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Helen Burness on Building Multidisciplinary Teams Within Law Firms, Social Media Tips and Tricks for Lawyers, and She Breaks the Law

Helen Burness is the Director of Saltmarsh Marketing and Chief Marketing Officer of She Breaks the Law—and it can be said that she lives and breathes legal marketing. After years of working at the forefront of change in the legal industry, she is now on a mission to make purpose-led, innovative businesses in the legal industry visible, to give founders and their businesses a voice, to accelerate business growth and success, and to keep driving change in the industry.

ZERØ: Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you ended up in legal marketing.

Helen: I actually have quite a varied commercial background. I did a languages degree and graduated really with no aspiration other than to find a job where I could use my fluent German, which is harder than you might think. So I ended up working at a language recruitment consultancy, and I helped them set up their flagship international office in Frankfurt. I worked between London and Germany, which was very exciting. And then I worked for a global technology, PR, and media relations agency as well.

There was always this threat of working internationally, which is what really attracted me to the legal sector. I wanted to move to the legal sector because it was so global in nature, and I also saw how critical law was to the success of business. So I joined Eversheds, which has since become Eversheds Sutherland, on the cusp of their very rapid international expansion as the first member of their international marketing team. I worked there for many years, and the firm really grew in that time and evolved internationally. In my role, I was involved in pretty much everything, from major events to global branding projects, and I also headed up the Japan, India, and China business groups. I was very lucky because I traveled the world at that time in a way that wouldn’t happen now because of COVID and the current climate change consciousness. I feel very grateful that I got that opportunity to travel the world, and I loved working for Eversheds because it was a firm that tried very hard to innovate at a time when innovation wasn’t really a thing. It was a great place to train as a marketer.

After a while, I wanted to take some of the best practices I’d learned at Eversheds and apply them in a smaller business environment, so I moved on to Hardwicke. I headed up the commercial team there, and I liked the experience of working for a smaller business and having an impact. Then I moved to an even smaller business: a dynamic New Law firm called Halebury. I worked there with the two co-founders to grow the business, which was recently acquired by Elevate, a U.S. law company.

The common thread with all of these experiences was that I was working with people in legal who were really changing the game, trying to do things differently and transform legal for the better. This is really my passion. So that’s why I have my own consultancy now, Saltmarsh. I work with anything from startups and scale-ups in legal who are changing the game and trying to do things differently, to sometimes working with people in bigger businesses who are driving innovation and new ideas.

ZERØ: Based on your diverse experience across the legal industry, what do you think distinguishes the most innovative law firms from their peers?

Helen: It really depends on what you define as innovation. As we know, innovation is a very cliched word, and it can mean different things to different people and businesses. What I’d say is that innovation is not about shiny, new technology. It’s about changing cultural processes. It’s about how legal services are delivered. And actually, it’s working out what legal services even are in this new hybrid world we find ourselves in. In a very general sense, the most innovative firms and businesses are those with the most customer-centric approach. And they’re the firms that are really focusing on the development of soft skills, like the meaningful use of empathy, both in terms of how their teams work together and when it comes to client needs. I think it’s the firms and the businesses where lawyers and employees are working in multidisciplinary teams in a really genuinely collaborative way that is truly defining innovation and stripping away those silos that tend to still exist in legal. I think it’s also the firms that just keep adapting and evolving and changing in line with this rapidly evolving landscape, the firms and the businesses that never accept the status quo.

ZERØ: What do you think law firms can learn from other industries?

Helen: One of my pet peeves about law firms in the past, which is now improving, is that they have tended to be very siloed, especially when it comes to what I do—marketing. I think those who work in law firm marketing can tend to move around the circuit from firm to firm. That can lead to a lack of innovation and the ability to do things differently in marketing, because people are just repeating formats that don’t necessarily bring the best value. I personally always try to look outside the legal silo for inspiration, to really see what other brands and businesses are doing. Some of the best marketers I know come from other industries, where marketing truly leads the way and has a very strong voice on the board. I find it quite remarkable that until just recently in some firms, CMOs didn’t have a place on the board. I think you have to look outside the sector for inspiration and new ways of doing things, at. the brands and businesses that are leading the way in their field.

ZERØ: How do you think lawyers should be interacting with the marketing function?

Helen: I think that the way that marketing is seen has really changed since I started working in legal marketing in 2002, but there is still work to be done because there is a bit of a legacy there. The role of marketing in any business is to be a valuable commercial partner, a partner that accelerates growth and revenue. But there’s a bit of a legacy language around marketers at law firms as being non-fee-earners. Law firms need to stop using this term, because the whole point of marketing is to generate leads, which lead to revenue. In the past, I think there’s been this divide between marketing lawyers, with marketing kept away from direct contact with clients and sometimes not empowered as they should have been as business experts.

Truly collaborating as one team with different strengths is so important. In the past, I’ve seen an inclination from lawyers to direct marketing—but not just anyone can do marketing. I wouldn’t try and be all over a huge M&A deal. It’s really important that lawyers respect marketers, who are experienced professionals who want to help their businesses grow; that they listen and work in partnership. That’s fundamental to success. But on the reverse side of this, of course, marketing needs to evidence the value they bring to the business and be totally transparent about their results. It’s up to the marketers to really demonstrate the impact on the bottom line.

ZERØ: One element of marketing that you’re particularly good at is social media. Tell us about how you approach social media and what tips you would provide to young lawyers to help them get started with building up their presence.

Helen: To young lawyers, I would say embrace it. It works. It’s such a powerful tool in a world where your personal brand really matters, because, in the legal industry, it’s still a case of people buying people. We’re still in relationship industry. Having a personal brand out there is really important, and social media is a great tool to do that.

The number of platforms out there can be overwhelming, so it’s important to work out who your audience is and focus on doing one platform really well rather than trying to spread yourself too thin. Use this platform to the best extent and think about yourself as an individual and what you want to convey to your audience. What do you do for your clients? What makes you different to other lawyers? How do you bring value?

Once you’ve found your platform, work on developing your network. Connect with people you’re working with and actively reach out to people in a thoughtful way—for example, reaching out to someone if they’ve shared something that resonates with you. Try to spend ten minutes on your LinkedIn newsfeed every day and engage by liking or sharing. You’ll start to see a return pretty quickly.

The keyword here is social. Social media is inherently social, and it will only start to work for you if you use it thoughtfully and consistently. There is so much you can do: you can share your own thoughts, comment on high-performing threads, join relevant groups, and get in front of new audiences.

I also absolutely love Twitter because it’s so democratized and really allows you to build relationships with people without hierarchies. You can really find your tribe there. For young lawyers, the real value is in listening to the conversations and themes and what people are talking about.

I wouldn’t really recommend Facebook for professional purposes. I do see some lawyers and legal services businesses embracing Instagram, especially some legal tech businesses. And the last one, of course, and the newest platform, which is a really fun one, is Tik Tok, and I’m interested to see where this is going. I’m a big fan. I think lawyers who use this to create content and get their point across in a creative and fun way could really be onto a winner.

ZERØ: Can you tell us about She Breaks the Law?

Helen: She Breaks the Law was founded on International Women’s Day in 2019. The aim was to create a very diverse collaborative community for women who are leading change in legal and gave give them a safe supportive space to come together and connect and learn and share and create.

The community has four strands of activity: She Connects, which is about our members developing their strategic networks; She Develops, which is learning and upskilling; She Creates, which is developing new ideas and initiatives; and She Shares, which is about shining a light on relatable role models and their career journeys. We often call She Breaks the Law “the flame that became a fire,” because it started out as an idea between three women who worked in legal innovation roles in law firms. It’s a collaborative space that really broke down silos and enabled women and people from diverse professional backgrounds to come together.

It took off so quickly, and in 18 months it has grown into this global community of over 2,000. We’ve now launched in London, Amsterdam, Sydney, Chicago, New York, Paris, Dubai, and Mumbai and we have lawbreakers across the globe—so it’s quite a movement. We’re now at a point where we’re working out how we sustain this going forward. We’ve become so big, we have a LinkedIn community where lawbreakers come together. In that forum, we can form working groups on special subjects and regions and come together and collaborate. It’s just brilliant to see how the community works, you with people really lifting each other up and supporting each other.

Since COVID, we’ve really had to pivot in terms of how we run events. We’ve had regular virtual coffees. We’ve had an Australia event. We’ve had coffees on the East Coast. In the U.S., we’ve had weekly decompression and mindfulness sessions. It’s just incredible for me to be part of this global movement with no barriers in terms of geography. It’s just all women who want to keep driving change in the legal industry.

ZERØ: Thinking about the community of lawyers more broadly, what characteristics do you want to see in the lawyers of the future?

Helen: More authenticity, more humanity, more kindness, more empathy, and more collaboration. In terms of behaviors, legal has a worrying legacy for what it has rewarded in the past and bad behaviors that have been allowed to breed. If we reward different behaviors and values, we can genuinely transform that even industry. A lot of what She Breaks the Law is about is role modeling those very positive behaviors.

ZERØ: What do you think defines the law firms of the future?

Helen: First of all, are we even going to be talking about law firms in the future? Or will the very structure change in line with market demands? I think what defines the most successful legal services businesses of the future will be the ones who put customer needs at the heart of all they do. They truly take time to listen, to seek meaningful feedback in every aspect, to understand and develop what they do to create the best customer experience, I think this is absolutely vital. And how do firms work toward this? By using empathy, putting the customer and the user at the center of all they do, and using multidisciplinary teams and diversity of thought to keep innovating. It’ll be the firms that have vision, the ones that never stand still, and the firms that really care about and value their employees on every level, from supporting them through career progression to safeguarding their well-being so they can secure and develop the best talent. Not too much to ask, right?