who otherwise might seem out of reach. But I’ve been impressed following conversations with our associates at the creative ways they’ve found opportunities through Instagram or Facebook.”  

“We had one really great success after one of our associates began following a former classmate on Instagram who was launching a business. She proactively sent her a direct message on the application suggesting to her that if she ever needed any counsel, she’d be glad to put her in touch with people who could be helpful. Almost immediately, this person got back to the associate, and they struck up a billable relationship.”  

She added, “That’s such a great illustration of being industrious with your own network and not feeling hindered as an associate to not be someone bringing in business. It’s everybody’s responsibility to think about the way that we can stretch the reach of the firm.”  

Building Pipelines

Following up on Katie’s mention of blogging and staying in touch with their networks, as well, David asked Katie to share how she approaches the idea of relationship pipelines with associates.  

She responded, “One of the things that we really want our associates – as well as our partners and counsel – to do is take an inventory of their networks. Early on we have a conversation with them about reviewing their classmates not just from law school, but also their undergrad career, taking a look at their clerkship connections, and looking more broadly at some of the less traditional avenues for work or perspective clients. By that, I mean their neighbors or the people they run into at school functions if they have kids, and just keeping their eyes open to where possibilities exist.” 

David asked if the network inventorying Katie does happens during trainings or during one-on-ones and at what point associates prioritize their contacts.  

Katie explained, “We do go through a formal program with everyone in the room, where we talk about the different categorizations of individuals in their network, whether that be prospective clients, referral sources, or people to whom they could refer work. Then in our follow-up one-on-one meetings, we really dig into each individual’s network and ask them to identify a handful of people.” 

She clarified, “It doesn’t have to be boiling the ocean in terms of everybody you know, making sure that you classify a thousand people and keep up with all of them, because that’s just not realistic. But we urge them to think about who the people are who are most likely to be helpful to them and to think about what they know about them, where they are going, what their trajectory is, and where they think they’ll end up. That could be in-house, in government, maybe co-counsel, or at some point a potential referral source. We encourage them to prioritize a diverse group, so they have feeders in different areas.” 

David noted that Katie’s approach is an interesting one and so important with associates because many of the people in their demographic haven’t yet arrived at where they’ll be in five years, but they can prioritize them by the trajectory they’re on. 

Katie added, “It’s hard to really see the future in some circumstances but I think the benefit, especially for associates, is that they’ve spent three years with their classmates, they have a sense of what each person or friend in their class has as interest areas or priorities and what they’re doing outside of their jobs.” 

She continued, “And that’s another thing to keep in mind. We talk with associates about different ways not just to build their network from people they’ve already met, but also how to get involved in their community, in bar associations, advisory councils, or board opportunities.” 

Katie shared the story of a former associate she worked with. As a patent litigator, he was excited by the sciences, so they explored organizations he could lend his support to, and identified TechBridge Girls, a nonprofit that helps expand academic and career opportunities for girls in science. They approached the organization and asked if they were looking for volunteer support. They also learned the organization had a number of lawyers on their board, and ultimately pitched the associate as a board member. He’s been serving on that council for several years and it’s become a source of work.  

Motivating and Differentiating 

David asked Kaie if blogging was the thought leadership method of choice for associates at Zuckerman Spaeder. 

She said, “We do have an associate-driven blog we launched in early 2021 and it’s been a great resource for people to stretch their legs, get comfortable with writing, and choose topics that really interest them. We’re not too intentional or specific as we direct our associates in terms of the topics they choose. It’s not necessary that the topics have a careful dovetail with their practice, but rather be about things that interest them.”  

She continued, “It’s been great because people have really gotten active. We’ve had 15 of our 20-ish associates contribute blog posts, and we’re helping them evaluate the metrics on clicks, retweets, performance views, and the numbers of people who are looking at the content from companies or prospective targets. I have found that having that type of information has really helped to motivate them and make things feel more tangible in terms of the potential impressions that they could be making in areas that they might want to explore in terms of future thought leadership.” 

David noted that it’s common for associates to struggle with differentiating themselves when they describe their practice. He asked if Katie and her team give associates training on their elevator pitch.  

She said, “Yes, I think that’s so important and it’s something that we’re really focused on. Earlier this year, I was shocked when we had a conversation and learned that many of our associates didn’t know what their peers were working on, or what their practices looked like. It was a light bulb moment for me and another colleague in the marketing department about the importance and need for associates to not only be able to talk about themselves, but to be able to communicate effectively and thoughtfully about their peers and what everyone else in the firm is doing.”  

She continued, “Especially as we talk about cultivating their networks, we don’t want to send them out into the deep end without being able to talk smartly about what the firm can offer. What we’ve been working on putting together is a speed dating-like exercise in terms of elevator pitches, where each associate gets paired up with somebody and needs to talk through what their practice looks like. Their partner then regurgitates that information in the form of the person’s elevator speech to see if they’ve gotten it right, if they’ve heard what the person was trying to communicate, and if they did it effectively.”  

Katie explained that going through the motions of an exercise like that is illuminating for associates because we’re not always received the way that we think that we are, and our message is not always as clear as we think it is.  

Keeping it Simple

In closing, David invited Katie to share any nuggets or philosophies she would give to someone considering an associate business development training program.  

She advised, “I think it’s good for us to remember that a lot of these things are not taught in law schools, and so we shouldn’t take for granted what might seem obvious. So much of what we do in the marketing and business development space at law firms is not rocket science, but it’s helpful just to articulate and have those light bulb moments with your associates or your partners.” 

She added, “The other suggestion I would have would be to talk to the associates and ask them what is of interest, and what they have a hard time with, and whether there are any prickly points that make them nervous about the unknown in the business development arena. Some of the things that might come naturally to us in our roles may not be the things that come as naturally to them.” 

And to associates who are trying to get more involved, Kate advised, “Don’t overcomplicate things. This comes down to being a relationship business, and people want to work with people they like.”