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After Vinson & Elkins partner Veronica Lewis left the firm’s Dallas office to go in-house as general counsel with a Texas health care company, managing partner Joseph Dilg would pop by her new office just to say “hey.” “It was like he was trying to convey to me ‘we still like you,’ ” she said. “ It made me realize he wasn’t mad at me.” Those visits from Dilg and Lewis’ other contact with firm friends were big reasons why, after 18 months as general counsel at Novation Corp., she returned to Vinson & Elkins last year as a partner in its litigation practice. “In a way, I felt like I never left,” she said. Vinson & Elkins and other big shops are realizing that maintaining contacts with departed lawyers through concerted alumni efforts are key to enticing top talent to return to the fold. Alumni programs, no longer simply mechanisms for referral business or for client development, now are focused, at least in part, on bringing back attorneys who leave for perceived greener pastures. Associate attrition, brisk lateral movement and a dearth of minority and women attorneys in the upper echelon of big firms have prompted firms to get creative in trying to hang on to good help. And one way to achieve that objective is to make their former lawyers feel as if they are still part of the firm family. “The goal is to have robust and positive relationships with all of our alums,” said Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner Richard Doren, adding that rehires are a growing component of its program. Alum as ‘talent pool’ Like many other large law firms, 782-attorney Los Angeles-based Gibson Dunn has a Web site that now links directly to its alumni page. There, attorneys formerly with the firm can go to a password-protected alumni network, which, as the Web site explains, enables them to “renew old friendships, establish new ones, network with fellow alumni, explore exciting career opportunities and participate in a variety of events.” The firm has about 1,000 alums registered to the site, Doren said. The value of alumni as a talent pool, not just as clients, is becoming a “growing realization” among law firm management, said Anne Berkowitch, chief executive officer of SelectMinds, a New York-based corporate social network technology firm. Her company has worked with several large law firms to establish alumni relations programs. The rise of programs that focus on rehiring departed attorneys is a consequence of unprecedented job movement within the legal industry. Among associates, attrition at law firms is 78% by the time they are in their fifth year of practice, according to a 2005 report released by the National Association for Law Placement. In 2003, the attrition rate for fifth-year associates was 53.4%. Partner hopscotching also is high. Last year, 2,429 partners left their firms for other attorney jobs, compared with 2,081 departures in 2004, according to The American Lawyer, an affiliate of The National Law Journal. Law firms have come to accept all that movement as a part of doing business, Berkowitch said, and are putting aside feelings of disloyalty about attorneys who leave. The message they are sending is that, unless an attorney left under litigious circumstances or was fired for cause, departed lawyers are welcome to climb on the alumni wagon, Berkowitch said. Besides establishing Web site alumni directories, law firms also are posting job openings, making their alumni magazines available online and profiling departed lawyers-whether they are now with in-house counsel or at competing firms, she said. In addition, firms are encouraging their current attorneys to access their directories and to maintain contacts with their former colleagues’ whereabouts to keep their firms fresh in the minds of those who have left. “It is now beyond the classic business-development relationships,” Berkowitch said. But a Web presence is just one piece of a program. The main purpose of any effective alumni initiative is to provide its participants with something they cannot get elsewhere, Berkowitch said. As such, alumni development may include hosting highly targeted events that facilitate meetings between current and former attorneys with other firms or with potential clients. “You need to have really good-quality events. They don’t have to be big blow-out parties,” she said. Many firms are developing alumni programs aimed specifically at getting minorities to return, Berkowitch said. They also are making greater efforts to keep in contact with women who have left or who are on maternity leave, even though those attorneys technically are not alumni-at least not yet. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom recently launched a maternity leave contact program, said Earle Yaffa, managing director of the 1,790-attorney New York firm. “We would love to get them back,” he said. In Lewis’ case, she left 725-attorney Houston-based Vinson & Elkins because she thought an in-house counsel position would enable her to spend more time with her daughters. She and her husband now have three, ages 11, 7 and 2. She thought the hours would be more manageable working for a corporation. But by maintaining a dialogue with Vinson & Elkins after she left, she learned that the firm could provide her with some flexibility in her schedule so that she could attend after-school functions and work on client matters at home once her girls were tucked in for the night. “I thought it would feel a little awkward coming back,” she said. “It turned out to be really comfortable.”

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