The way leadership shares information with staff can enhance engagement and build connections.
In the mix of marketing activities in law firms, internal communications often have taken a backseat. In fact, 52% of respondents to a recent survey conducted by ContactMonkey reported
they do not have a long-term internal communications strategy in place.
Freelance Writer and Editor
But, if anything, the past two years have pushed the internal communications function into the driver’s seat — highlighting its importance in building community and connections, managing change, and enhancing the culture in the law firm. And
those are powerful ingredients in recruiting and retaining talent, increasing market visibility and reinforcing brand identity.
What changes have legal leaders and experts observed in the stature and potential of internal communications, and how can firms further elevate and energize their efforts?
For starters, the frequency, level and format of internal communications has shifted markedly as firms grapple with new public health guidelines, escalating client service needs and firm operating constraints.
Davis Wright Tremaine LLP spent much more time doing firmwide meetings, according to Sean Gibson, Director of Client Service and Strategic Communications. “While email is great for communicating essential information, it’s not as effective when discussing operating decisions during a pandemic or addressing social justice issues. We’ve all been isolated yet collectively experienced events that have profoundly affected us,” says Gibson. “Having a forum where firm leadership can convey information and also share perspectives from different voices from around the firm has been invaluable.”
While marketing and PR professionals often drive communications efforts, C-suite leaders of firms — more so than in the past — have taken center stage as active communicators. It’s been an opportunity to spotlight rising stars, firm values, diversity initiatives, new business and operational goals.
“It was always important for us to facilitate and step back so our leaders’ and colleagues’ voices could be heard — both to inform and to unify,” says Roy E. Sexton, Director of Marketing at Clark Hill. “Our [chief executive officer] started a monthly newsletter; our [chief human resources officer] worked with her team and the marketing team to increase storytelling about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) concerns; and our [chief operating officer] started a weekly update to provide guidance on the evolving standards and mandates to keep everyone engaged and informed.”
Hearing from top management helped drive more cohesion, revealed a greater sense of humanity and led to increased institutional awareness and pride about the firm’s people and work.
A SHARPER FOCUS ON ENGAGEMENT AND COMMUNITY
As more employees work remotely or reduce their face time in offices, using a strategic mix of internal communications tools can help raise morale, connect people and projects, and launch efforts that can elevate social impact initiatives or new business opportunities.
“The firm needs to act as a team, understanding the value of everyone in the firm’s success.“
“Fostering a sense of community has been a huge focus for us,” says Gibson. “We’ve emphasized virtual breakfasts and coffee gatherings, but we’ve also focused intensely on pro bono and social impact work. In particular, we’ve worked to identify projects where everyone at the firm can collaborate with each other, as well as with our clients.”
Sexton agrees. “Collaborating with marketing, leveraging great internal stories, whether on a firm intranet or on social media, can create mutual lift.”
TACTICS AND TOOLS FOR ENGAGEMENT
It helps if firms view internal communications as a critical form of public relations — one that requires the same effort, strategic thinking and staffing as outward-facing marketing and communications initiatives.
“Firms that leverage a combination of platforms, including internal intranets, push text messages, social media and video updates, have seen improvements in internal communications,” says Jocelyn Brumbaugh, Founder of Builden Partners, which provides marketing strategy to law firms.
“As increasing numbers of attorneys and staff return to the office or opt for hybrid arrangements, firms need to continue a steady level of internal communications.“
With resignations increasing among attorneys and staff, it’s even more important to focus attention on the firm’s internal clients — namely, the administrative staff, department heads and attorneys — to improve retention and recruitment efforts. The extra effort can pay off.
“We’ve all experienced a lot of personnel movement lately,” says Gibson. “But so many colleagues have told me they don’t want to move because they connect with something at the firm that transcends the value of their paycheck.”
Communicating to everyone at the firm is critical in building a strong firm culture, conveying consistent messaging and working as a team.
“It reminds everyone of the firm’s purpose and what clients and others value when it comes to the firm and its services,” says Terry M. Isner, Owner and CEO of Jaffe, a legal PR and marketing company. “One of the biggest mistakes we have seen is the lack of sharing information. Too often, the majority of the people at firms simply don’t know what is expected or appreciated about them. The firm needs to act as a team, understanding the value of everyone in the firm’s success. Like a coach, firms need to share plays and practice them, leading everyone from the same playbook.”
INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL BENEFITS
Increasingly, the line between internal and external communication has blurred, especially with the rise of social media and podcasting. Clark Hill saw an explosive growth in podcasts, which mutually advanced employee engagement and business development.
“Everything we are pushing out externally also benefits the internal,” says Sexton. “We released 80 podcast episodes across an array of subjects, and our hosts used these opportunities to engage with Clark Hill colleagues, clients and prospects. When clients see a rich culture, they want to work with us. And talent wants to come work here.”
As increasing numbers of attorneys and staff return to the office or opt for hybrid arrangements, firms need to continue a steady level of internal communications.
“COVID has reinforced that no one wants to be surprised or left in the dark,” says Brumbaugh. “It’s important to find your ‘Goldilocks’ spot for consistency and messaging avenues. To maintain momentum, firms should set a consistent cadence for regular leadership communication. They also should continue to be upfront with both good and bad news. While some say there’s no such thing as overcommunicating, sharing information that isn’t relevant can make future messages get lost.”
Finding balance will always be tricky, and nobody wants to put out messages that ultimately get ignored. “Clarity and concision are critical, but tone is just as important. Our primary goal is to use people’s time well,” says Gibson.
Above all, treat your internal marketing equally to that of your external tactics, says Isner. “Build a team that understands, supports and champions the firm and the brand. The more staff understands and loves the firm, the more the clients will love the firm.”
Internal communication apps are one tool that firms can use to navigate resources, unify teams and share information. Blank Rome developed their BReturn app — in just five weeks — to efficiently manage and inform attorneys and staff as they
returned to in-office work during the pandemic.
After working remotely for an extended time, some attorneys and staff at Blank Rome were ready — or needed — to return to the office. Using BReturn, employees can check in and book time in the office, find up-to-date COVID guidance and receive real-time notifications.
Management also can determine capacity limits and quickly see who is in the office at any time throughout the United States and globally. And because the firm has offices in different geographic locations, the app lists unique office rules according to local public health guidelines.
“It’s a win-win for both employees and management alike and, most importantly, ensures the health and safety of everyone,” says Frank Spadafino, the firm’s Chief Information Officer.
About the Author
Paula Tsurutani is a senior-level strategic communications writer and editor who works with organizations in the legal profession, the arts and higher education.