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Show Notes

Debbie dives into the world of legal marketing with EJ Stern and Katherine Wilson, two trailblazers who have revolutionized how law firms grow and succeed. Discover their journey from Big Law to building a thriving business, and learn their secrets to transforming your law firm’s marketing strategy overnight. Whether you’re overwhelmed by marketing challenges or seeking fresh insights, this episode is packed with expert tips and unconventional strategies you won’t want to miss. 

Links from the episode:  

Powerful Leaders Season 1 Episode 24: Christina Floyd & Karen Leastman  

Connect with Debbie on LinkedIn      

Connect with Katherine on LinkedIn  

Connect with EJ on LinkedIn 

Powerful Leaders Swag Shop    

[11:30] Building a Cohesive Marketing Strategy

[25:13] Hiring and Building a Talented Team

[29:28] Superpowers

  • Transcript

    Debbie Foster (00:03): 

    Welcome back to The Powerful Leaders No apologies podcast, where we celebrate fierce, fabulous females making waves in the legal world. I’m Debbie Foster and I’m excited to introduce you to these women who are leading the charge with their bold leadership and influential journeys ready to be inspired by their powerful stories. Here’s the show. 



    Welcome back to another episode of Powerful Leaders. No apologies. Several months ago we had an episode drop that was, I’ll call them a dynamic duo, and it was so much fun to talk with them. Chelsea will link to the episode in the show notes. It was a great episode. I have another dynamic duo with me today. I have EJ Stern and Katherine Wilson. They’re going to tell you all about themselves and their business, but I haven’t known them for a really long time, but we’ve had an opportunity to work on some clients together and once I heard their story and I heard from our clients about the cool work that they were doing, and I just love two women who get together and create a business and start helping law firms, like that’s super exciting for me. I thought they have got to be on the show. So show EJ. Maybe I’ll turn it over to you first and you can do a quick little intro and talk a little bit about your company and we can start there and then we’ll turn it over to Katherine. 


    EJ Wilson (01:25): 

    Sure, yeah, and we’re thrilled to be here. Thanks so much, Debbie for having us. We are fractional law firm, CMO. It’s a pipe dream that we sort of for years said that we were going to work together again, had the pleasure of working together at Troutman for 10 years and had a crazy idea after one too many calls from headhunters saying, come back and be a CMO in big law. And at that time I had small kids and it wasn’t a no never, but it was definitely a never now. And it made me realize if big law has such a need, there’s so much need and opportunity for small and mid-size law and sort of over the course of a couple of hours and the lake house, putting pen to paper on an idea, coming up with the logo, walked out, told my husband, I had this crazy idea and called Katherine three days later and we were off to the races. We love working with and offering fractional services to firms large and small. We think everyone requires that sophisticated legal marketing support, but not all law firms need a full-time solution, and they certainly don’t need a forever solution. So we’ve had the pleasure of working with over 20 firms so far in our 18 months, which has been really exciting, offering that fractional CMO services and then also working with some of the big law firms on training workshops and coaching. So it’s been a blast. 


    Debbie Foster (02:47): 

    Katherine, how about you? What’s your side of the story? 


    Katherine Wilson (02:50): 

    Right, so like EJ said, I think the two of us have each been in legal marketing for about 20 years, and for 10 of those we worked together. And so we knew each other really well and we had kept in touch. I mean it had been, I think by now seven or eight years since we worked together, but we had always kept in touch and had talked at different points about me joining what she’s doing or just thinking about different ideas. And it just was something that was just always there. And it’s so wonderful to have someone that and trust and we trust each other’s work product. We trust each other’s direction and ideas. And so just when EJ came to me, it was just a no-brainer. I had jumped off at a big firm that I had a department of 75 people when you put all of marketing and business development together and lots of different specialties. And like EJ said, the firms, they’re all competing for the same clients. So they all need that sophisticated level of support. And so it’s been really great and a lot of fun building this together. 


    Debbie Foster (04:10): 

    Awesome. So how about starting with the definition, what is a chief marketing officer? 


    Katherine Wilson (04:17): 

    Well, I would say in the capacity of a law firm, a chief marketing officer is someone who not only runs the traditional marketing side of the house where you have your website, your digital efforts, your events, but also the business development side of the house. And that’s very different in particular for law firms is having both the business development and the marketing side. And that’s really where we come in because both of us have a history in business development, but after a while I had branched off to run marketing and branding, and EJ is an expert in business development and coaching, and that’s what she does all day every day. And so that’s why we make such a good partnership because in many different industries, the business development side, the sales side is separate from that marketing side, but traditionally in law firms it’s together housed under the same department. 


    EJ Wilson (05:21): 

    And I’ll add further any business with professional services, frankly, doing the marketing and the business development piece and sort of building out the plan and the strategy. It’s just simply not a lawyer’s best in highest use. They should be out there generating business, bringing in new clients, and allow someone like us to come in and help hold them accountable, set the strategy, set the tone, and really drive the efforts forward to ensure that we have a consistent message, a consistent vision, and we’re all aiming for and looking to deliver the same quality of expertise. And so it’s been really fun as a business person from the outsider to come in with our, as Katherine said, combined 40 years of experience to work with Lawyerist to take that heavy weight off of them, particularly in these smaller firms that don’t have, may have a half of a person or a person that’s sort of really focused on the digital marketing or the events and help bring that cohesive strategy and vision on one hand. And then the other side. And I think what makes us particularly unique is that we combine the business development with the actual implementation. And that marketing side of the house is so critical to bring all of that to life. 


    Katherine Wilson (06:34): 

    Most smaller, even to mid-size firms, they may have a variety of vendors. You have your website vendor, your SEO vendor, they may even have an outsourced events resource, but there’s usually it’s up to the Lawyerist that are actually managing all these vendors, which to E J’s point is not their best and highest use. So that’s another service that we provide is okay, what is the strategy, but then that implementation side, who should be managing those? Probably not the partners that need to be doing the work and getting out there and getting the business. 


    Debbie Foster (07:15): 

    I work also with a lot of small and mid-size firms, so I’m curious how I think our target markets match up pretty well. I think that the challenge that I regularly see is the administrative executive leaders in a law firm are typically focused on billing and accounting and intake and how they get their work done and those kinds of things. And marketing or business development is left up to the Lawyerist who are kind of in the catches catch can game, right? They’re doing what they can do and also managing big books of business. And I’m curious, when I think about a managing partner leading a firm, one of the marketing challenges, or maybe it’s a business development challenge, and maybe I don’t actually even know the difference between the two, but one of the challenges that I see is that they struggle measuring. You’re just doing all kinds of things and you’re getting new business, and so you assume those two things are connected. 



    You’re doing a lot new businesses coming in the door. It must all be related. But I think that there is even some simple things like are you keeping track of your referral sources, not just writing them down on a piece of paper, but actually keeping track of them. How do you manage events? How do you keep track of who comes to things? That to me, in a small and a mid-size firm is something that I see people struggling with and see them overwhelmed with. Is that part of what you’re going to come in and help them? How do we figure out where we are? What are the gaps and where do we need to go? 


    Katherine Wilson (08:54): 

    A lot of it is infrastructure so that you can even pull that type of information. We’ve gone into clients where they don’t have transparency even within their own accounting system. So how do you understand what clients are growing, what areas are growing, where the opportunities are if you don’t have that transparency? So sometimes, many times we’re having to back up and say, we’re going to need to put some infrastructure in place, some clarity in place that we can even get that kind of information to build a strategy. 


    EJ Wilson (09:32): 

    And I think also it’s important to understand what the KPIs are and to help them build out and identify that return on investment in that process. And sometimes it’s exactly as you’re saying, it’s let’s not throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks, but rather let’s create a very sophisticated referral plan and how we’re going to target those referrals. We have a vast network who are the 10 best opportunities based on two key factors. And for us, those two factors are strength of relationship and ability to direct work now or into the future that really if you rack those two things up that really refines your search and your efforts. And if you just prioritize and work that list, it’s an easy more methodical and strategic way to get to that end point. But Debbie, I think what you said is absolutely right. So much of the infrastructure and the process, I think what surprised us having both come from big law is exactly that missing piece. And we’ve focused and often we spend that first month doing a strategic analysis and also a process building and a best practices building because everyone needs to be on the same page. And so often in these smaller firms, we’re seeing that everyone’s doing something, but it’s all different and it’s not tied together in a cohesive plan. 


    Debbie Foster (10:47): 

    Interesting. So you come in as marketing leaders essentially. You’re like, Hey, we’ll just join your team, right, for a short period of time or a long period of time. I love what you said at the beginning, they don’t always need someone full time and they don’t always need someone forever. I’m super curious about that. They don’t always need someone forever part because sometimes when I go into a firm, I think I could just be here forever. There would always be something new for us to do. I could literally be here forever. So I am curious about that part, but I’m also curious about you come in as a leader into the firm, bring us in. We’re going to be part of your team and we’re going to work alongside the professionals that you have. How do you get people to focus on this really important work when they’re pulled in a hundred different directions? 


    EJ Wilson (11:40): 

    Great question. And honestly, that’s often the starting point. We know we need help. We know we have an issue. We don’t know what that help looks like, and we’ve never really worked with someone like you to know what to expect. And that is a constant pain point, frankly at times for us because it’s reminding them the original why we were brought in and yeah, you’re right, we could keep working with firms forever and ever. It’s endless. And as each month progresses, something new comes up, something that an issue or an opportunity we spot. But the idea that we have is, it’s not that they don’t need a marketing person in perpetuity, it’s that they may not need a very senior sophisticated CMO level person in perpetuity. And so we want to set them up for success, help build out a strategy that’s sustainable, helps start that implementation process. 



    And we have an incredibly sophisticated team of marketing managers and directors on both sides of the house that can help bring a lot of the ideas, the strategy to life with ultimately the idea that we’ll start scaling back at some point and we’ll help identify what are the roles you need to continue on to be successful. We’ll help recruit those roles, train those people up, and then we’ll tell off eventually. So to your point, it’s not, okay, we’re here for six months and we’re out forever and that’s all you’ll need and you’ll be good to go. But rather we’re putting that infrastructure in place, we’re giving that guidance and we are going to help set up a roadmap for your future leaders and for your future marketing professionals at maybe a more junior level to continue on to implement your question about how do you deal with all these Lawyerist who are going in so many different directions with so many different priorities. 



    I think that’s an issue and a challenge at firms that have a team of 70 plus marketing professionals because it’s always hard to keep our eye on the prize because when Lawyerist are particularly busy, their heads down mining the client, working the file, doing the litigation, that’s what they’re there for. And frankly, most Lawyerist, I think a shows that 70% of Lawyerist are introverts, so they’re perfectly content doing that and not going out and growing the business. But as we all know, that pipeline is so critical to the future and the best time to continue to grow and generate business is when you’re busiest to ensure that you can sustain the business long term. So reminding them, sharing those statistics, talking about the why, talking about the strategy and reminding them that this isn’t just to get us through today or this year, but rather we’re creating something sustainable and something that will generate business and create those best practices to lead you into the future. 



    Obviously, Debbie, as you know, easier said than done at times, but I think at the core of it and the way to get that focus is so much about building the trust and investing in those relationships, creating that authentic connection just as we tell our Lawyerist to do in business development with their clients, once they trust us and they understand where we’re coming from and our goals to help them and to drive more business and success, it’s a lot easier to then get buy-in and to build processes and best practices that can get us to where we need to be in the future. 


    Katherine Wilson (15:00): 

    I would also add that a lot comes down to leadership, and Debbie, I’m sure you have this as well. If leadership is driven and dedicated and makes decisions, then things can move a lot faster. If leadership doesn’t necessarily have that capability or isn’t willing to do that, then it doesn’t matter how many recommendations you make, it’s not going to see the light of day unless the firm leadership has follow through. So that’s where we see a lot of the rubber hitting the road as to whether or not something is successful or not. It comes down to the leadership, and like I said, I’m sure that you have the same experience 


    Debbie Foster (15:49): 

    For sure, and there is a challenging roadblock in how we think about change. I was just giving someone an example the other day that when I started in this business, however long ago, that was a long time ago. Let’s just say 25 years ago, I implemented a practice management program in a law firm. They literally did not have to think about that product for five years. They could just use it and go on about their business. There was an annual upgrade, the feature set didn’t change very much. And the world that we live in today, every third time you log into whatever cloud-based system you happen to be using, there’s like a want to know what’s new since the last time you logged in. The change is coming at us at a pace that feels really unmanageable. And so part of this, how do we get people’s focus for me is I don’t need you to focus on this for one month. 



    I need you to figure out what percentage of your time can be focused on this from now until forever. Because we’re running businesses and we’re leaders who are running businesses. I can’t engage in a three month business development and marketing strategy project, and then at the end of the three months it’s done and I never have to think about it again. And when we go into firms as leaders, and I’m sure when you go into firms as leaders, some of what we’re trying to manage is how do we create new habits? How do we build new systems and processes that people are going to follow, not for the duration of a project, but for a duration that doesn’t actually have an end. And so some of what we’re doing is we’re battling the status quo. We’re battling how we’ve thought about change up until now, and I’ve got to believe that that’s especially true for how new business comes to law firms these days. 


    Katherine Wilson (17:51): 

    It is a culture shift at the end of the day. It’s such a culture shift. And that’s why for a lot of what we do, we also have to provide training programs for the Lawyerist, the communication around what is happening and making sure that everyone is aware. And as much as we say, okay, leadership needs to drive, leadership needs to drive, but everyone needs to be a part of that, everyone needs to be rowing the boat together. And the only way you do that is by through communication so that people know what’s going on, that they feel invested, and you have that culture change. You’re not going to change anything unless it’s just permeated through the organization. 


    Debbie Foster (18:39): 

    So true. It’s so true, and it really is. It’s a culture shift. It’s a mindset shift. It’s habit building. So let me ask you this. You all are leaders with your clients. You’re leading a brand new business. You 18 months ago jumped into the freezing cold swimming pool and said, we’re going to go do this. What’s been hard and what obstacles have you faced and overcome? 


    Katherine Wilson (19:05): 

    Well, I would say what’s been hard is honing in on the services that we offer. Because it is easy when you go into a firm and you see all the things that are needed, right? Oh gosh, they really should have this and this and this and this. And so figuring out, okay, what are we making recommendations for versus what is it that we can actually jump in and do ourselves? What we look like today is not necessarily what we looked like 18 months ago. 


    EJ Wilson (19:36): 

    I think that will continue to evolve. I think the other thing that’s been really a challenge for us is that we’ve done this for a long time. I think we’re pretty darn good at what we do on the business development and marketing side. It’s the running of a business that’s just so different and getting to the point where we say we can’t scale until we have the right team behind us. And so making the decision to add one, to add three to add, we’re recruiting for our seventh, which is really exciting, our seventh full-time employee. But just putting for us, pausing with our clients so that we can focus and word on our company to build best practices and processes and HR manuals and understand how to effectively operate a business when we’ve coached people on how to develop business. But we’ve never run a business ourselves. 



    And I think for us, we could do the doing all day long, but the doing doesn’t work if we don’t have a well oiled machine. Business goals iterating as needed. I think our flexibility has been huge because as Katherine said, we aren’t who we were and who we thought we’d be, but we have it been stymied by figuring out, oh no, we have to have the perfect roadmap. We have to have the perfect set of offerings. We’ve sort of evolved, which has been wonderful and exciting. But as a business owner, there have been many times where as confident as we are with our clients, we wonder, are we making the right decisions for our team? Are we doing the right things? Do we have the right processes in place? So we have actually recently invested in and brought on a director of operations, which has changed our world. We know where our limitations are, and she has been such a gift to the organization and really excited to see where things go and how things evolve with her. 


    Debbie Foster (21:23): 

    That’s amazing. Growing a business. So you really have two full-time jobs. You’re growing a business and running a business, and you’re serving your clients and figuring out how there’s a great book, Dan Martel, maybe buy back your Time, which is all about, I mean, the premise of the book is like, what is your hourly rate realistically? And then anything that you could pay someone to do and you, it’s this concept of our highest and best use. What does that look like? And so thinking about bringing on a director of operations that is taking some of the load off of you guys so you can think about where does this business need our heads to be right now and make the most impact? 


    Katherine Wilson (22:10): 

    Exactly. I mean, EJ has taken the brunt of a lot of the financial and operational side, and she spent hours, we just implemented a 401k package for our organization, and that’s not her best and highest use, right? So exactly what you’re saying. I mean, I think understanding where we need to be putting our efforts is only going to help propel us. 


    EJ Wilson (22:38): 

    And I also think hiring people that are smarter than you and more talented in specific areas is so critical. And I think we’ve done that. I think we’ve been so lucky to find such immense talent. We have a creative genius. She laughs when I say this, but she’s truly that. She brings something that a skillset and an ability and a way to look at things that Katherine and I are fine enough at. But she really catapults us to a new level in terms of thinking about branding and digital marketing and different aspects. And I think that’s true about all the people on our team. They just all deliver and add so much value and we feel so lucky to have such talent with us. 


    Debbie Foster (23:18): 

    Well, and that kind of speaks to as you’re filling in your team, and this is something that we think about law firms and even what you all described, building out a process and then helping to figure out who you need on your team and what skillset they need. There are a lot of things in my business and in a law firm’s business and in your business that we all could do, but it doesn’t necessarily that that’s the best use of our time. And I think that is something that from a leadership perspective, that’s part of the leadership journey is always asking yourself, is this really the best use of my time? Now, sometimes as business owners, you’re like, it doesn’t actually matter because there isn’t anyone else to do it, and that means that I’m the one who gets to do it. That’s part of just what happens. But in so many law firms, you find where there are other people who could do work or it does make sense to bring on an employee that can be responsible for doing that work instead of you doing it or instead of your managing partner doing it, or instead of your COO doing it, and how do we really think about that in a strategic way so we can all be more impactful? 


    Katherine Wilson (24:33): 

    Well, and I think it’s a really great lesson. One of the best things that happened to me, because my background is I was a lawyer and then I was in business development, and I was tasked with taking over the marketing branding side of the house when a firm went through a large rebrand. And so I was hiring graphic designers and digital managers and really areas that I kind of knew about, but I wasn’t trained in. I don’t have a graphic design degree or anything like that. And it was difficult for me to actually learn how to let go enough to trust that the people I hired are experts in their area, and I did not have to necessarily be an expert. I have a different role to play, which is really providing the strategy and they are the ones who can execute with their expertise. And that was such a great leadership lesson for me that I’m totally comfortable working and hiring people, and we should hire people who have skill sets and things that we may not have and let go and let them do their job and be the experts that they are. 


    Debbie Foster (25:49): 

    For sure. Yeah, that’s really great advice. So I could talk to you guys for hours, and I feel like we’re going to link to your website and contact information, LinkedIn and everything in the show notes, but getting to the final question that we ask everyone, I’d love to know what your leadership superpowers are, and I think you guys have little trick up your sleeves. You’re going to do it for each other. 


    Katherine Wilson (26:13): 

    Yes, I will answer. I would love to talk about EJs superpowers. EJ has an ability to connect, I would say with anyone in the StrengthFinder world. If you take StrengthFinders, it’s called Woo, and she has so far on the line, but it’s such an ability to connect, but then also to speak so frankly and give the right strategic advice in a way that just is so logical and makes people comfortable. I really think that that is her superpower. She’s able to connect and then through that lead and give the advice that they need to have. 


    EJ Wilson (27:00): 

    Thank you. 


    Katherine Wilson (27:00): 

    I love that. 


    EJ Wilson (27:01): 

    So nice. 


    Debbie Foster (27:05): 

    Is Wu your number one EJ? 


    EJ Wilson (27:07): 

    Yes. Woo is I think by a long shot. I actually have, I’m looking back behind me. I have it behind me listed my top five. I’m a big strengths finders believer, and winning others over is definitely my top strength. And every time I take it, it remains 


    Debbie Foster (27:22): 

    Okay. I just learned something. So woo is my number two, and I didn’t know that winning others over. Is that the actual acronym 


    EJ Wilson (27:33): 

    That is the 


    Debbie Foster (27:33): 



    EJ Wilson (27:34): 

    Yeah. And I’m not surprised that you’re also, woo. We could talk all day about Strength Finders and for Katherine, I think as you’ve heard, she’s had a very varied background. She was a lawyer, she was a business development professional and sort of has shifted in her career to branding and marketing operations. And I think she’s able to take on these new and exciting paths because she’s a problem solver. I’ve never met anyone like Katherine. And when I came up with this crazy idea, she was the first and only person that I thought of. And that’s because not only do we have a long time of trust and great work ethic and similar ways of approaching things, but Katherine is someone, no task is too scary to tackle. No task is too unknown, where I might pick up the phone and call an expert or find someone who can tell me the answer. 



    Katherine will fall head first down that rabbit hole and figure it out and get the answer and then come up with the best practices and a process and a methodology. And it’s remarkable because that’s why she’s been able to take on these new and exciting paths in her career. And I see it every day with us. She is a problem solver and she’s incredibly resourceful. There’s never a need to hit pause and ask someone else because Katherine’s going to figure it out. And then Katherine’s going to become the expert and she’s going to lead the charge, which has been really fun to see as a business. 


    Debbie Foster (29:01): 

    Thank you. I love that. Katherine, what’s your number one on 


    Katherine Wilson (29:05): 

    StrengthsFinder? Oh gosh. 


    EJ Wilson (29:06): 



    Katherine Wilson (29:07): 

    Visionary. Yes. Thank you. Visionary. 


    Debbie Foster (29:08): 

    Very good. That’s great. Ladies, thank you so much for joining me today. This has been great. I love learning more about what you guys are doing and just talking about how as consultants who have the privilege of stepping into law firm life in different firms from time to time, we get to really help people figure out how to be the best version of themselves. It’s a fun job to do, and I know for the clients that we’re working on together, they’ve had such great things to say about just you guys from a business perspective, but you all as people and leaders. So I appreciate everything that you’re doing. Thank you. Thank you so much, Debbie. And likewise. 



    And that’s a wrap. Are you feeling inspired? Take that energy and go make a difference today. And don’t forget to subscribe to keep up with our latest episodes, and if today’s show really resonated with you, share this episode with your friends and colleagues. You’ll also find some resources and ways to connect in the show notes. So until our next episode, get out there and change the world.