Does a CMO need an MBA?

by Timothy B. Corcoran on April 12, 2010

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The Legal Marketing Association’s monthly publication Strategies asked this question of three experts in the February 2010 issue.  It’s a great question, particularly as the legal industry evolves before our eyes.  Does a graduate degree in business management (an MBA) help a chief marketing officer (CMO) do his or her job more effectively?

Two respondents offered similar responses, essentially “It depends.”  They suggested that while an MBA may not be essential today, it can be a differentiator in a CMO search in which one candidate has the credential and one doesn’t.  They also suggested that one’s undergraduate degree matters, and if you don’t have sufficient business training, get some.  As one stated, a business-oriented degree may obviate the need for an MBA, but someone who “spent your college years dissecting frogs or analyzing Mark Twain’s literature” may have a greater need.

I love that line.  It may seem snarky, but it reflects the reality that some degrees confer specific skills (e.g., accounting, chemistry) and others provide wide foundations for critical thinking (e.g., many liberal arts degrees).  My own liberal arts undergraduate degree provided an excellent foundation for critical thinking and future learning, and my days climbing the corporate ladder provided daily business lessons, but my MBA provided specific training that has proven to be invaluable in my career.  Given the choice to approach it differently, I wouldn’t.  An undergraduate liberal arts degree and a graduate degree in business has, for me, turned out to be a successful formula.

One expert, however, asserted that a CMO has no need for an MBA.  “Having obtained an MBA myself and having hired MBAs for an investment bank, I can tell you that very little of what you learn in B-school is of value to a law firm.” Wow.  I can think of few opinions that are more poorly informed than this one.  Good thing this expert isn’t influential in the hiring of CMOs!  Oh wait, as it turns out, this expert is a recruiter, specializing in placing marketing professionals at law firms.  No wonder there are real questions (here and here and here) about the value of CMOs in the modern law firm!

Let’s not kid ourselves, folks.  While there are many fantastic law firm CMOs, there are some whose skills and experience would barely qualify them to be a mid-level marketing manager in the corporate sector.  Scroll back up and click on the link embedded behind “CMO” at the end of the first paragraph.  Look at the spectrum of responsibilities typically associated with a corporate CMO.  How many law firm CMOs own the product roadmap, i.e., have primary input into which practices the firm will offer?  How many have any input into setting fees, let alone own the entire pricing process?  If we consider the lawyers’ business development efforts to be the sales function of the law firm, how many CMOs have responsibility for establishing how the lawyers sell and to whom?  Your first reaction may be that many law firm leaders don’t even know what these things mean.  Therefore, according to our supposed expert, it’s a waste of time for a CMO to have skills that the lawyers don’t understand.  This is nonsense and the expert should be embarrassed to be associated with such drivel.  If the lawyers knew all that they needed to know about running a business, then the legal sector would have been better prepared to weather the recent global economic meltdown.

I’ve participated in and observed the legal marketing profession from many angles, and while the profession has come a long way, the next frontier is to adapt successful business practices into the operations of a law firm.  One way to get there is to continue to introduce marketing professionals from outside the legal sector who have business experience, and another is for excellent legal marketers to continue their own business education.  It’s critical to raise the bar and make the role of law firm Chief Marketing Officer more challenging, and also more rewarding.  Today’s CMO is expected to manage budgets, manage managers, be conversant in the many critical functions such as communications, public relations, competitive intelligence, web marketing, client relationship management, knowledge management and have a more than passing understanding of strategy, accounting, corporate finance, project finance and leadership development.  While one can gain quite a bit of insight and training in these areas without an undergraduate business degree through on-the-job exposure, I’m a firm believer that an MBA provides new tools, techniques and a vocabulary that are difficult to replicate in a piece-meal fashion.  But as the first two experts offered, if you don’t have this training, do something to get it.

Recruiters who recirculate the same resumes, who rank longtime law firm experience as far superior to business experience or business training, are doing a disservice to the legal marketing profession.  They pander to the law firm leaders who don’t know any better, and who are comfortable with marketers who know how to “keep the trains running on time” without “rocking the boat.”  When I was an in-house law firm marketer I was recruited constantly to jump to another law firm.  When I heard the recruiter repeat these code words, which to me mean “don’t challenge the lawyers to change,” I ran the other way.  For me, and a for a lot of excellent legal marketers I know, being seen and not heard while churning out “brochureware” at the request of lawyers who think this is how clients buy, is not an inspiring role.

Many law firm leaders out there today are realizing that what made the law firm successful in the ’90s and ’00s is no longer enough to succeed in the next decade, and they accept the challenge to improve their operations.  Part of their challenge is finding and hiring experienced professionals who bring new ideas, ideas tried and tested in other environments, and giving these professionals a voice.  I imagine that the influx of new ideas from outside the legal profession, and the excellent ideas offered by legal marketers who have improved their business acumen, will easily crowd out the supposed experts who wish for a return to the heady days of yesterday.  That door is closed.  Please don’t let it hit you on the way out.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathleen Pearson August 26, 2013 at 7:57 pm

This is an excellent article. I believe any experience – whether position experience or additional education – will help senior level law firm executives help lead their firms. We are all paid for our judgment calls and the more informed we are the better. As a graduate of a master’s program geared specifically towards law firm management, my extended education has broadened my understanding of strategy and the implications of decisions on multiple levels. Could I have learned this organically over the course of my career? Probably. But having the opportunity to learn and discuss issues in a classroom setting was invaluable.

Timothy B. Corcoran April 13, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Haha, Mr. Lebowski, you’ve found us out, we’re all self-important frauds! But at least we’re frauds who know how to spell ad nauseum!

Joseph Lebowski April 13, 2010 at 12:58 pm

CMO’s (whether they have an MBA or not) are quite worthless in a law firm. Just use the marketing budget to hire a couple of rainmakers and you’re good to go. MKTG in a law firm is nothing more than glorified event planners and clerical posts to respond to pitches. And Tim will argue ad-naueseum to the contrary, but in the end, every law firm on the planet could get by without an expensive CMO or MKTG staff – just outsource all the BS clerical stuff to some PR firm or temp agency. It’s smoke and mirrors folks – plain and simple. A lot of talk and no action. How else do you explain Wachtell and Bartlett Beck being the most profitable firms in the country without any C-level execs and bloated admin staffs?

Tim – if you’re so competent a CMO, why are you consulting for a C-rate organization? Why not practice what you preach? Why not work for McKinsey – a true consulting firm?

Why am I reading your posts and wasting time with this entry 🙂

Cheers everyone. Now get back to feeling self-important. 🙂

Jayne Navarre April 12, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Those who know me may be surprised to learn that I am an MBA prodigy and earned my MBA in ten days in 1995 having read front to back Steven Silbiger’s 1993 edition of The TEN DAY MBA: A step-by-step guide to mastering the skills taught in America’s top business schools.

I too was facing the same obstacles Heather mentions. A full time job two active children and a marriage, oh and an active church life, community life and I was a hockey mom! I had neither the time nor the extra $100,000 of spare cashing laying around to enroll in a real
university, for a real degree, so I bought lots and lots of books. I’ve always been curious about stuff, an avid reader and a lifetime learner. In those days it was enough to get by before law firms were businesses. By the time I was in a position to go back to school, the thought of taking that test – you know the long one that asks you stuff you wouldn’t know how to do even if you wanted to…math! Seriously. I’m not good at tests and worse at math, but 20 years after my last SAT test I could only assume the condition had worsened.

I did manage to take some classes over the
years and learned a lot on the job, and of course its not too late to get my MBA if I thought I’d be headed back into a corporate leadership role, but I’m not. It’s too much fun and learning being an entrepreneur. I do, however like hanging out
with people who talk like MBAs. I’ve always been jealous of Tim’s vocabulary and have often told him so….makes him sound so smart.

Does a CMO in law firm need an MBA? I’ll weight in on the side that it would help, a lot, today, and add that goes for any size law firm. It couldn’t hurt, that’s for sure. The vocabulary, case studies, perspectives and tools you’d get deliver a complete package.

I hate the idea that a JD is comparable or even more desirable. Totally disagree on that one. Different mindset, different skill set. Agree with others that it helps culturally, but otherwise, if you’re not going to practice law, save your money and aggravation and get a paralegal certificate –you’ll learn most of the same stuff. That’s what I did.

Denis Campbell April 12, 2010 at 1:07 pm


I’m not sure either degree (MBA/JD) ever substitutes for good business sense. For any CMO candidate to want to enter an environment where those distinctions are made can only be courting enormous frustration and disaster.

While they will certainly earn a lot of money, bringing one’s skills into creating a culture of innovation and change is the only path to success.

An MBA teaches little of real life outside of esoteric cases and a JD teaches little of business life other than to study one’s navel.

In these turbulent times the answers are simple and brutal. If your CMO is not focused 100% on direct sales and building the business (vs. esoteric strategy, comm or identity exercises) then don’t take a hiring decision.

It’s all about sales (dress it up and call it client service/development if you must) and supporting those making the deals to keep the place growing.

Otherwise, why bother?

Good article.

All best,

Heather Morse-Milligan April 12, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Tim – I don’t feel “picked” upon at all. Look, if I could “drop out” of my life for a few years and work on my MBA, I’d do it. But it won’t fit into my life.

Not sure if you’ve realized this, but MBA programs are missing one key ingredient: WOMEN. Why?? because most MBA programs require you to have x-amount of years in the workforce before you can enter their programs.

Guess what?? Turns out this is prime motherhood years, and women cannot dedicate the time. I’ve heard this from the admissions people at USC, UCLA and other schools in my community. And, I’ve seen stats (including here: that back it up.

So, whether it’s “random acts of marketing” or “targeted education” is a difference in perception.

Once again, I believe that LMA could step up to the plate here and provide a much needed service to both legal marketers and the law firms we serve.

Timothy B. Corcoran April 12, 2010 at 12:37 pm

I agree with Larry that a JD can really help smooth the way with lawyers who have a tendency to view “outsiders” with skepticism. I was recruited by an AmLaw 50 law firm a couple years ago and after a robust discussion of the changing legal marketplace, one which I led because most of the partners in the room were unaware that changes were coming, one partner remarked that he was astonished to find someone who wasn’t a Biglaw partner but who understood the marketplace issues. He wasn’t being unkind, it just never seemed to occur to him that a “non-lawyer” might be able to figure out his complex world.

But at the heart of my post is the assumption that what worked yesterday won’t work today and tomorrow. So adapting completely to the law firm environment may have been a formula for success for some legal marketers, but will it be as critical going forward? Obviously partners own their business and they can hire who and what they want, but as many learned in the last few years, their poor business acumen can have a negative impact by leaving them unprepared for a changing world.

And to clarify my post, I’m not sure I mean to assert that one MUST have an MBA to be successful as a law firm CMO. I have many close friends in CMO and other top legal marketer positions (regardless of their title) and they are very competent and I can learn quite a bit from them . But I do believe the role is changing and many of these same people will be uncomfortable without additional learning. Perhaps one can audit a course or two, as the expert I picked on asserts in her later commentary, but I think that “random acts of business school” are to business education as “random acts of lunch” are to legal marketing. A piece of the puzzle, but not nearly enough.

Lest one call me an MBA snob, which is little different than the JD snobs characterized above, know that I too learned like Nancy… I learned my business lessons climbing the ladder, making many mistakes along the way. It wasn’t until years into my business career that I returned to school and obtained my MBA. I’m not sure I would’ve recognized the value earlier on as a fresh-faced recent college graduate. This is why I believe even a CMO, or Directors of Marketing or Business Development, can benefit from business education even after achieving the title they seek and years in the field. We should never stop learning.

Nancy Myrland April 12, 2010 at 11:55 am

Tim and friends,you have provided interesting perspectives. I have mixed emotions about an MBA being a “must have.” I spent many years in sales and marketing before entering the legal marketing profession, so my view is skewed a bit. I don’t have the right answer as it depends on the situation. Common sense tells me it certainly can’t hurt to have an MBA.

I will say there is no way I would have been prepared for what I found when I went to my firm as its senior marketer in 1997 had I not had the opportunity to mature, manage and learn for many years first. That’s just me.

The flip side of that coin is that it can also be a culture shock to someone who has come from the corporate world as law firms operate at a different pace, and with a different decision-making structure than most corporate environments.

I definitely don’t think it’s important, or always beneficial, for one to have a JD before becoming a legal marketer. If one is a marketer, one can market in any environment…period. Marketers know the basics, have the skills, and know how to learn, adapt and market within any profession or industry. That is more important than knowing how to practice within the profession one is marketing.

I didn’t create all of Time Warner’s products, but I sure did know how to promote the dickens out of a few of them for almost 10 years. I didn’t know anything about higher education, but I figured out how to help my university client market itself. The same with the architectural firm, the financial services firm, the CRM company and all the others I have worked for, or helped, during the past 20 or so years. That last paragraph isn’t meant to sound self-laudatory, but only to mention that we, as marketers, must hone our skills, and study our craft, enough to be able to market in any environment, regardless of background or degree. That goes for me too, regardless of the number of years I have been running around sales, business development and marketing. The rapid pace of change in communication calls for us to pay attention to our skills in order to remain vital to our clients.

Heather Morse-Milligan April 12, 2010 at 11:32 am

Nice post, Tim, and thanks for the link. As one who doesn’t have an MBA, I do think that it holds me back at times … but, then again, I have no desire to be a CMO at an AmLaw 200.

However, I do find that my desire to learn, self-educate, etc. keep me moving forward professionally.

I just wish our professional association would develop a curriculum that is “essential” to our success and provide education around it. Finance, for instance, is an area of mystery for many of us.

And I’ll disagree with Larry … I don’t think that the JD helps you be successful as a CMO. I think it might help you be successful in building relationships and “acceptance” with the lawyers within the law firm as so many of them believe that if you don’t have a JD you don’t know anything.

But nothing about earning a JD prepares you for the BUSINESS of law … and that’s one of the big problems we face. Multi-million dollar law firms being run by lawyers with no business training.

Larry Bodine April 12, 2010 at 10:58 am

I agree that CMOs should have an advanced degree or business experience. An MBA is helpful, but a JD is even better. A JD means that you have been in the shoes of lawyers who are your clients, you speak the same language, you understand how their minds work.

My advice would be for a CMO to practice law for a little while, study the rainmakers in the firm, and learn how a law firm makes decisions (by consensus). You can learn the marketing and sales skills at conferences and in books, but nothing beat actual time spent in a law firm.

It worked for me.

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