It’s all about relationships to Michael Coston.

Anyone who knows the New York-based legal marketing, communications, and equality consultant understands that.

After all, how else to explain how one of the too-rare Black professionals in legal marketing rose from a local firm on Long Island, to be one of only a very few Black chief marketing officers among major U.S. law firms?

Knowing the strategic playbook helps, of course. But the edge is in being the person you’re happy to hear from, whose success you want to encourage, whose journey you want to share.

That’s the bond Coston forged with Dallas trial legend Mike McKool and the leaders of McKool Smith, whose marketing efforts Coston led for nearly a decade before starting his own firm, Coston Consulting. Today he remains a key advisor to McKool Smith, and advises other firms, as well, on business development; marketing; and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

“You can be brilliant and have the best ideas, but it won’t matter if you don’t have strong connections within your organization that help you get the buy-in necessary to make a difference,” says Coston.

“I’ve always been genuinely interested in the partners that I’ve worked with, their areas of business, their motivations and perspectives,” he says. “It helps build solid relationships and that’s really important for a CMO as you’re trying to foster consensus and create alignment to move initiatives forward.”

But as a child? “If you asked me at 6 or 7 what I wanted to be, I would have said, ‘A lawyer,’” Coston says. “I didn’t know anything at all about the law. I just associated lawyers with success.”

As he was completing his undergraduate degrees at University of Albany in African American Studies and English, he made plans to take the Law School Admissions Test. The week before the exam, he had a change of heart.

“Soon after that, I fell in love with PR.” He would later become the head of public relations for the Tweezerman brand. How did he end up in the legal industry? After earning a Master’s degree in communication, he scoured The New York Times job listings and came across a law firm seeking a public relations director.

The position was meant to be.

Lawdragon: So, reading the help wanted ads?

Michael Coston: That’s how it all started. I stumbled upon this firm, Forchelli Curto. During my interview, I met with one of the partners, Barbara Alesi, who asked where I was from. When I answered, “Glen Cove, Long Island,” she said, “My partner, John Terrana, is the former city attorney for Glen Cove.” And I said, “Oh, I know him. My mother was his secretary for many years.”

She called him in, he looked at me and then gave me the biggest hug. I hadn’t seen John in decades, but I literally grew up in his office. Then he introduced me to Jeffrey Forchelli, the founder and head partner of the firm.

Fast forward, I get the job and I go to meet with Jeff Forchelli. During our meeting, he tells me that my father, Michael Coston, who died when I was 16, was the firm’s first client.

LD: Are you kidding?

MC: Isn’t that something? Apparently, my father needed a lawyer for whatever reason way back when, and my mother called the first lawyer she came across – Jeff Forchelli.

It was totally, completely meant to be. I ended up reconnecting with John, the only lawyer I had ever known, whom my mom had worked with for many years. And then he ends up working at a firm where my father was the first client. I worked for that firm for maybe three years, and on each firm anniversary, Jeff would say, "And how awesome is it that Michael is our PR director and his father was our first client?”

LD: That's the best story.

MC: That firm was my home, but someone came along and offered me an amazing opportunity; and that was Iris Jones. She was the CMO at Chadbourne & Parke and approached me about a position as director of marketing. I interviewed and didn’t get the job, but we kept in touch. Many months later, she called and urged me to apply for a business development role in litigation.

That's how I moved to Chadbourne. It was a big deal for me because I grew up in the suburbs of Long Island and dreamed about working in Manhattan. The firm’s offices were in Rockefeller Center, and I was at this large international law firm. I come from very humble beginnings, so it was a huge opportunity. You couldn't tell me that I hadn’t made it.

LD: You had made it. As you started progressing through the large corporate law firm world, what were some of the skills or lessons that shaped your success?

MC: Legal marketers always tell lawyers to strive to be their clients’ trusted advisor. We need to take our own advice. There’s a certain playing field that's established on trust. And that trust helps you secure the access that you need to do your job well.

LD: You definitely were able to build trust and rapport with people throughout McKool. When you were working with them on different strategies or approaches to build the firm’s national reputation for excellence, you were all working from the same fabric.

MC: As a CMO, it’s important for leadership to know that you have your finger on the pulse of the organization. Leadership wants to know how connected you are to the institution, not just in terms of its business, but in terms of its feel and what the organization represents. Are you in tune with the firm’s values and principles? Do you know the firm’s style and culture? That’s all very important.

LD: When you look at how you could go from just coming in – obviously with a great resume and an amazing personality – to not only taking the role you did in the New York office of a Texas firm, but to become one of the most effective leaders and voices in that unusual combination, it says a lot about you and about the firm.

MC: I was only 32 years old at the time and I had a point to prove. Failure wasn’t an option, although I certainly had my doubts. Here I am, a relatively young Black guy from New York gunning for CMO at this established Texas-based national trial firm. I didn’t know how they would receive me. I remember listening to Biggie Smalls as I entered the elevator for my first interview in Dallas. I still laugh about how that might have been perceived. But the firm’s leaders supported and encouraged me. It made me so committed to the firm that every time I swung the bat, I wanted to hit the ball over the moon.

LD: Can we talk about diversity and inclusion and its impact on you as a person, but also on your business? We’ve talked about this for a long time, but it feels like after the killing of George Floyd, there is a new level of commitment. Maybe.

MC: I’m encouraged by organizations who are serious about advancing their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Not the ones who are just making public announcements about their commitments to Black folks (without acting on them) or writing checks to various racial equity-related non-profits while not investing time and/or resources to advance DEI within their own organization.

LD: How can you help a firm make it OK to talk about that?

MC: I think it starts at the top. When the leadership is removed from the process, it creates a disconnect and obstacles to achieving the support that’s required for real, true diversity, equity, and inclusion work.

It’s important for organizations to go through a process of serious introspection, especially in the leadership and C-suite ranks, to see themselves (and each other) more clearly in terms of where they and the organization are in relation to DEI. This process can reveal certain truths that oftentimes prevent organizations from advancing their DEI efforts. And, unfortunately, many companies are not living in their own truths. After that, it’s important to be aspirational in defining what real DEI success looks like for your organization. What does it feel like as a culture? What does it mean for your people? How will you know if you’ve accomplished your goals? When you’ve done the honest introspection and defined what DEI success looks like for your organization, it helps you create and implement strategies that provide real impact and meaningful change.

LD: When you say this is a discussion that starts with the leadership, in a lot of firms, that leadership is not inclusive or only very lightly so. What is the path for a group of largely white and male leaders to come up with a quantifiable, measurable goal that goes beyond just “being inclusive”? The goal has to be more like, “We are building a plane, and it must fly,” right?

MC: If there are only white men in the leadership ranks, then that’s where the discussion and work should start. This is when the process of honest introspection can really make a difference. Let’s discuss and dissect, “Why aren't there any women at this table? Why aren’t there any people of color? What has (or hasn’t) happened along the way to create this organizational whiteness?”

Of course, there are many ways to look at and measure DEI goals. We usually use a mix of qualitative measures related to level of engagement and organizational satisfaction, and quantitative measures that provide metrics for management/leadership performance, retention, vertical diversity, etc. It’s important to keep your eye out for actual impact.

LD: Right. I think we all saw, after George Floyd’s death and the protests, people at a lot of firms thinking, "We need to put up a statement on our website.” And I'm sure many firms debated whether that statement should include Black Lives Matter, but didn’t necessarily consider how they would respond to associates, for instance, joining demonstrations. What do you say to firms when they seek advice in those kinds of cases?

MC: So many companies scrambled to write external statements and make public assurances about their support of Black people without even checking on or communicating with their own Black employees. Think about that. Many companies also wrote massive checks to various college funds to help Black students gain access to higher education but haven’t invested one dollar in the development or sponsorship of their own Black professionals. Don’t get me wrong. A good deed is a good deed, and these charitable efforts are certainly important, but a little authenticity goes a long way. I advised my clients to start with their own firms, and with their own people, to make sure everything was OK at home before they made any public statements or commitments.

LD: Exactly. And I think that the introspection you can help firms with is so critical because you are also so good at talking cross-generationally, to the leadership ranks and to the new generation of lawyers, who expect and deserve to be heard and are less afraid of rocking the boat. Which goes back to what you said about the biggest thing you've learned, right? It's having the relationships across all aisles and being able to influence different audiences.

MC: A few months ago, I asked my mother “When did you start talking to me about race and about being Black?” And she responded quickly, “Well, since you’ve been Black ...” and it really tickled me because she was right. As a family, we’ve always discussed race. It was one of the reasons why I focused on African American Studies in undergrad. At the time, so many people would say to me, “You’re already Black. Why are you taking Black studies?” but I was very much interested in the Black experience. I was also interested in racism and its impact on individuals, institutions, and organizations. When you look at how those discussions have progressed since I completed undergrad 20 years ago, we're still finding ourselves in the thick of it in terms of people being uncomfortable discussing race, racism, or the broad impact of systemic racism. Now, I’m no longer a student. I’m the CEO of my own consulting firm, and my team and I are helping organizations navigate through very important and complex issues that oftentimes involve race, and specifically, Black people. I feel like I’ve come full circle.