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How to Launch a Successful Alumni Relations Program at Your Law Firm
Monday, April 8, 2024

My first law firm job 20+ years ago was overseeing the alumni relations program at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. Back then we had a hard copy alumni contact directory and held a fancy alumni networking event once per year for which we mailed out invites.

We also built one of the first law firm alumni microsites – it was exciting to work on such a forward-thinking initiative long before many firms did the same.

I went on to run alumni programs at several other firms, including Sullivan & Cromwell, Morrison & Foerster and Proskauer, and I learned so much on how to create a successful alumni experience from these roles.

Today, alumni programs are much more multidimensional and tech-savvy – or at least should be – and firms of all sizes should invest in creating an alumni program.

Maintaining regular contact with your alumni is so important for all professional services organizations because alumni can add unique and tremendous value to your organization.

Your alumni are among your strongest, or weakest, brand advocates.

It doesn’t matter how big or small your organization is, if you have employees who have left the firm with whom you want to keep in touch, then you need an alumni relations program.

Alumni relations can help your law firm with:

  • Recruiting initiatives – Alumni are an excellent source for identifying and engaging potential recruits. Your alumni are more likely to be considered by prospective employees as a credible source of information about what it’s like to work at the organization.
  • Lateral pipeline activities
  • Business development
  • General positive brand building for your law firm
  • Brand advocates to drive business development, recruiting and thought leadership
  • Boomerang employees – many alumni return to your firm after going in-house, into public service or even discovering the grass isn’t greener somewhere else. It’s much easier to re-onboard a lawyer than to hire from scratch.

A law firm alumni program is so much more than planning periodic events and creating an alumni database and web site.

It’s about creating a long-term supportive community throughout the lifecycle of the alum’s career. It is also about creating opportunities for alumni to reconnect with each other. And finally promoting your alumni and their successes should be at the heart of your law firm alumni relations program.

With a large volume of work undertaken by partner firms or consultants, your alumni are a strategic talent pool.

And it doesn’t matter if a lawyer was at your law firm for one year, three years, 10 years or their entire career, they are still potential clients, referral sources and brand advocates.

A successful alumni relations program should include:

An alumni strategic plan with an alumni engagement strategy. This should be a short document with clear goals and objectives that are attainable. You can break it out by quarter to help you focus on the projects and tactics that you would like to do during a certain time period.

Define your alumni marketing strategy. Within your strategic plan outline your marketing strategy to recruit and engage participants. It is important to market your alumni network to keep your alumni engaged.

You likely have hundreds, if not thousands, of alumni across the globe. You won’t be able to focus on each of them equally so designate priority alumni segments. Consider who you want to create the most value for and who, in turn, could create value for your firm and others such as:

  • Rainmakers/industry leaders who are still shaping the industry
  • Future leaders who want to make a difference in the space
  • Retirees/elder states people who have been committed to the firm for a long time

Events. Your alumni are busy professionals so offer them a combination of in-person and virtual events that are both social and educational (offer your alumni CLE credit and they will be eternally grateful). Consider hosting a series of programs for alumni in in-house counsel roles – this is a great way to build relationships with potential clients. I recommend surveying alumni to see what time the majority of them prefer to attend events. At one firm we found that it was before work, at another firm it was lunchtime and at another firm evening events were preferred. Offer events at different times and be sensitive to time zones if you have global alumni. Consider both in-person and online events as their flexibility increases the likelihood that your alumni will attend.

Pro bono and community service opportunities. Most alumni who left your firm to go into another field or go in-house don’t have the luxury of having many pro bono opportunities from which to choose but law firms do. So, extend these opportunities to your alumni as well – they will greatly appreciate it. By the same token, if you can offer alumni access to philanthropic programs with which your firm already has partnerships, do it.

Social media. Maintaining an alumni community on various social media platforms is an easy way to stay in touch with them and helps them network with each other. It also helps you disseminate information about the firm. Use LinkedIn groups for this.

Online directory. Tracking alumni and their career progression should be at the heart of your alumni relations program. There are tools on the market help you stay informed of your alumni’s job moves throughout the years (LinkedIn can help with this too). Remember that just because you have the contact information of an alumnus when they initially leave your firm, doesn’t mean they are still at that organization two, three or five years later. That’s why it’s so important to have a consistent way to monitor job moves during the lifecycle of a lawyer’s career. Unless you have the internal resources to dedicate to searching for your alumni on a regular basis, you’ll need outside help.

Periodically review your alumni data. Your alumni are moving on to other roles every week. To keep track of this, regularly email your list (with content of value) and then go through your bounceback emails. This will only help you with professional emails though – if you have their personal emails in your system, you won’t know if they’ve moved jobs, so give them the opportunity to let you know of job moves by publicizing your class notes section as the impetus for their updates.

Email marketing – You should aim to email alumni once a month with an electronic newsletter/event invites to stay top of mind and build a strong community. Feature alumni profiles in this publication as well as class notes, as people really want to know where their colleagues are today, this will increase readership.

Special initiatives. There will be some alumni that you will want to keep close to the fold – perhaps clients or prospective clients, judges, in-house counsel and alumni who you invite back to speak at recruiting events. Create opportunities for them to help steer the direction of the alumni program. For example, at one firm we created an alumni board of directors consisting of VIP alumni that provided invaluable input on the direction of the program.

An alumni e-newsletter. This should be all about your alumni – feature profiles of their career paths and include a “class notes” section featuring their job moves, promotions and any positive professional news that they want to highlight. This feature will be a huge draw for your emails and social media accounts as people want to hear about updates about their former colleagues.

Exclusives and incentives. Maybe it’s free CLE credit, discounts on certain services (legal, travel, etc.), job postings at clients, referral bonuses to help you build your lateral program – come up with unique things that will incentivize your alumni to participate in your program especially if thrive been out of the fold for a while.

Mentoring. Connecting alumni to each other or to existing employees starting their careers to provide guidance, knowledge and assistance is one of the most meaningful things you can do as part of an alumni relations program. Some alumni may need mentors and some alumni may want to be mentors, so team up with your professional development group to start a mentorship program based upon what you are already doing internally. There’s no reason not to include alumni in this community.

Content marketing. With the help of your alumni strategic plan and a general email survey of your alumni that I recommend you conduct once per year in order to ascertain what kinds of content alumni want to read about. For example, do they want industry news, mentoring opportunities, news about their former colleagues and/or job or networking opportunities? Content that converges your business goals with alumni needs will be most effective. Here are a few ideas:

  • Create an employee referral program
  • Run an “ask the expert” series of events that invite current or former employees to share their expertise on specific topics
  • Share job opportunities on an online jobs board in your community and enable members to set up job notifications
  • Share firm news and spotlight alumni and their successes
  • Offer free CLEs and other educational programs
  • Ensure firm leaders are involved with your alumni program. Have them attend events, provide content and promote the program to current and past employees. This will increase the visibility of your alumni program.

How to Create and Run an Alumni Program

I recommend designating a primary project manager for alumni initiatives – this person can be your point person to help you carry out the objectives of the program and to interact with alumni on a regular basis (it’s important that alumni have a real human contact at the firm — don’t send all requests to a general alumni email box). Your alumni point person doesn’t have to be a full-time person if you are a small- or mid-size firm.

When it comes to the employee exit process, make sure it is handled as amicably as possible no matter the circumstances.

The main message to convey should be that although the employee has left the firm, they are still part of the family. Send soon to be former employees an email before they leave with a link to the online alumni network to update their information and remind them of the benefits of joining.

It’s important to focus on the long term and start the process of building awareness for your alumni network while individuals are still a part of your organization. By educating current employees on the value of the alumni program, it will give you a better chance of bringing them into your network if they choose to leave.

Market your alumni network to current employees and to new hires during the onboarding process. You will find that employees see the program as a benefit and shows that your organization values staying connected even after they have moved on.

Treat your alumni as if they are just as important as your clients because they are.

They can help you with so many initiatives and irrespective of whether someone left the firm voluntarily or not, you have an opportunity to bring them back into your law firm’s community and mend hurt feelings.

And please don’t exclude alumni at other law firms from your alumni events and other programs (unless they are on the very “naughty list”), everyone can be a potential referral source or a future client – I see so many firms opt to not invite “competitors,” which is a narrow way to think about your former employees.

In closing, firms of all sizes should have an alumni relations program of some sort – whether your firm has been in existence for 150 years, 50 years, 25 years or 10 years. If you have former employees, you need an alumni program.

I would also encourage you to think beyond just including lawyers in your alumni program.

There are many summer associates, paralegals and law firm administrative professionals who went on to do some terrific things not only in the law.

You are limiting your pipeline and opportunities if you just think of alumni relations is strictly for lawyers.

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