Why law firm CMOs are taking on more diversity responsibilities

Corporate clients increasingly are demanding diverse attorney teams and legal advice on their own DE&I efforts.

Why law firm CMOs are taking on more diversity responsibilities

Law firm Brown Rudnick hired Julia Bennett as chief marketing officer in 2021 to handle not only the typical promotional and client engagement responsibilities that come with that title, but also to head up a key diversity, equity and inclusion role for the firm’s corporate clients.

Bennett said her responsibilities are specifically tied to the firm’s revenue goal of $300 million by the end of 2026, putting her in a unique position to advance DE&I, because at the end of the day, having a diverse team of attorneys helps attract clients and boost revenue.

“We speak the language of revenue,” Bennett said. “And the diverse team is the high-performing team; it's the team that's most likely to get hired. So this is about community and diversity being important in advancing people, but it is also very much about making sure that [we’re] securing work from clients and putting forward stuff that makes clients feel like they trust you.”

While professional services firms have historically had DE&I leads in place to tackle internal, HR-related diversity goals and objectives, and they still do, CMOs such as Bennett have only recently started taking on more specific DE&I roles as it relates to client engagement. That’s because corporate clients are increasingly demanding their law firm partners show that they are attracting diverse lawyers, are putting together more diverse attorney teams for them and are able to advise them on their own internal DE&I efforts.

Still, firms have a long way in building trust with their corporate clients that they can deliver on their DE&I needs. 

Deborah Ruffins, CMO at law firm Perkins Coie said it has to start with increasing diverse attorney representation and Perkins Coie has been doing that through recruiting from historically Black law schools and other colleges and universities that have larger populations of first-generation law students.

According to the 2022 ABA National Lawyer Population Survey, just 5.5% of all lawyers in the U.S. are Asian-American, 5.8% are Hispanic, and 4.5% are Black.

In a recent 2022 State of DEI Content Report from strategic communications firm Greentarget and consulting firm Zeughauser Group, company executives cited DE&I as second to cybersecurity on their list of priorities for the professional services firms they hire, while companies’ internal general counsel cited it as their top priority.

“Chief executives, chief operating officers and chief legal officers, they have what we're uncovering in our research are real growing needs for guidance on a range of diversity, equity and inclusion-related issues,” Greentarget President and Founding Partner John Corey said.

Corey said C-suite executives are looking for guidance on, for example, how to recruit and retain diverse talent, when and how to comment on social causes, how to identify DE&I as a strategic priority within their companies, and who needs to be involved in that process, and how to set an inclusive strategy for the entire organization.

Chief marketers within law firms have been gaining more prominence overall since 2020. Legal-focused media company ALM wrote chief marketing officers are increasingly crossing into areas that have been the sole responsibilities of partners, including services related to the delivery of legal services and direct client relationship management. (In some cases, these chief marketers started as attorneys but many are coming up through traditional marketing and communications backgrounds.)

Also read: Preventing layoffs from undermining DE&I progress

Mary K. Young, partner at Zeughauser Group and former chief marketer for law firm Howrey and ex-business director for Kraft Foods, said chief marketers are increasingly tasked with ensuring companies get a diverse team of attorneys, that their diverse lawyers are being promoted in the media and retained in-house, that law firms’ internal DE&I efforts are being promoted to attract new clients and that companies are getting the proper legal advice surrounding their own DE&I efforts.

“In terms of specifics, in some cases, lawyers are advising [companies] on what they can and can't do around trying to increase the diversity of their workforce; what kind of questions [they] can ask; how to manage diverse talent,” Young said. “In addition to that, there's a lot of concern around disclosure. There’s a lot of information that they have to provide, especially if they're a public company. They have to disclose information to their shareholders about their diversity efforts and their numbers. They need guidance on how to do that.”

Chief marketers partner with their DE&I leads to assess how to best tackle these needs for clients.

“You've got to have a very strong collaboration between marketing and the DE&I folks,” Young said.

Data and analytics firm Avocado uses Brown Rudnick as its main legal advisor on its business for everything outside of intellectual property patents including mergers and acquisitions. 

Avocado CEO and Co-Founder Brian Handrigan said, “when we were looking at a firm, we wanted somebody that reflected our values,” noting that Avocado is based in St. Louis, because it sought to bring more tech jobs to a diverse city. “By having a company that's committed to DE&I, you end up with so many different points of views and experiences in a room when you're trying to solve a problem. It enhances creativity and innovation. And you get a better work product.”

Inside the shifting role of the law firm CMO

Another part of Bennett’s job has been maintaining Brown Rudnick’s Mansfield certification, an important distinction in retaining clients. The certification is designated to law firms and legal departments that are diverse; part of its requirements includes considering a broad slate of 30% to 50% of underrepresented talent for all leadership roles within firms and departments. 

Bennett said her team is also in charge of putting forth DE&I information on the firm’s social media and website and ensuring diverse attorneys are not only pitching client business but handling the work, something that’s been a top priority for C-suite executives and in-house counsel.

“Clients are very vocal in saying they don't just want to see people show up in a pitch and then never show up on a bill,” Bennett said. “Clients are really demanding to know how many hours people are working on things, how [we’re] positioning those people to do work, how [we] are going to make sure those people are developed and advanced.”

When Ruffins started at Perkins Coie law firm in 2020, DE&I was cited to her as part of the job, but it was not clearly defined at the time. Her role at that time was to focus solely on helping diverse attorneys at the firm achieve success.

After the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the rise in Asian-American hate crimes, Perkins Coie started to flesh out Ruffins’ DE&I role more.

“I have specific roles now assigned in marketing to drive diversity, equity, inclusion, marketing, sales and communications,” Ruffins said, noting that she is responsible for how DE&I is showing up on the firm’s website and in client development. “For example, our DE&I team offers a speaker series for us internally, and we leverage it for our clients externally.”

Also read: Super Bowl ads get a failing grade for director diversity

Ruffins said she works with the firm’s DE&I lead to develop programs for clients on topics such as uncovering unconscious bias.

“One of the things that's true about corporations is that [their] law departments are cost centers,” Ruffins said. “So, they don't have a lot of infrastructure and they look to their law firms to provide value-added services; for example, education, best practices and helping them build their internal diversity, equity and inclusion programs.”

Bennett said as the first African American chief marketing officer for Brown Rudnick, and the firm’s first African American C-suite executive, she does not take her job lightly. Having worked in sales and business development for various other firms, including Venable and Williams Mullen, Bennett said she’s fortunate that she’s always been part of teams that prioritized diversity, “at least quietly, but now the mandate is more clear.”

“One of the things I love is being able to sit at the table, sit with the CEO, and help them think through these issues,” Bennett said, “make sure that different perspectives are heard.”

Ruffins agreed, saying in prior roles at other law firms such as Hogan Lovells and consulting giants including Accenture, DE&I was a priority to some degree, but not to the level it is now. 

“We were starting to bring together marketing and DE&I as a good channel for improving client relationships,” she said. “It just wasn't quite nearly as focused or targeted as it is here. It’s definitely taken on an increased importance. It's part of every significant client relationship conversation.”

“Diversity is a high priority for our clients and there's low confidence in the industry's ability to meet the goals that we've aspired to,” Ruffins said.