Learn how to improve your budgeting process from industry peers.
What’s your budgeting process? How do you get firm leadership on board for bigger-ticket items in the coming year, like marketing automation systems? Who is involved in your budgeting process?
Strategies+ asked these questions and more to three c-level legal marketing professionals: Aleisha Gravit, chief marketing and business development officer for Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP; Clinton Gary, chief strategy and business development officer for Burr and Forman; and Jasmine Trillos-Decarie, chief client service officer at Stoel Rives LLP. The three panelists provided the following insights on how to make the budgeting season more effective and less painful.
Strategies+: What is your budgeting process? For example, are you given a target number (top-down), or do you build your budget program by program from the ground up?
Aleisha Gravit (AG): I am responsible for the firm marketing budget, which is the money budgeted and spent by my department, as well as the business development budget, which encompasses all business development expenses at the practice group level. The marketing budget includes salaries for the team as well as our communications expenses, any sponsorships or events that are firm related (as opposed to practice group related), as well as expenses for our annual partner meeting. The practice group budgets include travel, entertainment, sponsorships and charitable giving directly related to the lawyers in the practice. We employ zero-based budgeting [a method of budgeting in which all expenses must be justified for each new period] and use the prior year spend as a guide. We are not given budgetary targets, but there are several reviews and cuts prior to the budget being finalized.
Clinton Gary (CG): I have developed a system based on three objectives: fairness, accountability and flexibility. To do this, I marry top-down and bottom-up approaches. I am assigned a total budget as a percent of revenue. My first level of benchmarks are 25 percent central marketing, 10 percent offices, 65 percent practice groups (lawyers, team collaboration and reserves). My second level benchmark is that each practice group gets a total budget equivalent to the percent of revenue that practice group contributes to the total revenue of the firm. Each individual lawyer budget is based on a benchmark of 2 percent of the average of their last two-year originations. These benchmarks are the starting points for the development of growth plans for teams and lawyers; they can be adjusted based on the quality of their submissions, the expectations of their leaders and historic spend. As you can see, the benchmarks are based on a team’s ability to convert their marketing budget into revenue growth (i.e., ROI).
Jasmine Trillos-Decarie (JTD): I have been at four firms where I had budgeting responsibilities. At three firms, we created the budget from the “ground up.” We generally started each year at zero and built the plans based on what was needed to support each group's strategic goals for the coming year. I believe this is the best way to approach the budget process. It requires the firm and practice group to set measurable goals, and a business case is developed for any initiatives the lawyers request. In general, I believe the most important thing to focus on is the goals that must then be supported by the proposed initiatives. At Stoel Rives, the process is a hybrid. The executive committee sets the total business development budget as a percentage of budgeted gross revenue for that year. Even with a set budget allocation, I work with the various offices, practice groups and industry groups to align their goals with supporting initiatives.
Strategies+: What is the biggest budgeting issue you’re currently tackling for next year?
CG: Moving into the second year with my firm, the biggest challenge at this phase of a new budgeting process is continuing to help lawyers and team leaders create a meaningful portfolio of activities and investments that maximizes collaboration and achieves their desired results, while adding up to but not going over their assigned budget. The constraints create an environment of doing a few things well, rather than “spray and pray” with unlimited funds or until the budget police say no.
AG: I suspect that my challenges are the same as everyone’s: ensuring that the allocated resources cover the requested initiatives. We also need to make investments in business development and process improvement technologies, communications and the firm brand. These areas are easily overlooked when business acquisition is the first priority.
Strategies+: Technology is an increasingly large investment for legal marketing teams; what advice do you have for other firms to get firm leadership on board for bigger-ticket items (e.g., marketing automation)?
JTD: If you are looking for technology that will make your team more efficient, you should start by tracking how much time it costs you to do the work without the technology. In many cases, the technology will be much cheaper than the hours your team is spending on the task without the technology. In addition to technology, this is important for research tools, which are increasingly more expensive and more imperative as we all strive to understand our markets and what to expect from our competition. Processes that involve savings to lawyer time should be included in your business case.
CG: The budgeting process should be used to establish trust with your leadership by facilitating transparency and fairness and debunking the myth that the marketing budget is a “black hole.” By starting with top-down benchmarks that ensure that more than 75 percent of the entire marketing budget is in the hands of the lawyers and that 75 percent of the budget is dedicated to high-value activities (i.e., activities that are “one step away from the client,” such as client visits and meals), only then have you given your leadership what it needs to consider more openly an increase or shift in budget used for central marketing purposes such as technology. You also have to indicate what you have stopped doing to pay for new investments.
AG: I don’t have advice per se, but can share things we do that I believe make a difference and help gain buy-in for large technology expenditures:
- We try and run a pilot to get buy-in from lawyers or the marketing team before deciding to purchase.
- We float new technologies past our business development leads to gauge interest and then do multiple deep demos to make sure the product will definitely meet our needs and is worthwhile.
- We conduct off-the-record reference checks with colleagues we know who use the product and get honest feedback about pros and cons.
- My marketing technology team provides the CIO and me a memo that shows the efficiencies the new technology will bring and how it will free up team members to do higher value work.
Strategies+: Who is involved in your budgeting process? Do you include others from your team or outside of your department?
CG: Our budgeting process is performed in collaboration with our leaders at all levels, as well as each of my team members. For example, each business development manager reviews financials for each of their lawyers in their assigned practice groups (e.g., originations, past spend) and combines that with their intimate knowledge of a lawyer’s plan and effort to then recommend a marketing budget for each lawyer next year. That number is reviewed and approved by the lawyer’s practice group leader.
AG: For the marketing department budget, I work with the director of communications and director of marketing to gather input on what we plan to accomplish the next year and budget accordingly. For the business development budget for practices, the directors of business development take the lead and work with the practice group leaders to provide a first draft. I then meet with each director to review the budgets and then submit to the COO. We usually do two or three rounds before it is finalized and presented to the management committee for approval.
JTD: Almost every member of the BD team is involved in the budgeting process at some level or another. I expect the business development managers to work with their assigned groups to provide me with their budget requests and business cases. I also expect the same from our business development technology manager and competitive intelligence manager. Our events team helps me, the business development managers build the estimates for events based on their expertise, and the coordinators and specialists who support the business development managers help them create the budgets for their groups.
Strategies+: What’s your biggest budget regret from years past, and what have you learned?
AG: I always have a regret that we sometimes have to budget for things before we have enough information to fully understand how much it will cost. We typically have three weeks between receiving our reports and needing to have them in the system. It’s the fastest three weeks in the history of the world.
JTD: At one point, I joined a firm that was starting the process of developing a new website halfway through their current budget year. As I was transitioning into the firm, I participated in the process of selecting the strategic website partner with whom to work since, if I was coming in and being expected to develop a new website (with new content immediately), I knew I needed a partner I could trust. While I insisted on a particular strategic partner, I did not push back when I heard the low amount the law firm had previously budgeted. I suspected and was correct that I could budget more in the next year since the project spanned two budget years, but it resulted in more worry, stress and moving money between accounts to make it all work. The project would have been more efficient and effective if I pushed back on this during my transition.
CG: I have learned that a lawyer can deliver significant effort and results when they are given: 1) the time and coaching to identify a quality portfolio of integrated activities and investments on an annual basis, 2) the clarity of knowing exactly how much money they have to spend to achieve their desired results, and 3) the ability to make a case for additional funds for mid-year, high-value but unbudgeted opportunities that result from their intentional efforts. The biggest regret includes having participated in budgeting processes that decoupled planning from budgeting, creating demoralized lawyers and leaders that worked hard to develop plans but then were told by accounting what their budget is.
Jasmine Trillos-Decarie is the chief client service officer at Stoel Rives LLP based in its Seattle office. She is an experienced marketing leader with 25 years of experience in marketing and business development at international AmLaw 100 and 200 firms. Jasmine’s expertise includes developing and implementing business development and marketing plans that support the firm’s strategic and financial objectives, as well as the successful leading, motivating and coaching of cross-functional teams.
Aleisha Gravit is the chief marketing and business development officer for Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. Aleisha is responsible for setting the direction for practice group- and industry-driven business development strategies, public relations, internal communications, brand management, competitive intelligence and market research.
Clinton Gary serves as the chief strategy and business development officer for Burr and Forman, a 300-lawyer Southeast firm. His experience includes leadership positions with Arthur Andersen, Kilpatrick Townsend and Arnall Golden Gregory, creating a track record of driving top-line growth, a collaborative culture and client value. Clinton is known for his infectious enthusiasm and that he was raised in New Orleans and has never missed a Mardi Gras.