The editors at LegalWeek blogged recently about the results of the Sunday Times’ “Best Company to Work For” survey, which, remarkably enough, saw eleven law firms crack the Top 100. I think this probably signals not so much a renaissance in law firm working conditions, so much as that many UK law firms are getting pretty good at using workplace reputation rankings for their own ends. It’s a phenomenon not limited to the eastern side of the Atlantic.
The thing about “Best Employer” lists, as LegalWeek‘s editors point out, is that law firms consider them enormously important recruiting tools for new lawyers and lateral hires. A solid ranking adds lustre to a firm’s marketplace brand and reinforces the strength of its hiring pitch, especially to new lawyers who consider (accurately) that law firms are all pretty much the same. Anything that can help a firm stand out from the faceless crowd, especially on “soft” criteria like flexibility, mentorship and socializing, has a lot of value.
The trouble with third-party marketing and recruiting tools like this, of course, is that they’re destined to be gamed. Savvy firms figure out how the system works and take steps to ensure they do well. Some law firm associates know this first-hand, because they receive a memo “encouraging” them to fill out the “Best Employers” survey and help improve the firm’s standings. It strikes me as odd that firms expect these rankings to impress potential lawyer hires when their own lawyers have been directly involved in what amounts to a manipulation of the results.
In fact, it’s this “gaming” element of such rankings that raise what I think is going to become a problematic element of law firms’ recruiting efforts down the road. Young lawyer recruits, when deciding which firm to work for, are going to start zeroing in very clearly on the authenticity of firms’ marketing and recruitment efforts. This is a generation weaned on word-of-mouth recommendations, and they give a lot of weight to a friend’s or reliable acquaintance’s testimony that something is worthwhile or not. Failing those kinds of first-hand recommendations, they will tend to go, not to press releases, newspapers or magazines, but to collaborative knowledge portals to test the judgment of the crowd. This is where new lawyers are heading now, and law firms need to go with them.
It’s not just a matter of going all high-tech and Internetty. Some firms, of course, are creating recruitment videos and uploading them to YouTube. But in most if not all cases, the videos are commissioned and directed by the firm’s managers and marketers, making them top-down rather than bottom-up enterprises. They might be fun, cool, zany or whatever, but they’re still corporate marketing pieces. Once the novelty of law firm videos wears off (which I think it just about has), then future firm efforts will feel less like hipness or a sincere sign of interest in young lawyers and more like simple gimmickry.
How about social networking sites? Surely the Web 2.0 spirit of Facebook and its ilk contain enough collaborative elements to ensure potential recruits will believe the good things said about the firm? Well, yes and no. Many large law firms in the U.S. and in the U.K. have set up networks on Facebook, some of which have hundreds of members. But again, Facebook networks are normallly firm-sponsored initiatives — and invariably, these networks are closed for privacy anyway, so they can’t really be used for recruiting.
Facebook Groups seem more promising — these can be created by anyone, a lawyer at the firm or a former employee. In some cases the groups are closed, but more often they’re open to all comers, and they feel more real because the firm can’t control the content. Successful examples include Reed Smith’s London office, a group with 188 members and an active Wall, and McCarthy Tétrault alumni, which even contains testimonials by ex-employees about favourite partners to work for. There are also a lot of Groups created by summer students at various large firms. A potential recruit doesn’t have to believe everything she reads there, but these days, she’s pretty good at sniffing out real from fake, and the Group will be helpful to her (and to the firm — assuming, of course, that the reports are good).
A lot of law firm Facebook Groups, though, suffer from too little activity — no discussion threads, no upcoming events, no uploaded photos, and Wall conversations a year or more old. That’s the downside of starting a Facebook Group — just like a blog, you need to feed and water it regularly, or people will lose interest. An untended Facebook Group can resemble a ghost town, creating the opposite effect on potential recruits from what was intended. You might be better to try something more innovative and create a Fan Page for your firm as Morrison & Foerster and Holland & Hart have done.
Many firms are clueless about Facebook, of course, while others don’t get the social networking thing at all. One law firm, which consistently appears in a national “Best Employers” list, responded to a new Facebook group of firm alumni by e-mailing the group’s administrator and requesting she take down the firm logo the group was using and to change the name of the group so that it didn’t use the firm’s trademarked name. Maybe it’s no surprise that group hasn’t had a non-spam entry since last July.
Will we see viral marketing campaigns in the law? For years now, consumer marketers have been planting people in bars and social events to masquerade as a “regular person,” talking up and building a buzz around a certain product. If the talent crunch gets really bad – and the odds in that direction are pretty good — will firms go a similar route and try to manufacture fake word-of-mouth? Maybe, but the cost of being found out would be enormous, and young lawyers aren’t dummies.
Law firm marketing and recruitment efforts will never become irrelevant – there are too many talented people working on it, and good marketing is unbelievably powerful. But I do think that as the months and years go by, new lawyer recruits will pay less and less attention to these efforts, zoning them out when it comes time to really decide which of three or four firms they should cast their lot with. Instead, potential firm hires will turn to sources they consider independent, reliable, collaborative and authentic in order to find information they trust.
Firms won’t be able to control that process, which will frustrate them. But if it somehow leads to a higher profile and better reputation for legal employers that have genuinely earned positive word of mouth, that can’t be a bad thing. And one fewer “Best Of” list in the law would always be welcome.