An Interview with Danzey Burnham: From Associate to CMO

Burnham Danzey 2020.jpgOne of the legends of legal marketing, Danzey Burnham, Chief of Global Business Development at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, is retiring at the end of the year. For over a dozen years, Ms. Burnham has led BD and Marketing at Simpson Thacher, the same elite firm where she started her career two decades earlier as an associate. New York-based Ms. Burnham reflects on her storied career, which embodies the emergence and growth of legal marketing, in this interview with Tom Mariam. 

How did your career path lead you into legal marketing? Why did you shift from being a lawyer to being a legal marketer? 

My arrival in legal marketing was totally fortuitous.  I had been a corporate associate at Simpson Thacher in the 80s and 90s and left the Firm in 1996 never imagining I would ever return.  I took some time off and then focused on the non-profit world.  In 2007, I was working as the Executive Director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey when a partner from Simpson, with whom I had worked when we were both  associates, and who by then was one of the heads of the Business Development Committee, called me and asked if I had any interest in coming back to the firm and focusing on business development. 

Interestingly, I had been approached several years before about coming back in a BD role, but I was living in New Jersey with young children and was not ready to commit to being back in New York City.  The call in 2007 came because the litigation department at Simpson had hired a former associate to work on business development and that experiment had worked very well so the corporate department decided to do the same thing (an early lesson for me in how marketing and BD across departments in a law firm works.) 

I returned to the firm in January of 2008 and started learning how to apply my background to marketing and business development.  When the financial crisis hit later that year, the firm’s need for marketing and BD increased instantly. They asked me to become the head of the department and to build the infrastructure and team that the firm needed to meet that moment.  So, I can assure you, my ending up in legal marketing was not part of a grand plan but rather a series of somewhat random events!

I always tell people that one’s career is long, and the legal community is very interconnected, so always do a good job in your current situation, be part of the solution and do not burn bridges.  One never knows what opportunities might develop down the road.  And those opportunities are more likely to come your way if people like you and remember you positively.  That approach certainly worked for me.

When you attended Yale Law School was legal marketing even discussed, much less a profession?

I graduated from law school in 1983 and legal marketing was never ever mentioned.  I don’t even know if it had been invented yet!  At least not in the way we think of it now.  The business side of law was not discussed or even acknowledged in law school.  The same was true in my early years as an associate at Simpson Thacher.   There were very few non-lawyer professionals of any sort back then, just an executive director with a small staff who mostly dealt with the partners, finances and made sure all the associates had a chair, a desk and enough supplies to churn out the work. 

The first inkling that the administrative side of the firm was starting to really develop was when Simpson hired a Recruiting Director from a law school in the 80s to professionalize that function.  I believe that the first people to focus on any kind of marketing efforts at Simpson Thacher actually came from the ranks of our Recruiting Department in the 90s.  But in my day as an associate, there was no administrative department for Marketing and Business Development nor formal IT, Knowledge Management, Legal Personnel, Human Resources, Conflicts, or other administrative departments.  And certainly no knowledge or expectation that we would “market” ourselves or the firm.  We were just supposed to “do good work.”

How valuable was your experience as a lawyer to your career in legal marketing?

My experience as a lawyer has been extremely valuable in my career in legal marketing.  More than law school, the experience of being a practicing lawyer at Simpson Thacher positioned me well to become a legal marketer there.  Developing a first-hand and in-depth understanding of the products and practices we are trying to sell was very beneficial.  In addition, the expectation of an almost perfect work product with excruciating attention to detail made for a steep learning curve. 

Associates also need to develop good communications and project management skills which are, of course, very important as marketers.  On top of that, as a lawyer, I developed a real understanding of the culture of my firm and the various personalities involved.  When I returned to the firm in 2008, a number of my previous associate colleagues had become partners who were assuming leadership roles.  The fact that we had worked together in the trenches back in the day gave me a level of credibility that was invaluable. 

Do you think legal marketers who were once lawyers have an advantage in doing their jobs? If so, what is it?

I think having practiced law can definitely help a legal marketer both in terms of substantive knowledge and also  having a level of understanding and empathy for the lawyers they are trying to support, having walked a mile in their shoes.  Also, culture is so important in any law firm, and practicing is a practical way to develop a good understanding of the culture.  But I also think that other skills are needed and that departments are wise to have a mix of people and backgrounds. 

Successful legal marketers come from a wide variety of backgrounds.  Marketers who have not been lawyers often bring a level of creativity and flexible, outside-the-box thinking which is very valuable.  Also, there is a need for technology and communications skills that can be gained in other ways.  And anyone can have a level of enthusiasm and positivity that should not be underestimated.  From what I have seen, the ability to weave together a wide variety of backgrounds, experiences and approaches makes for a stronger and more well-rounded team, able to tackle a wide variety of challenges.

What did you find most rewarding in your career?

Being associated with a firm like Simpson Thacher, both as a lawyer and then building and leading the marketing and business development function, has been extremely rewarding.  I think the firm is an incredible place.  Working alongside people who are extremely smart and capable, incredibly hard working yet, on the whole, basically decent and nice, has been an amazing journey.  I was challenged all along the way to learn, adapt, stretch myself and to strive to be my best at all times.  While I cannot say every day was a picnic, as it never is, overall, the experience has been incredibly rewarding and one that I feel extremely grateful to have had. 

What were your greatest and/or most satisfying accomplishments?

Building my team into a highly functioning group of talented professionals who can meet the high level of demand from the firm’s lawyers, yet still have some fun along the way, has been most satisfying.  Being able to hire fantastic people, figure out how to deploy them successfully and to truly professionalize our function has been my overarching goal and I feel like I was able to achieve it.  When I look back to where we were when I took over the department in 2008 and then to see where we are now, I do feel quite proud. 

In terms of concrete achievements, I would have to say the launch of our website in 2014 was one of our most important marketing accomplishments.  It was a wonderful collaborative effort among a lot of people.  I did not know much about websites before we undertook the project, so I learned A LOT very quickly.  (A word to the wise…think about who is going to update the content including lawyer bios early in your website process or you may end up very short on sleep as you get close to launch date!)

How has legal marketing changed since the time you entered the field?

I feel like the need for professionally executed legal marketing has grown significantly since I entered the field and the work we do has expanded to cover many more areas including competitive intelligence, major event planning, lead generation, coaching, proactive PR and even the “sales process”, a term rarely, if ever, heard in 2008.  The competition for legal work has increased so much and the number of hoops that we have to jump through to actually get the work has also increased. 

In addition, the demands on already time-constrained lawyers continue to expand.  While hard on the lawyers, it gives capable marketers the opportunity to become invaluable.  And, of course, the legal tech area has changed dramatically, for the good.

What did LMA mean to you?

Because I did not have a background in marketing, LMA has served as a terrific resource to help me both identify what I didn’t know, and then to actually learn things, using its many resources and opportunities. 

In particular, the New York CMO SIG has been extraordinarily helpful in making connections with others and offering excellent programs which have helped me keep abreast of new ideas and developments in the industry.  I feel like many of the connections I made through the CMO SIG are now more than professional acquaintances and are truly friends. 

It can be tempting when in a super demanding job to stay at your desk and try to end your day with less rather than more items on the “to do” list.  However, I strongly encourage marketers to engage with peers through LMA and give yourself the opportunity to learn, grow and meet others in the industry.  It is worth the time, although it is not always easy to find it.

Do you have any favorite LMA memories?

The LMA Annual Conference in New Orleans in 2018 was fun! 

What advice can you share for legal marketers in the future and future legal marketers?

I would say that even with all of the advances in process and technology, legal marketers should never forget that a law firm is, at its core and at every level from the chairman’s office on down, a people business.  Not always a “people person” business (clearly not) but always a people business.  One’s ability to inspire confidence, recognize talent, motive others, truly understand the needs of clients (in the case of marketers, the lawyers they support) while empathizing with them and to be tolerant of human foibles, is critical to success.

Where did you grow up? Is there anything else in your background that you would like to share with us?

I grew up in Anniston, Alabama and come from a family of lawyers.  However, my path was a little circuitous in that I studied biology in college, worked in a research lab in New Haven for a year after college and seriously considered a career as a molecular biologist.  At the last minute, I decided the life of a scientist was too cloistered and isolated for me and went to law school instead. 

I used to joke that I needed a profession that involved going out to lunch!  Still, the critical thinking and analytical skills developed in my brief pursuit of a career in science have come in handy along the way for me.  On a more fun note, I am a huge Alabama football fan.  Roll Tide!  I hope to get to a few more games in my retirement!

What are your plans for the future?

When I started contemplating retirement, I daydreamed about spending time leisurely roaming around New York City, which I love,  indulging myself going to the theatre, enjoying museums, lectures, long drawn out lunches with friends and enjoying all of the delights of the City.  Clearly, I am going to have to be patient on that front. 

In the meantime, after taking a bit of a break, I would like to dabble in some interests I have in the non-profit/pro bono area and I also would like to secure a position on a corporate board.  Law firm CMOs are required to develop a wide variety of skills such as strategic thinking, effective communications, crisis and reputation management, organizational development, personnel management, etc., in addition to understanding marketing and business development.   I look forward to finding some interesting avenues to apply my skills and experience for different types of organizations in the future.  Of course, a little more time on the golf course and at the beach are clearly called for. 

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