Mike Ralston, an LMA Leader, There From the Start

Mike Ralston remembers when LMA was a relatively small group of marketing professionals looking for an organizational home. After working to help make LMA a reality in 1986, Mike served in various leadership roles across the organization, including serving as national President in 1990-91, while maintaining a successful career in legal marketing which included starting business development and marketing programs at three different law firms. Now he looks towards the next chapter (retirement!) this June after spending the final 12 years of his career at Foley & Lardner LLP.

When we heard about Mike’s imminent retirement, we couldn’t pass up the chance to have one last chat. Mike graciously accepted the request, which is the genesis of the interview below, where you’ll read more about his LMA journey, reflections on his career, and some final words of wisdom to the LMA community.

Please join us in congratulating Mike on a fantastic career, and thanking him for his service to LMA!

You were involved with LMA since before it was LMA! Can you tell me a little bit about that journey?

During 1985, several marketers met in San Francisco to discuss the opportunities and challenges of marketing and business development in law firms. A more formal meeting was held in San Diego in February 1986. There were 50 of us in attendance in San Diego. There was something of a clandestine air about the whole thing. A number of individuals present made it clear that their names and the names of their law firms could not be published in any formal notes. There was great concern about just how much information could be shared at such an open forum. And, of course, no one had “marketing” or “business development” in their title.

It was at the February 1986 meeting that the National Association of Law Firm Marketing Administrators (NALFMA) was born. This was the predecessor to today’s Legal Marketing Association. Sally Schmidt was elected President of the Association and I was elected Treasurer. Chicago marketers played a huge role during these formative years. Marcie Johnson attended the San Francisco meeting and served as a national Board member. Donna Shaft also a Board member, drafted the association’s charter and bylaws. Nancy Villano was the first manager of our fledgling association and organized a number of our early annual meetings.

We used the word “Administrators” in our title because in those early days we were unsure about how we might grow as an organization. There were many among the early members who looked to combine our group with the Association of Legal Administrators (ALA). We did, in fact, approach the ALA but they turned us down. (ALA subsequently did create a “marketing” track for their annual programming.) We also looked to become an arm of the ABA and we co-sponsored a number of educational programs with the Law Practice Management Section of the ABA.  Still, no formal alliance was ever forthcoming.

Fortunately, we continued to attract new and enthusiastic members and processed a name change (finally) to the Legal Marketing Association in the 1990s.

Are there any changes in the industry that have really surprised you over time?

All of us involved in the early days of the organization became convinced that marketing and business development were going to become increasingly important to attorneys and law firms. But I think that I was somewhat surprised at how quickly we did grow and how our membership became more diverse.  Vendors and consultants got involved. Individuals with advanced degrees –MBAs and JDs—found positions and joined the organization. And today, LMA is a truly international organization.

What has being involved with LMA meant to you?

Being a member of LMA helped me define my career in marketing and business development. It was, and continues to be, a great source of professional education as well as a great networking opportunity.

Do you have any favorite LMA moments?

It’s the people—doesn’t it always come down to that? There are so many talented, beautiful people that I was privileged to work with along the way. Being a volunteer-driven association, things only got done if we all worked together. And we did and we had fun – especially at the annual conferences.

Switching back to you and your career – what do you consider your greatest or most satisfying professional accomplishment?

I was able to start three marketing and business development programs at different law firms in Chicago. To me, that represented an important achievement.  I was proud to serve the executive teams of those firms and to have an impact on their growth and development.

Along the way, I served as a friend and mentor to a number of individuals who find themselves in successful positions at law firms today. I am especially proud of their personal success and accomplishments.

What is your advice to legal marketers today and future legal marketing professionals?

Since your attorneys are your primary clients, it is important to develop your personal “client service philosophy” and implement it every day.

What are you most looking forward to in retirement?

The one thing about working in a legal services environment is that you are always just one phone call or one email message from having your entire day or week totally disrupted by some urgent request or deadline. You could never really plan your workday.  I look forward to not having those pressures.

I plan to rekindle my studies in European history that I began so many years ago.

On a personal note, my wife Mary and I have 10 grandchildren to nurture and care for. I may now be driven by baseball, basketball, and soccer schedules. So much for gaining control of my day!

I hope friends will continue to reach out at: mrralston218@gmail.com.


  • Lauren Boyer

    Lauren Boyer serves as co-chair of the LMA Chicago local steering committee alongside Sara Anstoetter. She’s currently a Market Manager at McDermott Will & Emery working with the firm’s litigation and white collar practice.