A panel at the recent Marketing Partner Forum discussed how law firms are leveraging their alumni to increase their business development efforts
RANCHO PALOS VERDES, Calif. — Law firm alumni relations networks historically have functioned within law firms as levers for talent recruitment, lateral pipelines, brand advocacy, and public relations. More recently, savvy firms also have begun harnessing alumni networks to cultivate new business opportunities or retain lucrative client work.
A panel discussion at Thomson Reuters Institute’s 30th Annual Marketing Partner Forum offered a practical look at strategic success and opportunities within alumni relations programs and offered attendees some key takeaways.
Alumni should be a significant source of revenue, according to panelists. They are huge brand promoters or detractors, including in the world of recruiting talent. It’s important for firms to try to shape what former and current employees say about the culture of the firm — from a summer associate up to the highest revenue-generating lateral partner the firm may be trying to recruit, and everyone in between.
In her previous role at Orrick, panelist Catherine Zinn, Chief Client Officer at Baker Botts, discovered that 17% of clients had at least one firm alum who now worked for the client. Three years later, with staff dedicated to the alumni program, that increased to 30% of clients with at least one firm alum who turned into a client employee, though Zinn suggested this may be due to data cleanup.
“Treat everyone as equals because you just don’t know where your former employees are going to end up.”
At Baker Bots, Zinn dedicates a significant portion of her time to alumni relations. The firm reviewed its top 30 clients and found that more than 50% have at least one alum from her firm working as an employee at a client — and they generate most of the revenue. “We refer to alumni as a business imperative,” Zinn said. “Those are some of the warmest calls you’re ever going to make.”
Zinn cited a survey of more than 400 general counsel who were interviewed about their careers and plans. “More than 50% said they were open to going back to a law firm, which was stunning — yet consistent with what I’m hearing GCs say is their next best move,” Zinn noted. “You will see many go out and leave law completely to start companies or you see people jumping around and then boomerang and come back to your firm [or] they become GC and then come back as a partner.”
Transparency is key when talking to associates, Zinn said. Firm leadership will tell them that their career “may take you in many different places. If you are thinking about [working for] a client, talk to us.”
Moderator Ellen C. Auwarter, Marketing & Business Development Manager at Duane Morris, previously worked at Deloitte. She asked panelist Cheri Husney, Chief Marketing & Business Development Officer at Littler Mendelson, who previously worked in accounting marketing for 20 years at KMPG, what lessons legal marketers could learn from the Big 4 accounting firms.
“Figure out a way to welcome people in and make them feel special when they leave,” Husney said. “Celebrate their accomplishments. Treat everyone as equals because you just don’t know where your former employees are going to end up.”
Littler has an alumni board and even invites its members to serve on mock client pitches. “We’ve all realized that pitches and prepping for them is key,” Husney explained. “If you have sitting board members, influencers, and friends of the firm, it is a safe place for them to be part of a practice session.”
Indeed, because many GCs serve on at least one large company board, it’s critical for firms to focus on placing alums on their clients’ boards, panelists advised.
Helping alumni succeed
When attorneys become chief legal officers or general counsel, how can their former law firms support their professional development and help them to succeed? There are a myriad of ways, panel suggested.
For example, Goodwin Procter provides their departing attorneys with a GC checklist. “They don’t recognize that you now have to be on top of everything,” said panelist Theresa DeLoach, Managing Director of Strategic Alumni Engagement & Client Relations at Goodwin. “We want to make sure you get started on the right foot.” The firm created several resources, with different versions for public and private companies, and a training program for associates looking to go in-house, she added.
On the flip side, Goodwin consistently is looking for ways to pull alumni back into the firm. When hosting events, they ask alum to bring a colleague to start a new relationship with their attorneys. They also focus on helping alum build a community of other in-house peers, offering events for different affinity groups, such as women of color, or by experience level (pairing junior associates with each other, or senior partners together, for example). “People are excited to sit among people they have things in common with,” DeLoach said.
What can firms do to mitigate potential bad talk or reputational damage when attorneys leave the firm under less-than-optimal circumstances?
Goodwin went through a reduction in force, which was a challenging time, DeLoach explained. “Not everyone who leaves the firm feels great about that departure, but you can find opportunities. It doesn’t mean we lost you in our ecosystem.”
Husney suggested putting a little time between when it happens and when you get in touch with them. “There’s a period of forgiveness,” she noted.
DeLoach agreed, adding that it is advisable to get back in touch people within the first three years. “The bar for non-contact has to be pretty high — to the level of whether the person is suing the law firm — otherwise the firm is taking themselves out of getting business. You can come up with rules, but they shouldn’t be hard and fast.”