A growing number of law firms want to stay in touch with people who move on. What are the reasons why and how can you reconnect?

Any lawyer whose university or college has their up-to-date contact details will have noticed a surge in communications from them over the past 10 years. In place of the closely typed obituaries of alumni and lists of bequests, fellowships and retirements are glossy ‘magazines’ carrying inspirational stories – or soft focus items with titles like ‘your room – my room’ (where an alumnus ‘chats’ to the current occupant of their old room).

However this is dressed up, it is obvious why your alma mater’s in touch. They want your money; to levy tax on any fond memories you have of the place, or can be made to think you have of the place.

But why would a law firm behave in the same way? Given that firms work on the basis that partnership is the goal for many, surely those who have left were either snubbing the place for a better opportunity elsewhere, did not quite cut it, or had such a bad time they did not want to stick around.

That does not sound like a group of people you would want to open a free bar for, or spend an evening of your time with. Nevertheless, that is exactly what a growing number of law firms, including many of the very largest, have chosen to do.

Dear departed

Of course, some will have left the firm to go in-house; to legal departments in businesses, regulators or the public sector. These people will be in a position to hand out legal work, or simply be influential and interesting professionals to keep up with.  

Why, though, bother with the rest? The idea is based on a certain reading of the ‘modern’ business world. Apologies for the jargon here, but these days organisations are meant to be ‘porous’ entities rather than the impermeable monoliths of old. Their reputations are based on the ‘connections’ their people have made and those people are (an extra apology here) themselves ‘micro-brands’.

Or, put more simply, one might as well stay in touch with and on good terms with people, because you never know where they may end up. If they have good feelings towards the old place – and it helps their careers and plans by boosting the useful folk they need to have in their own network – they may reciprocate. They may feed back ideas, be more positive about the firm when contacts applying to it sound them out, or simply stick up for the firm when it has a ‘reputation’ issue in the press.

In these days of consolidation, former colleagues may even end up thrown back together through merger. In that sort of environment, why burn bridges?

Herbert Smith Freehills relaunched its alumni network seven years ago, building a website and ‘interactive database’. This is complemented by a series of events which now run across the geographical regions where the global firm has offices.

The latter include smaller targeted events and a large annual event for all alumni. The firm also communicates with alumni through emails, print material and social media.

Alumni relations manager Elisabeth Salsbury tells the Gazette that the firm wants relationships between alumni, and between the firm and alumni, to be ‘dynamic’, ‘through networking, career and personal development opportunities, job opportunities’. The aim, she adds, ‘is that these relationships are mutually beneficial to alumni as well as to the firm’.

Salsbury continues: ‘The reason the network was relaunched was because there has always been a strong connection with our alumni and we wanted to find a way to do it better. We were then able to look at creating a more structured approach to keeping in touch, working closely with the HR teams in the exit process.’

It is a similar story at global firm Baker & McKenzie, where Jonathan Westwell, general counsel and member of the firm’s management committee, stresses that activities need to be based on a recognition that the network should be useful to its members. ‘It enables past colleagues to build and maintain their own social and professional networks, while keeping informed of developments at the firm,’ he explains.

Established 10 years ago, Baker & McKenzie’s London programme is part of a wider global alumni network comprising over 1,000 members, including support staff. Serving staff and partners also attend its main annual social gathering. Westwell notes: ‘Our London annual alumni reunion is extremely popular as it gives past colleagues the opportunity to reconnect with old friends.’ The firm also has a dedicated magazine for its London alumni, InTouch, which is sent out bi-annually to alumni members. There is a global alumni website which enables past colleagues to access its global alumni network. Westwell hopes the upshot is that alumni ‘maintain close ties with the firm’.

Alumni checklist, part one

Setting the alumni network’s objectives

  • What are your key business objectives and associated metrics?
  • What is the value proposition for your target segments?
  • What is the positioning of the network (eg emotional, practical, aspirational)?
  • Who will have access to the network? All alumni? Fee-earners only? Staff? Clients?
  • What is your internal engagement approach?
  • Is the network international or based in one jurisdiction?
  • Will other organisations be allowed to advertise?

Delivering the network

  • Who is the internal sponsor (the CEO?), and does it come under marketing or HR?
  • What internal resources are required to deliver the network and agree these?
  • How will you deliver the value proposition to your target segments on a regular basis?
  • How will the value proposition be communicated to your segments?
  • Who will manage the network and coordinate activities?
  • What internal business processes does the network need to be integrated with? The leaver process or client relationship management?

Essential ingredients

Opportunities for informal social time, then, are a key element of the alumni network. But there are many other considerations.

John Jeffcock, whose company Winmark runs a number of networks, among them those of a magic circle firm, advises a ‘segmented’ approach to activities.

‘Alumni networks need to be segmented into different groups,’ he argues, ‘such as top-20 most powerful members – cabinet ministers, FTSE chairs for example. Then client-side, such as head of litigation at JP Morgan, and “competitor”.’ Each needs to be managed differently, he says.

‘You need a stakeholder map detailing what they want from the alumni, what you want from them and a plan for each with objectives. The key is making sure that they always think that you care and can deliver value to them through the alumni.’

Not everyone accords with that ‘segmented’ approach, but all agree that the tone of the engagement is important. Salsbury advises: ‘A personal tone to our communications engages alumni, and update stories on alumni are the most popular articles in our magazine and on our website.’

Westwell also stresses the importance of considering the ‘tone’ and content of communications: ‘Before setting up an alumni programme, it is vital to consider how best to tailor your communications to this audience and ensure that all content is engaging and relevant.’

That is time well spent, according to individuals who have joined these networks. One alumna recalls a ‘long and boring presentation’ from the managing partner at one event that was otherwise well received. ‘I really enjoy their events,’ she adds, ‘because they get a good turnout.’

While a large firm requires resources to manage an alumni network, Salsbury cautions that the network works best when current partners are properly involved. ‘We have found that engaging partners helps the network grow,’ she says, adding: ‘The alumni network is fully supported and encouraged by the firm’s management.’

Alumni checklist, part two

Launching the network

  • What is your launch communication strategy? For example, central email or personal referrals?
  • How will the launch events help drive registrations to the network?

Managing the network

  • How will the network be governed? For example, will there be an advisory board?
  • How will feedback be obtained?
  • How will the results be fed back internally and to the network to maintain engagement?

Source: Winmark

Staying in touch

Alumni networks are currently associated with larger law firms, in part because a smaller firm may be able to achieve some of the positive results identified here without the need for a formal infrastructure.

Not all larger firms see the sense. The Gazette also spoke to firms with a headcount of over 1,000 that do not run an alumni network.

But big or small, if a firm wants to set up a network, then some organisation is needed to keep tabs on alumni. Information should be up to date, alumni should be encouraged to help put other former colleagues in touch, and in order to ensure the firm is perceived to ‘mean it’, communication with alumni needs to be regular.

Thought also needs to be given to how leaving the firm is managed. If the default exit process is too heavy-handed, sharp or unpleasant, it will be a poor match for the atmosphere it is hoped will characterise a successful alumni network.

As Jeffcock concludes: ‘Your alumni network represents your brand to a key audience and therefore must be resourced properly… having big gaps between events or communications implies that you do not care.’

Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor