Many people who come to Totum have reached a critical point in their career and want to shift up to the next level of seniority. People rarely come to us just for financial reward – it is usually about career progression.

In a marketing/BD career in a law firm there are key bridges to cross: your first role as a team manager, to leading a practice group, to then taking on a ‘head of’ role. Most competent marketing/BD professionals will, at some point, tick the first two boxes and some will tick the third. But plenty will not manage to achieve the ultimate prize of a director role.

This article explores ways aspiring directors can maximise their chances of landing the top job.

Achieving the move internally

Stepping up within your existing firm may be a tough call. Statistics suggest only around one in eight director roles get filled internally. Why is this?

Often there is quite a gap between the director and the next rung down, although in the larger firms global directors of a large practice group have achieved the move. In several instances we have seen this happen when a partner, who is global practice leader, takes on the managing partner role and, post-election, wants to bring their person in to head up BD and marketing.

Some sage advice comes from a seasoned BD director who now offers consultancy and coaching services to law firms. “One issue is that some people remember the day that you walked through the door and cannot position you as leading the function,” he says.

This means that if you want to move up internally, you need to position yourself as someone who can operate at the highest level. “Take on firm-wide projects and look to identify the stakeholders who have influence and build credibility with these people,” he adds.

Barriers to the internal appointment are usually around perception. This might relate to lack of team management experience, and concerns over ability to shape strategy or to ‘push back’ – often wrapped up in the old cliché ‘he or she lacks gravitas’.

At Totum, we have occasionally seen firms identify an internal successor. They then send the person to Harvard for a two-week intensive management course, provide a coach to the candidate or second them to other business services functions to help them get wider experience outside their functional silo. But talent management programmes for high performers in business services are still rare.

Stepping up can be tough. Statistics suggest that only around one in eight director roles get filled internally.

Pastures new

We increasingly work with firms who want to recruit people into director roles who are ready for their first ‘number one’ role but who have no opportunity where they are. These candidates are still on an upward career trajectory – they are hungry and ready to lead the function. And they have often reluctantly concluded that they can only do this by moving to a new firm.

But how do people reach the point where they are ‘ready’? One BD director offers the following advice: “Too often people get absorbed in the day-to-day business as usual. To lead a function you must have curiosity – about the rest of the business and about business in general outside the firm to do with the market, the economy and the sectors important to the firm. You must be politically astute but willing to push back – to ask why and why not? Do not ask for permission – ask for forgiveness (if it does go wrong it’s not the end of the world. At least you had a go!).” 

Planning ahead

At Totum we are often quite surprised when we are contacted by people looking for their first director role who have done very little to prepare their ‘case’ for promotion. “Always think about your CV - but not in a linear sense,” suggests one recently promoted BD director. “If you do something good, write it down so you remember it. And use the right language – being able to articulate what you actually did yourself is important.” 

“In demonstrating your readiness for a number one role, team management is usually high up the list of priorities,” says another director. “It’s one thing managing tasks, but quite another managing performance.” We would also recommend:

  • Having someone who can champion your achievements, whether this relates to an internal promotion or to a move externally.
  • Gaining visibility across the wider business. This includes managing firmwide projects but also getting close to the other business support directors, who will become your new peer group when you achieve that jump.
  • Building relationships with partners. Here too, you must be visible.

“Influencing key stakeholders at a strategic level is key, as is helping change behaviours and influencing the agenda,” says a well-known BD director. She cites three tips for success in a role leading the BD team:

  1. Live the mantra and serve the team, the partners and the firm. Make everyone else’s success a priority.
  2. Keep the client’s perspective and a market focus at the forefront at all times.
  3. Make sure you win people over – sell in your ideas and look to achieve stakeholder backing en masse.

The challenges in your new role

Once you have achieved your goal and secured your first director role, the work really starts. You will need to build new and firm-wide networks or face a lonely life at the top. And you will have to strike a careful balance between securing some early wins that will convince the firm that you are going to make a difference – and remembering that some of the most worthwhile battles will take time to win. As one director says, “The irony is that whilst people will judge you in weeks, it can take up to three years for your initiatives to bear fruit.”

But with the right experience, framed by careful planning, the best directors will already be set to embrace these and the many other challenges waiting ahead.

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