The Benefits of Alumni Programs
An initial caveat: This column speaks to lawyer alumni programs, but firms might want to consider broadening to include former nonlawyer team members. Many of the benefits of these programs apply just as much to people who have contributed to the firm in ways other than as practicing lawyers.
First, and perhaps most obvious, are the business development benefits. Many lawyers are in a position to refer work to their old firms after they leave. That’s particularly true for those who go in house. But there are many instances where lawyers’ new firms can’t take on a matter (not in their specialty area, a conflict of interest, etc.), and a lawyer is able to refer the work out. Some lawyers go on to found businesses with significant legal needs. Sending the message that lawyers who have left your firm are still considered valued is certainly a place to start in cultivating these referral relationships. In short, it’s about getting back on the radar of your departed lawyers.
Second, your alumni are a great resource for recruiting in this extremely competitive environment. They know your firm and may be willing to refer good candidates for open positions if they’re just aware of the openings. Some lawyers—the so-called boomerangs—might return themselves.
Third, alumni programs are a great way to build your brand. Your alumni can be great for word-of-mouth marketing, and your alumni program can be a great way to spread the good news about what’s happening at your firm. Creating programming featuring your lawyers and inviting alumni to attend can be an effective way to show the firm’s thought leadership in a particular area. And highlighting the accomplishments of your alumni through your program is another way to show that your firm is a place that fosters success.
Alumni networks can also be tapped to help in accomplishing firm initiatives that could benefit from outside help. For example, the firm’s pro bono work can be enhanced, as well as community service initiatives.
Finally, an alumni program can help address a problem I see in many organizations. Some firms treat employees who leave poorly—both in terms of how the employees are handled on their way out (no formal acknowledgment of the departure or worse, giving them the silent treatment or something similar) and in how they are discussed after their departure (often as people who were bad at their job or who somehow betrayed the firm by departing). Treating employees who have left like college alumni—an ongoing part of a community who are now in a different role—requires a new mindset but one that can improve morale overall at a firm. Think of it like deciding to go on to get your law degree at a different school than where you were an undergraduate.
Obviously, if the benefits were solely to the law firm, an alumni program would not likely succeed. But a good alumni network is a community where alumni can build relationships with potential referring lawyers, find mentors and have an opportunity to build awareness of their post-firm accomplishments.
Keeping Track of Your Alumni
Some firms may keep track of the personal email addresses and cellphone numbers of former employees. Since people usually hang on to those for a while, an email or a text may be a good place to start. You might also make sure you have an exit meeting with employees who give you notice; let them know that you hope they’ll participate in your alumni program and give them details about it, including the website address. Again, it reminds the person that you value the contributions they’ve made and still consider them part of your broader community.
You might also have to start researching in places like LinkedIn and Avvo. LinkedIn makes it easy to track down people because they’re likely listing your firm under their experience, and you can search by company.
You might consider using a contact management system to keep track of and communicate with your alumni. You can create a group in a mass mail program you might already be using, such as Constant Contact or Mailchimp. And there are also websites that focus on managing alumni networks. One is Hivebrite, which allows you to collect and store your alumni’s contact information, communicate with them and manage alumni events.
What Can the Program Do?
An easy place to start building an alumni community is to set up an alumni web portal with a newsletter or news posting, announcements about events and a directory. It should also have a contact registration/update page where your alumni can post their contact details, as well as their personal news and work accomplishments.
Beyond this, alumni programs can include:
- In-person and virtual social events
- CLE programming and other educational initiatives
- Pro bono and community service volunteer programs
- Postings of position openings and other announcements
I mentioned at the outset that most of the firms with alumni programs are of the larger variety. But that may be because they simply have a larger network or because they have an in-house marketing team that can take on the work. But there’s no reason a small firm can’t start a program, too, particularly if the firm has been around for several years and has had many employees work there over the years. A program can also start out modestly—just a page on your website and a periodic social gathering—and then build from there. The goal is to make these programs the foundation for a community where firms support their employees after they’ve departed. Building a program that’s as robust as some of the ones at larger firms that have had them for several years is not going to be easy for most. But slowly building a program is something that can be done without a tremendous time or budget commitment.