Alumni programs mix networking with nostalgia

Yesterday’s esteemed colleagues may be tomorrow’s top clients for law firms that know how to tap into their alumni network…

By Michael Rappaport, LEXPERT

Bay Street legal behemoths spend millions on advertising and marketing their services each year; nevertheless, a significant chunk of their work is still based on personal referrals. Perhaps the best source of referrals comes from past associates and partners, who left private practice for in-house gigs at major corporations, banks and institutions. Yet law firms have lagged behind their cousins in large accounting firms – which set up alumni networking programs decades ago – to formally reach out to their connections in the business world.

All of the “Big Four” accounting firms have long established alumni programs: Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers. It was only in the past decade or so that many of Canada’s national law firms – including several of the seven sisters: Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt, Blake, Cassels & Graydon, Stikeman Elliott – followed the lead of their accounting counterparts and launched alumni programs of their own. In the past year smaller national firms such as Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg and Ogilvy Renault have joined the fray and unfurled alumni programs.

Why have law firms been so slow off the mark? Theories abound. John Coleman, the Montreal-based Managing Partner of Ogilvy Renault, speculates that up until recently law firms had a much lower rate of turnover than accounting firms. Indeed, Coleman spent his entire quarter century legal career at Ogilvy Renault’s Montreal office rising up the ranks from articling student to managing partner.

“In the past law firms were similar to universities,” Coleman explains. “You were hired on as an articling student, graduated to become an associate professor, got promoted to tenured professor and finally became a professor emeritus.”

With the rapid expansion of law firms and the increased mobility of lawyers over the last two decades this kind of career trajectory is much less common. Lawyers hop from firm to firm, from out-side to in-house counsel and often leave private practice altogether for academic, judicial or corporate positions.

Size also matters. Major accounting firms have tens of thousands more alumni to tap. Terry Burgoyne, a Senior Partner and a member of the Executive Committee at the Toronto office of Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt, one of the first law firms in Canada to launch an alumni program more than 15 years ago, notes that Osler’s only has about 850 alumni, which is about double the number of lawyers presently employed by the firm. In contrast the “Big Four” accounting firms each have well over 120,000 employees worldwide, dwarfing even the largest global law firms which at most boast a few thousand lawyers and support staff.

Inertia can be a factor. Coleman says that for years Ogilvy Renault dickered and debated setting up an alumni program before he finally formally launched his firm’s alumni program with cocktail receptions in Toronto and Montreal this past October. Still, better late than never. The longer a law firms waits before starting an alumni program, the more difficulty it will face when it comes to connecting with far-flung, long departed alumni.

“The key step in starting an alumni program is getting databases up to date,” says Gerold Goldlist, a Partner in the Toronto office of Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg, which launched its alumni program two years ago. Tracking down alumni contact information is no easy task as Goldlist can attest: “As firm grows and time passes many alumni settle in different cities and in different countries.” Coleman heartily concurs: “Putting together the list was the hardest part.” Ogilvy Renault has over 500 alumni and it took the firm over a year just to update its alumni contact list.

Although law firms are finally getting into the game they still have to play catch up if they want to create alumni programs to rival the “Big Four” accounting firms. For instance in addition to hosting a huge alumni event every two years, KPMG has an alumni website which offers a range of services to former employees, including a membership directory, job postings, news updates, access to publications and a regular newsletter. The website also includes an employee referral program with a $1,000 donation in the name of the referring alumnus upon a successful hire.

In contrast, the law firm alumni programs profiled sent an e-newsletter out to alumni, generally either annually or biannually, hosted alumni receptions every two years and occasionally invited former employees to legal seminars.

Osler’s biannual e-newsletter The Osler Link is a good example of a successful law firm alumni newsletter. The Osler Link features profiles of alumni, stories on community outreach and updates on moves, news and sadly obituaries. Judy Stein-Korte, Chief Client Services Officer at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt, says the firm periodically surveys alumni to find out what they want to see covered and that the feedback thus far has been “terrific.”

Alumni events are another way to reconnect. Elena Hoffstein, Chair of the Alumni Committee and a Partner at Fasken Marineau, says that every two years her firm hosts a huge cocktail reception in Toronto for alumni. In the past Faskern Martineau has held alumni events at Casa Loma, a castle built by an eccentric industrialist Sir Henry Pellatt in 1911 and the Windsor Arms Hotel a luxury hotel in downtown Toronto.

In addition to hosting a large alumni banquet, Goldlist says that Davies often invites alumni to client events and the firms Montreal office provides alumni with the opportunity to attend legal education seminars for credit since continuing legal education is mandatory in Quebec.

Surely alumni events and outreach are not just an opportunity to sip champagne and sing Auld Lang Syne? Despite much coaxing all of the subjects, who graciously consented to be interviewed, were too coy to broach any business rationales to establish alumni programs.

Fortunately Cem Sertoglu and Anne Berkowitch weren’t similarly inhibited. In “Cultivating Ex-Employees” published in the Harvard Business Review on June 1, 2002, they wrote: “It’s true that smart professional services firms have long courted their former employees, viewing them as potential future customers. McKinsey & Company, most famously, invests considerable sums in cultivating its far-flung alumni network, knowing that former consultants often become buyers of big-ticket consulting services as their business careers progress.”

For further proof Amy Spach, a legal marketing specialist and the principal of AS Written Communications based in Los Angeles noted in “Firm Alumni Programs – Turning Goodbye into Good Business,” published in Legal Marketing Association News on June 7, 2005, that “Ernst & Young credit[ed] alumni with generating [US]$100 million in new business over a two-year period.”

Bay Street law firms boast many prominent alumni who could become prime clients. To wit ex-Ogilvy Renault employees include David O’Brien, Chairman of the Board at the Royal Bank of Canada; Jacques Demers, President and CEO, Strategic Investments at OMERS; and, Olivier Chouc, Assistant VP Legal and General Counsel at Canadian National Railway. The Chief Legal Officers David Allgood at Royal Bank and Deborah Alexander at Scotia Financial Group got their start at Osler’s.

Goldlist preferred not to single out any Davies’ alumni for special recognition, declaring “All of our alumni are stars.” Some stars, however, shine brighter than others. When pressed Goldlist provided the names of the following distinguished alumni: Jeffrey Palmer , Executive Vice-President and Chief Legal Officer of Magna International Inc.; Michael McGuinty, Director, Mergers and Acquisitions for Schlumberger Limited; and, the Honourable Justice John I. Laskin, who joined Davies in 1984 and led the litigation group in the Toronto office until his appointment to the Ontario Court of Appeal in 1994.

Beyond potentially generating business cultivating an alumni network can have other pay offs for a law firm. As Wayne Bigby observed in The Lawyers Weekly, “Establishing alumni networks for fun – and profit!,” published in July 22, 2005, “Alumni know their ex-firm far better than anyone and, in addition to becoming good clients or sources of referrals, they are also seen as credible references for business and for recruits to the firm.”

Furthermore, there is always a chance that former associates and partners will return to the fold. So called “boomerang employees” are especially welcome since they already know the firm culture, are less expensive to train and may even have a positive effect on the retention of current employees, according to Bigby. Burgoyne cites Osler partner Brian Levitt, a leading corporate governance and M&A advisor, as an example of a “boomerang employee.” Levitt left Osler’s in 1991 to become President and CEO of Imasco. In 2001 he returned to Osler’s to resume his position as co-chair of the firm and open the Montreal office.

And lest we forget hosting alumni events are a great way to reconnect with old colleagues, share stories and bask in the warm, fuzzy glow of nostalgia. “From our perspective [the alumni program] is just a way of being able to reach out and stay in touch,” gushes Goldlist. He adds, “It’s a way to obtain historical vignettes of Davies and memorialize them for the next generation.”

“Relationships don’t end when someone takes another career path,” Burgoyne insists. His colleague at Osler’s, Hoffstein echoes his sentiment: “It builds community and generates warm feelings about our firm.”

Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind…