In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel goes on record with Brenda Plowman, chief marketing officer at Fasken and the president of the Legal Marketing Association, to discuss what it means to be a legal marketer and the impact of legal marketing on the business of law. She also provides tips on how to engage more and what the future of legal looks like.
In her day job, Brenda is the CMO for Fasken, a Canadian-based international law firm with ten offices. She drives change, ensuring that the purpose for transformation is meaningful to clients, lawyers, and staff alike. She leads a talented group of marketing, business development, digital operations, and communications professionals across the firm. For more than 16 years, she has launched brands and led the development of many programs and initiatives, including Fasken’s Client Service Excellence program. Before joining the firm, Brenda attended and taught marketing at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. She also founded a successful business consultancy, served as the VP of US sales and marketing for a growing company, and has led many respected organizations. Brenda has a small farm in Canada.
How did you get into legal marketing?
It’s a good question. One of the things about my career that makes it unique is that I ran my own agency for about 10 years. I did full-service marketing, communications, and public relations for professional services firms. Those included engineers, law firms, and accounting firms. I had a different type of career, doing a lot of international travel and sales. When I came back, I decided that I would step back into working in a firm. I thought I would come and work at this firm for a year, as I decided to restart my business. And 16 years later, here I am.
What tips do you have for in-house senior marketers to support and grow their teams?
It’s a challenge, and an incredible opportunity today, to build those loyal relationships. I am very fortunate. You and I have talked about having that loyal relationship. We work in environments that are very challenging, in that there is a lot to learn. We work with very smart people. It’s constantly evolving, the demands are high, and it never stops changing. I often say to people, “It’s either black or white. You like working in legal or you don’t.” And that’s okay. So that’s the first thing, is to recognize that this is either a career for you or it’s not a career for you.
What I have learned over the years is to see people and their strengths and try to build opportunities for them that align with those strengths. Encourage them to go to that next level and become all they can become.
What that means is that parts of my job must go away and I have to give those opportunities to other people and keep evolving them. It’s having that commitment to their progression. Sometimes we must let people go and do their dream job. For the ones who stay, it is really seeing them for who they are and what they can contribute and encouraging them. Sometimes it’s hearing an idea from them and letting them go forward with that, even though it might not have been my idea. And understanding that it really doesn’t matter.
I’m getting a lot of time these days to start thinking about how we structure our organization, meet the needs of the lawyers, and meet the needs of the firm, and to provide opportunities for people to grow. I met a man on a plane not that long ago, and he said, “There’s this axis that you need to be focused on. Are you continuing to learn, and are you continuing to earn more money? You need to be moving along those equally as you evolve in your career.” It’s a simple formula.
Gina Rubel: That holds true not only for the senior leaders, but for their team members, and advocating on their behalf. That’s the hardest thing for a lot of the in-house senior marketers that I’ve spoken to – not always getting that support from firm management, in terms of helping your team members grow. You may have a different relationship, because you’ve been there for 16 years, but I know with many of our listeners in legal marketing, that’s sometimes a challenge. You’ve said in the past that you have quite a few team members who have been with you a long time. That says a lot.
Brenda Plowman: It is challenging. You must have a lot of tenacity, because of what you just said. There may not always be support. I can tell you that some of the things that I’m working on now, I’ve dreamt about for different periods of time. There’s a project the team and I are working on right now that I started talking about five years ago. We’re finally going to do it, but it’s the right time and right place. There are some structural things that we wanted to make happen that I’ve probably been thinking about for eight years. It didn’t happen at the time, but it’s sticking with it.
I talked to one of my colleagues recently, because that’s one of the ways we survive in a law firm – those relationships that we build with other departments and the relationships we build with our colleagues at other firms. This happened to be our CTO. I said to him, “You’ve made some structural changes. I admire those changes, and I’d like to make them.” He said, “The way it’s worked for me, is I’ve taken baby steps. I’ve proven my case, and then I’ve expanded those baby steps into something else. I did it step by step.” It’s not happening with all the ease on the planet. I’m not just waking up and changing the world. I’ve had to have a lot of patience and work through it, build trust, and prove a point. I say, “This is how we’re going to do this,” and then continuously build off that. I am fortunate to have had people with us for a long time.
Gina Rubel: When you said, “Prove a point,” it brings me back to one of the things I tell a lot of young marketers or people communicating with lawyers – gather your evidence before you try to make a case.
Brenda Plowman: I’ll tell you some of my not-so-successful moments. Early on at Fasken, my main boss was a litigator. I’d come from running a big book of business in the organization that I had gone to. I had forty people, they were direct reports of mine, and they were selling. I knew what I was doing. I’d run my own agency. For the first couple of months, I felt like I was losing my mind. What I didn’t realize was that we were litigating, and I had to make my case. He really wasn’t opposed to what I was doing. I just needed better evidence. I needed a better case to put forward. Once I figured that out, things got a whole lot easier.
Gina Rubel: That’s a great tip for our listeners and for anyone who works in the legal industry or the accounting industry. We have that in common – me running a public relations and marketing agency, and you having done that in professional services. You must make the case with data and quantifiable evidence, not just theory.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the legal industry over the last 16 years?
Data. That is a big shift that’s taken place – just the availability of that data, and how we’re moving more and more to helping produce or grow revenue. There’s been a transition from more marketing-based considerations to business and revenue enablement. That’s come a lot through the data and understanding that. I’d say that’s a big shift that I’ve certainly seen. I’ve also seen a change in marketing operations. How do we show the value? In the old days we would say, “Well, it’s difficult to show the value. This is all a part of what we do. We have to do all of these things.” I’m excited about marketing operations and bringing that discipline to everything we do. Because at a law firm, we are asked to do everything from the sublime to the ridiculous.
There are a lot of things that the firms rely on us for. That speaks volumes about the individuals who are sitting in firms of all sizes, all over our countries. Our people deliver a significant number of services. We are really contributing to the development of a firm’s culture and how the firm operates. What marketing operations allows us to do is say, “Where should we be spending our time? Where should we be putting our efforts? How should our firms be investing?” That’s a more business-oriented mindset.
That’s a big trend and something that I’m very excited about seeing evolve. One of the initiatives that I’ve had an opportunity to work on for my firm is this whole idea of client service and client experience. That’s evolved a lot and it continues to evolve. I don’t think that’s going to change. We came through the pandemic, and we had to learn to deliver services differently. It’s a priority. And the last one that I’ll mention right now is digital marketing and what that means for us.
Gina Rubel: One of the things I’ve seen is the face of the industry has changed, because the world has changed. I know you’ve put so much energy into all sorts of DE&I initiatives. The only reason I mention that is because we live it every day, so it doesn’t even feel like a change anymore. It’s something that we promote daily, in terms of inclusion. As someone who practiced law 25 years ago, that’s been the biggest change for me, finally getting somewhere with having diverse voices in every law firm. I’ve been there when I was the only woman in my firm as a lawyer.
I believe that the industry has a lot of great opportunities to continue. One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed over the last year, is getting to know you and your role as the president of the Legal Marketing Association. And for our listeners, the Legal Marketing Association is the association for those of us in this industry. It’s only 40 years old. The American Bar Association is 120 years old, to put it in perspective. It’s really an evolving industry, this thing we call legal marketing.
What are your priorities as president of the Legal Marketing Association?
It is an incredible association. We’re nearing 4,000 members, and that’s impressive, but we have some ambitious goals. It’s a diverse organization as well, in terms of the membership that we serve. We are in a real growth mode, where we’re trying to focus on where next, who next, and what next. We have a lot of opportunity. Legal marketers are contributing at the fabric level in their firm in many ways. The thing that we hear today from a lot of legal marketers, is how they intersect with DE&I and EDI. We call it EDI in Canada.
I’ve been very focused on elevating the professionals in our association, making sure that their contributions are seen, valued, and brought forward, and growing their contributions. I’m also focused on helping people see how involving and engaging with legal marketers helps our firms achieve their strategic plans. There’s a lot of interest in the association. We launched our European chapter just last year, and we have over 200 members. I had the opportunity to go and be at their summer social, through some work I was doing through my own firm, in London. They’re a powerful and very engaged group. We have interest from other countries. We’ve got interest from China, South America, and the EAU.
My involvement with LMA has been able to help my firm because I’ve made strategic connections with other firms and gotten introductions for our lawyers to those other firms. A very dear friend of ours helped me in Texas and did some introductions for my firm. Those attorneys came back, and they said to me, “Brenda, those were the best meetings that you set up for us, versus even our own contacts.” That speaks volumes of our network and our reach across those 4,000 members. We can help our firms accomplish their strategic and business development goals.
Gina Rubel: I love what you said about that. It made me think about all the other things that legal marketers are doing and bringing to the table in the business of law. And as a licensed attorney, they don’t teach you about the business of law in law school. They don’t teach you about P&Ls in law school, they don’t teach you how to manage a general ledger, or even today, what ESG looks like. I’ve really enjoyed many of the initiatives that you’ve brought to the table, like ESG, why it matters to law firms, and what it looks like as a practice group versus as a part of the fabric of your firm’s culture.
There are just so many incredibly big conversations happening there. The Legal Marketing Association brings some of the most brilliant content, conversation, and learning opportunities that I’ve ever had the opportunity to participate in. It’s different than a substantive CLE. It’s different than an ethics CLE. It’s really about how the firms run, how they grow, and how they attract and retain business and staff and lawyers. I’ve just been in awe watching you in your role. And I love that you have done town hall meetings.
Why did you create town hall meetings for LMA and why does it matter?
It is something that we really needed as an association. For me, it’s really about transparency. Any association belongs to the members. It really leans into something that I believe in, and something that We all must play a role in, which is this notion of stewardship. I might sit in this role this year as the president of the association, but anything I am doing is based on the work that has been done before me and the work that will be done after me. I have a role to play here. That’s the same way that I look at my team. I am caring for my roles and my association and my firm today.
I have a responsibility, and I love my responsibility. You and I were talking about this before, about working long hours and doing the work and rolling up our sleeves. I like that. I’m proud of what I do, and I want to make a difference. For me, town halls were a way to connect those pieces. Because we do them for our members. It all comes down to making sure the member knows why they’re involved with us and what we’re doing and provides us the insight that helps us be able to pivot, adjust, and do what’s necessary.
I can think about a couple of opportunities that came up this year where people presented. We got that feedback. We were able to revise what we were doing, and then incorporate that in what we’re doing. It brings it to a very tangible member benefit. It helps us, as an organization, have a pulse. We’re learning, our members are learning, and we’re building the association together. For me what it does, is make sure that as the steward in this role, I’m not just doing what I think needs to be done. I’m keeping my pulse on what the members think needs to be done. I try to live that role in my firm, as well. It’s the same thing that I’m trying to do with my team, which is to bring that along that curve.
Gina Rubel: Can you imagine if law firms hosted town hall meetings with regularity?
Brenda Plowman: It would be incredible. That’s a frustration for people. They don’t know what’s going on. “If I only knew what was happening.”
Gina Rubel: There are so many large firms that say, “We’re one firm.” They’ve gone through all these M&As. They have offices in 13 states or 15 countries, and they’re not communicating with their own family, with everybody who wears the name of the firm on their backs, literally and figuratively. What if the model of the LMA town hall meetings became a model for law firms?
Brenda Plowman: Wouldn’t that be something? Even if you’re not doing that today, it’s so easy just to open that discussion and begin tomorrow. While I started town halls for LMA, I decided to do town halls for Fasken. I started out the year on both with my team. Recently I was realizing we’ve got some big projects that we’re working on at our firm right now. I was having conversations with individuals on the team. Part of your job is to reflect, and I thought, “Well, how come that person doesn’t know that?” Next week, we’re doing a town hall, just a fireside chat. It’s important to be open and a little bit vulnerable with your team and say, “I want to bring you some information.” Then allow people to ask questions.
It’s that feedback that you’re leaning into. We’re communicating, and we’re telling people what we’re doing and where we’re going. We give them the opportunity to say, “Have you thought about this or that?” I saw someone in the office in Vancouver the other day. He said to me, “I always come to your town halls, Brenda. I make sure that I’m there. I get important firm information.” If we think about it like that, for the people who are our constituents, it makes a big difference for people when they can actually learn what’s going on.
What is something you are most proud of in your role of as president of LMA?
This year as president. I came into this with an ambitious agenda. There were things that mattered to me. I wanted to ensure that our association was in good shape, with good structure, and that people had the opportunity to contribute, whether they were one of our incredible staff or one of our incredible volunteers. I’m proud of my year. One thing I just realized I didn’t talk about is our regions. One of the things that we’ve done this year is we’ve made sure that we’re trying to work together always, collaborate, and spend time. We’ve met with the presidents. We’ve tried to bring them along as we’ve been headed down this path. I’m excited that I’m hopefully putting LMA in a place where it’s ready for the future and for growth.
Gina Rubel: Well, as a member, I can say you’ve done one heck of a job. I’ve been enjoying walking next to you and learning from you.
What’s something you’re most proud of from your role at Fasken?
It is watching my team grow and having people with us the amount of time they’ve been with us. That’s at an all-time high today. Seeing people and their potential, taking my role as a leader and influencing, and helping them achieve what they’re capable of. For me, that is the most rewarding thing that I do, from a team perspective. There are a lot of things that we do, but from a team perspective, that’s the thing I’m the proudest of.
Gina Rubel: I remember the first time we really interacted; it was at the Legal Marketing Association conference. It was the year that I was on the conference committee. We’re in Florida, and Roy Sexton, who’s the incoming president, said, “You two have to meet. You have so much in common.” When I say, “Stuff in common,” it brings me to that idea of really getting to know the people in your industry or in your business, or even around you. Ask questions. So, I’m going to ask you a couple of questions.
What’s your favorite flower?
Oh, that is actually a very difficult question for me. I grow a lot of flowers. I really love dahlias. I love growing them. I love their diversity, their color, their complexity.
How many dogs do you have?
I have two dogs, 200-pound dogs. They are laying around me. One is 100% Great Pyrenees. And her half-sister is Great Pyrenees and Anatolian. Anatolians are from Greece.
Gina Rubel: Another thing we have in common is big dogs. We thought one of ours was an Anatolian, and it happens to be Great Pyrenees and Catahoula. The reason I’m asking these questions is that this is what relationships are about – getting to know people. You and I have completely different upbringings, yet we’ve worked in the same industries and the same types of businesses. We love loyalty, we care about the people that we walk beside. We’re both plant addicts and dog lovers.
What’s your favorite movie?
Pretty Woman. I love it. I’m a bit of a romantic. These are good questions because you’re right; this is key to how you get work done and how you get work – just understanding the people that are around you. Having the curiosity to know people and what they care about.
If you could see any one thing change, whether it be in the world around us or in our industry, what would it be?
The contribution that people in our profession make and being valued, it’s something I’m deeply passionate about. I’d love for firms to really understand the contribution that people in our profession… I wouldn’t be doing this job at LMA, I mean my second job, if I wasn’t so deeply passionate about that. I want to help people see the potential of our members.
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Learn more about Brenda Plowman
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