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Gray Rule
October 2012 | VOLUME 13, NUMBER 4
Gray Rule
Understanding the Value of Your Alumni
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»Understanding the Value of Your Alumni
»Total Library Service Management: A Framework for Success
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Understanding the Value of Your AlumniSharon Meit Abrahams, Ed.D., National Director, Professional Development, Foley & Lardner LLP, Miami, FL; Sarah Fineberg-Lombardi, Client Relationship Manager, SelectMinds, Inc., New York, NY; Jennifer Young, Senior Project Manager, Technology, Foley & Lardner LLP, Milwaukee, WI
In today's contracting legal environment, firms are looking for more avenues to find clients. ...

Imperative concerns for all businesses—and now law firms—include solidifying and improving their brand's reputation, acquiring new business, and recruiting the best people. While companies and firms of all sizes dedicate resources to these objectives, they often overlook one of the most valuable assets at their disposal for achieving all three goals: their alumni.

Foley & Lardner LLP, a 170-year-old, 1,000-lawyer firm, has a history and story to tell through its alumni. Though alumni tracking began in 1999, approximately 2,200 attorneys (a yearly average of 13) have come and gone since 1842. Many of Foley's attorneys move over to client companies, start their own businesses, or join a government agency. Over the past few years, law firms have been forced to downsize, losing good attorneys due to economic factors. That's why Foley thoroughly enjoys celebrating "boomerangers," those who return to the firm after a stint elsewhere. All said, these alumni are a group of individuals ripe to help enhance and grow the Foley community.

Large corporations have long understood the value of alumni relationships; many began by simply compiling and distributing hard copy newsletters to their former employees to keep them connected. Law firms are new to this endeavor, joining the initiative in the early 2000s. Now most of the top-ranking law firms (at least 20 of the Am Law 50) have or are planning to establish alumni programs. Over the last decade, with the advent of social media, there are more efficient tools at a law firm's disposal that develop and maintain these relationships, require fewer staff, and mesh nicely with other online branding initiatives. Now the challenge is not whether to engage your alumni, but how?

Convincing Management

A robust alumni program can yield names, class years at a firm, and other pertinent information to help make the connection or reconnection with prospective and current clients. It is a marketing department's dream to pull up a database and ask, "Who do we know at XYZ company?" and with a push of a button get the name of a contact. And if that contact is an alumnus, it is more likely a relationship can be initiated. Beyond the marketing aspects, it is also a branding tool. As with other social media tools such as Facebook and LinkedIn, anything that can drive people to your firm's online presence helps to keep it front and center.

It may be difficult to judge the return on investment (ROI) from the start, but the startup cost is within a tolerable range and therefore worth the initial investment. It will take two to three years to see what the end results will be financially, but the sense of community is immediate. People enjoy reconnecting with colleagues and that goodwill is priceless.

Once the firm is committed to moving forward, these are the next steps:

Gathering Information

The biggest challenge in today's information-saturated society is quality. Knowing who your alumni are, where they are, and what they're doing is both the most difficult and most valuable part of an alumni network. Foley's alumni network team utilized HR records, online resources, and personal contacts to reach out to former attorneys. They filled in blanks as much as possible, but still ended up with 900 names and mailing addresses without e-mail addresses. An effective alumni system works with e-mail addresses and social media tools, so paper mailings were sent to reach out to those 900 contacts, asking them to log on and register. Once you have quality data in place, ensure that you have an effective method for capturing updates and reporting on results.

Build it and They will Come

If your firm has an IT department with the ability to build its own system, more power to it, but there are a number of software providers that are worth exploring. Look for vendors with experience in the legal industry, a solid track record of success, and products with features that support your firm's alumni program and branding requirements. Due to the data integration aspect of the program, ensure the products being evaluated are compatible with existing systems. Cloud-based offerings are becoming more common and offer platform-agnostic integration through the use of flat-file data transfers. Cloud-based products also eliminate the burden of managing security and access to your own networks. As with any vendor selection process, it is important to weigh the pros and cons of each system carefully, including cost, features, and the team with which you will be working.

Foley chose to work with SelectMinds Inc., a company with 12 years of experience in the corporate world that branched out into the legal industry in 2001. They are now working with 17 firms worldwide. SelectMinds offers a feature-rich cloud-based product with simple data integration points. Their team is knowledgeable and provided both technical and program-development guidance throughout the process.

As mentioned earlier, data quality is a key component of an alumni program implementation. Technical team resources focused on ensuring all of the necessary data was in one system for ease of data transfer and reconciliation. Since both current attorneys and retirees were included in addition to alumni, special care was taken to ensure ongoing data integrity. Understanding where the data comes from, how it will be used, who owns the data, and how updates should be handled are critical technical components of a successful launch.

In addition to a technical team, it is critical to have a business team that includes subject matter experts and members of leadership in place to address program-related questions that crop up along the way. Technical issues may need to be resolved through changes to business practices, and a well-staffed business team can offer solutions and secure necessary approvals to allow the program implementation to proceed.

Finally, a steering committee made up of a cross section of the target audience is a beneficial addition to an alumni program creation project. Successful implementation of any program hinges on understanding how the program will be used. Committee members provide unique insight into which product features are useful, and which should be removed. Foley's steering committee consisted of current attorneys, a boomeranger, retirees, and alumni. The committee met before and during the technical phases as well as after the launch.

Once the product is built or installed, it should be reviewed for functionality and consistency in branding. Marketing departments can play a very beneficial role in this regard. The steering committee can also provide great feedback on the usability aspect of the product at this point. After receiving all approvals to proceed with launch, it's time to begin communicating with the target audience.

Striking the Right Communication Balance

As with any effective marketing campaign, once the audience has been identified, there must be a plan for consistent messaging. There is a delicate balance between strategically communicating with your alumni to update them on news about the firm, their former colleagues, etc.—and flooding them with information they find irrelevant. Posting pictures from in-person alumni events is a great way to attract people to the site as everyone likes to look at photos of past and current coworkers. Work with Professional Development, Marketing, and Social Media teams to cull the most pertinent stories and stick to a regular delivery plan. Whether it's monthly or quarterly, be consistent.

Soliciting current attorneys, retirees, or alumni to act as moderators or group facilitators is a great way to connect people on the site. Whether for a substantive legal discussion based on recent cases in the news or for pure fun purposes like discussing best restaurants or favorite bands, it gets your community connecting with one another. The value of the site is for attorneys to use it and make contact with past and current colleagues.

Accept a Long-Term Vision

European-based companies tend to have a particularly holistic approach to their alumni. They regularly host both social and professional development-related events, where current attorneys—especially partners—and alumni are invited. These firms understand the inherent value of interpersonal relationships, and the necessity of consistently nurturing them if there is to be any benefit for either party.

Conversely, American firms have been a little slower to adopt this inclusive approach. They also tend to be more focused on new deals rather than the significance of the overall relationship and branding value. Fortunately, this trend seems to be waning, and U.S. law firms are becoming more accepting and inclusionary of their alumni. Foley chose to include its retirees as part of this group, as they often maintain quality relationships with clients, who are now friends, as well as with attorneys who have left the firm. Retirees are also invaluable resources for shaping the direction of the program—they know what they would like to see in an alumni program and have the time to take action on their ideas.

Firms need to take into consideration a long-term versus short-term view of alumni. Consider the alumni program to be an inherent part of the overall marketing and brand strategy. Accept that the long-term approach will ultimately yield valuable results, but set short-term goals to help measure success along the way (e.g., quality of alumni contact data, message clickthrough rates, or alumni participation in events).

Perpetuating Firm Culture

The most successful alumni initiatives are those where current members of the firm—specifically, the partnership and business leaders—create a culture of alumni inclusion internally. Alumni come from all parts of the firm, and should therefore be interwoven into every part of the firm's business. By creating an atmosphere where attorneys are valued through the entirety of their tenure and even after they have left the firm, the firm creates opportunities for alumni to similarly incorporate it into their future endeavors. If a firm considers every incoming attorney as an eventual future alumnus, the value of the relationship begins with recruitment and, ideally, is fruitful for both parties well beyond the end date.

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