By Kim Stuart & Eva Wisnik
Professional transitions are a given in law firms. People go in-house, jump to another firm or decide to leave law altogether. Whatever the case, firms care about who they hire and make a significant investment in them. They want to see alumni succeed in their endeavors, and leverage those relationships into clients or referral sources.
Nearly 70 percent of AmLaw 100 firms have an alumni program. Whether those programs are active and robust is another story. Many firm alumni initiatives stumble in fits and starts because of other priorities and immediate service needs. While alumni networks are often underutilized, they are still the most convenient forums to meaningfully connect and offer rich resources for networking, professional and business development opportunities.
Small and mid-size firms also understand the importance of maintaining alumni relationships. Clare Ota, marketing manager at Murphy Pearson Bradley & Feeney, said: “Our firm’s alumni program is informal and organic. While the firm does not have a formal program, we regularly stay in touch with our alum through events and practice teams.”
Other regional firms similarly stated that while colleagues continue to keep in touch with alum, there is a clear need to support those potential business leads.
Recently, we have seen an uptick in firms, small to large, devoting specific resources to engage with this unique network. Whether you are launching a new program or revitalizing one that has lost momentum, this article outlines the best practices in developing and sustaining a productive initiative.
1. Engage your lawyers.
First, interview the lawyers in your firm. Internal feedback is critical and will help get the additional buy-in needed. Ask your partners about key targets, what they see as major goals and objectives, and what they think success should look like in six months, 12 months and two years.
JeanMarie Campbell, client relationship executive at Ropes & Gray LLP, collaborated with her team and outlined three firm goals as part of their first alumni director search:
- Build an alumni community by establishing a database and providing events and mediums for meaningful interaction.
- Expand existing alumni relationships into client relationships.
- Develop new professional opportunities with and for alumni.
Identify a dedicated program leader to tie the pieces together and drive the program forward. Use your lawyers’ input to develop a role description that clearly outlines the firm culture, as well as the goals and responsibilities. This may vary greatly depending on the firm’s priorities and infrastructure. One firm may consider a candidate’s prior alumni program experience to be a critical factor, while another may desire a strong business development background.
Your ideal candidate should have this skillset:
- Big-picture strategy and strong project management skills — The right leader will contribute high-level thinking and manage multiple projects and events simultaneously.
- Well-developed writing and communication skills — Alumni programs can demand a lot of writing, including alumni profiles, newsletters, invitations and other communication pieces.
- Strategic event planning skills — Your program leader needs to identify the right events and measure ROI. Larger firms such as Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP host alumni events across the globe. Therefore, when Norma Cirincione, director of alumni relations and associate life at Cleary, was hiring an alumni manager, she looked for a culturally competent individual with international event planning skills.
- Emotional intelligence (EQ) - JeanMarie Campbell at Ropes & Gray described this as: “The proven ability to influence without authority, by using emotional information to guide thinking and behavior.”
The program leader will work closely with members of nearly all departments, so it is imperative that this role gains support and true collaboration throughout the firm. A successful program is a 360-degree initiative and needs to be examined from all directions.3. Assess the data and tools.
Where are your alumni? Does the HR or legal personnel department collect contact information when a lawyer exits the firm? If so, how is that information retained and updated? On the business development side, what industry or practice plans and other initiatives are in play to integrate and leverage?
Answers to these questions are critical to the design, implementation and longevity of the program. You need to assess the data, how it is collected and where it may be streamlined or assimilated. This step will provide the framework for the program and inform the strategic priorities and measurable benchmarks.
4. Survey your audience.
What does your alumni community really want in a program? Quick surveys (Survey Monkey is a useful tool) and/or interviews with your valued and target audience will provide direction on where you should focus your resources. There is no sense in throwing time and money into areas that will return little value.
5. Outline your plan and build the foundation.
After identifying the optimal forums, map out the needs, resources, timelines and benchmarks in cross-functional departments. Your program leader will help identify the major program participants. Use what you learned in the assessment to frame the plan, focusing on priority components and targets. Don’t stretch the program too thin. Identify the short- and long-term opportunities, highlighting the best ways to deeply engage and convert alumni into clients and referral sources.
Before launching, you need buy-in from your lawyers and professionals. Educate them on the importance of these relationships, the strategy behind the program and expectations. Internal dialogue and communications from firm management will help greatly. As firms build their alumni program, it needs to be clear that partners will play an important part in providing overall strategy feedback, while everyone at the firm will contribute and engage on some level. That consistent engagement will make a program successful.
Your alumni talent will be instrumental in finding “champions” throughout the firm who will support their initiatives and inspire others to get involved. Having that single dedicated program leader will help the program stay targeted, consistent and productive.
Now, launch your program.8. Measure results.
You identified benchmarks in the strategic plan. Measure your results based on hard and soft metrics. What were some quick wins? What still needs to be accomplished?
Norma Cirincione at Cleary emphasized that tracking business development results from alumni initiatives can be challenging. As a best practice, she asks senior lawyers whether new business came from alum and, if so, did this alum attend an event, CLE or participate in any other alumni program initiatives. Go back full circle — sit down with your lawyers to understand how the program has enhanced alumni relationships.
Business development is about relationships, and your firm’s alumni are some of your strongest ones. Don’t let those relationships die on the vine. With a formal alumni program, you make the most of your investment and influence true opportunities.
Kim Stuart is founder and principal of Key Group, a business development and marketing consulting company to law firms and professional services firms. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Eva Wisnik founded Wisnik Career Enterprises 19 years ago and has placed more than 800 professionals into top law firms nationwide. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.