There’s gold in alumni networks.
It comes in the form of very real benefits to law firms and other professional services like management consulting and accounting. The following are probably the most desirable advantages:
Recruiting – When you are competing for talent, an active alumni network can be an advantage that helps tip the scale in your firm’s favor. In today’s economy and work environment, employment is not the long-term commitment or guarantee it once was, making alumni networks more attractive.
Staff Referrals – Alumni can be good referral sources to help you fill openings or gaps in skill sets or experience, not to mention the alumnus him/herself return to the firm.
Business Development – Alumni networks facilitate word-of-mouth marketing, which most law firms and other professional services rely upon for business development. It’s true that people who go to competing firms are not likely to share new business leads. Yet alumni also move on to friendly firms or ‘enemy of my enemy’ situations. Some alums jump to the client side, taking general counsel or other positions at companies that could be potential new clients. Time passes and water flows under the bridge (assuming the bridge wasn’t completely burned down) and alumni networks help keep those metaphorical bridges in good condition.
Strategic Partnerships – Even if alumni cannot or would not hand over a new client lead, they are capable of recognizing ideal opportunities to work together on a client matter or to form an alliance based on complementary services and practice areas.
Other less tangible advantages include brand-building and goodwill. Alumni networks can pay for themselves many times over the effort it takes to build and leverage them.
As for additional work, you don’t need to create, fund and staff a new alumni department. Much of it can be automated through your HR system or contact management system and facilitated by capturing alumni information when they are hired.
How to Build Your Alumni Network
Whether it’s a simple contact list, a fully-developed directory with metadata for sorting and searching, or an active community, the requirements for building an alumni network are the same:
1. Find the alumni.
2. Determine the best options for creating your network.
3. Leverage and maintain it.
How to Find Your Alumni
If you are building your alumni network from scratch, you will need to do some people sleuthing. Start with your own Human Resources group to attain the list of your former employees. If you have a Career Center or Professional Development & Recruiting, see what knowledge they have on the whereabouts of individual alums. And don’t forget your current professionals and staff, particularly those who have been with the firm the longest and to locate employees who recently left. While people break ties with employers, they often keep relationships with individual co-workers.
If you are looking for specific individuals and need to move your search online, you can break down the World Wide Web into smaller universes to increase your odds of getting the right hits:
- Social media search – Make sure to check the majors: LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+ and Twitter.
- Specialized people search engines like Pipl, which dive into the ‘deep web’ of public records. You can often verify you have the right ‘John Doe’ by comparing locations and other information to help you narrow your search to the right person.
- Law school and other university alumni networks. Former attorney Jane Doe may be a member of her alumni association at Pepperdine Law School. Since you know where your employees went to school, you may be able to cross-check and locate people through this connection, if you have access.
The most challenging part of locating specific people is the research work itself, as it can be a very time-consuming process with numerous dead ends. Outsourcing this project is a one-time expense that could be a worthwhile investment. LAC Group offers research services and experience locating all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons. We can also help you identify and build a system to capture and record alumni information during the onboarding and termination processes.
And that leads me to the most efficient way to find your alumni: Don’t lose track of them in the first place!
Start the process when you hire them. Gather their university information including year of graduation, campus location and degree. Make them aware of your firm’s alumni network and essentially transfer them from your payroll to your alumni roll. You could choose to make exceptions in the case of individuals who are terminated for egregious reasons; otherwise make this a standard procedure for every person who leaves the firm.
Tools for Building Alumni Networks
The good news is that you have several options for creating your alumni network. You can start (and even stay) with something basic like a list of contact and key information that you maintain in a spreadsheet or document that is made accessible to alumni.
Otherwise the internet enables more engaging, interactive networks. One option for smaller firms is to leverage the concept of private groups within existing Social Media networks. You can set up a private Google+ Community or LinkedIn Group for an easy way to create and build your alumni network. Tax and Consulting Firm McGladrey LLP is one of many with alumni networks set up using LinkedIn Groups.
Finally, you can create an alumni section on your public website, which is the avenue of choice for many large firms:
- Management consulting firm McKinsey is one example of a professional services firm with a robust alumni network, including News, Directory, Careers and Events.
- Law firm Venable, LLP maintains an alumni network on its website called Venable Connection and also offers events and a semi-annual newsletter.
These web-based systems sit behind a security wall, accessible only to alumni and current staff with permission and credentials. Protecting individual privacy is critical, and you cannot have privacy without adequate security. Minimal personal information should be required for participation, which must be completely opt-in with the ability to opt-out at any time.
How to Leverage and Maintain Your Alumni Network
Alumni networks and directories are valuable only when they are used and maintained. The alumni themselves are the primary beneficiaries, as networks allow them to stay in touch with the firm and former co-workers. Yet as I already pointed out, the firm can benefit as well.
As for regular care and feeding, it doesn’t need to be a major undertaking. If you collect the right information during the onboarding process, and make people aware of your alumni network upon termination, you will create awareness and boost participation. The alumni have the responsibility to maintain their own information. Newsletters are an easy, effective way to keep the network top-of-mind for all stakeholders and to promote it as a resource.
A final benefit of alumni networks with greater relevance to law firms is that they can ease some of the pain in the event of lay-offs. This National Law Review article delves into that aspect of it. And this helpful article on the ABA website offers additional benefits and guidance on how and why to do it.
Mining Your Own Alumni Network Gold
Universities know the value of their alumni and dedicate a great deal of effort and resources to build and support sophisticated alumni associations. Many large corporations and firms in law, accounting, architecture and other professions recognize the value as well.
I know what you may be thinking – universities do it because they rely on alumni for fundraising. Major corporations and firms do it because they can.
Yet for medium-sized or small firms, even a basic alumni directory can be a valuable resource and a treasure trove of insights and information worth mining for gold.