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As firms strive to differentiate themselves through marketing techniques and stave off mergers through network affiliations, they are gearing up alumni programs to net referrals and maintain positive relationships with former employees.

Over the last two to five years, large firms have dedicated a significant amount of time and money to creating programs that link current and former attorneys, marketing consultant Micah Buchdahl said.

“People who used to work at the firm are actually really good future business leads,” he said.

Many former firm members move on to serve as in-house counsel for clients or potential clients, become judges or start their own businesses.

The old theory that “once you’re gone, you’re gone” no longer applies, he said.

Richard Kremnick, who helps steer Blank Rome’s alumni program, said the increase in more formalized alumni programs is due in part to the increasingly fluid state of the profession.

There are more alumni to keep in contact with as lawyers leave firms more frequently than they did a generation before, he said.

Alumni programs have evolved into more than an invitation to a holiday party. The online directories have made some of them like a MySpace.com for lawyers.

The programs generally include a password-protected online system that gives contact information, job changes and even family announcements. Some include a discussion forum as well.

Firms will also use their alumni contact list to send out newsletters and invitations to continuing legal education events. The culmination of these programs is generally an annual event that brings the alumni and firm members together.

Buchdahl said many firms, like his Delaware-based client Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, tie the party to a certain event. Young Conaway held its inaugural event to the NCAA March Madness games, according the firm’s marketing director Elise Martin.

Martin said that as the firm grew and had close to 90 alumni, it couldn’t keep contact with all of them informally.

She said when firms lose lawyers with national practices, they often move across the country and are harder to reach, whereas a smaller firm may see alumni while walking around town.

Marketing consultant Stacy West Clark said she started Morgan Lewis & Bockius’ program back in the late 1980s.

She said online directories could include photos and self-written biographies and the newsletters could inform alumni of firm changes including new offices or practice areas.

There may be some concerns about who gets to be a member of the program, but marketers and firms alike said there was nothing wrong with inviting alumni who have moved to a competitor.

Kremnick said competitors can become good referral sources when conflicts arise.

“I personally refer matters to lawyers who have been here and left because I personally have a comfort level [with their work],” he said.

In case the firm wants a little help in getting started, there are companies out there like SelectMinds that create corporate alumni programs.

According to the firm’s Web site, the programs are helpful business tools in providing access to potential new business, re-recruiting former members and having access to in-house counsel who can send top talent without having to go through a recruiter.

The site also suggests keeping retired lawyers as part of the alumni network because they have an institutional knowledge that could be shared with younger attorneys through a mentorship program.

SelectMinds chief executive officer Anne Berkowitch said law firms are “absolutely” using alumni programs more frequently. She said they are generally used for three reasons: business development, recruiting and branding.

Many firms she said include an area for job postings and offer the ability to post other content.

“If a law firm isn’t doing something in this arena in the next couple of years, it’s going to start looking like a firm that’s lagging behind,” she said.

Berkowitch said that the Web-based social networking technology her company provides has given firms the opportunity to create more personal sub-networks in which members can invited certain people into their network and share information with only that group.

One sub-network that has really taken off, she said, are ones that connect women in the firm with other female alumni. Women on maternity leave for a year may not be considered alumni, but helping them stay informed may enhance the firm’s ability to retain that attorney, Berkowitch said.

While some alumni programs have been going on for a while, several local firms are just starting, revamping or thinking of starting an official program.

DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary is currently in the process of revamping their alumni Web site, and Blank Rome just finished such an endeavor. A spokeswoman for Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis said that while the firm keeps in touch with alumni informally, it is looking into how it might create a formal program.

Most in the industry have said that it is difficult to put a dollar value on the return from these programs.

Kremnick said that the monetary commitment to these programs is not as substantial as the time commitment.

Duane Morris chairman Sheldon Bonovitz said, like other marketing techniques, some of it is institutionalized and the return on investment is just not tracked.

He said the firm began the program about two or three years ago but is focusing on it more now than in the past.

“We should have done this earlier than we have,” he said.

Clark said some of the better programs end up sending alumni work and even keeping former summer associates who turned down offers on the list.

“The best alumni program starts the day someone is hired,” Clark said. “They can tarnish or bolster your reputation.”

Kremnick said he has had people leave and return to his firm in part because of the relationships he has maintained.

While smaller firms usually do not have enough alumni to sustain a formal program, Clark said it can be done on a more informal basis through lunches, formal dinners or even holiday cards.

Buchdahl said it is hard for even mid-sized firms to get the programs off and running. He said, however, that an online directory is an easy tool to use, which allows the firm to do most of the work itself.

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