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Seminars Help Firms Educate Clients, Boost Business
The Connecticut Law Tribune
When the National Labor Relations Board issued a report in May that found employers with restrictive social media policies were likely breaking the law, one Hartford, Conn., lawyer got busy.
He dove into the details of the NLRB report and shared his expertise on the topic at a seminar hosted by his firm.
"The main point of my presentation," said Gabriel Jiran, a Shipman & Goodwin partner whose practice focuses on employment law, "was that the National Labor Relations Act is now being applied to non-unionized employers. If somebody goes on Facebook and talks bad about another co-worker or 'likes' something, the employee cannot be disciplined."
While major law firms still focus on racking up billable hours, they have increasingly gone into the teaching business. Attorneys in all sorts of practice areas are making greater use of seminars -- and their high-tech cousins, webinars -- as marketing tools to attract new business and to keep current clients educated on the latest developments.
The most aggressive firms say the key is to react quickly to key developments in practice areas and organize seminars on timely topics. Some firms are hosting in-person or Internet sessions less than a week after a governmental agency has made a regulatory change.
"The law can change so fast and one of the best ways I know to keep your knowledge of the law fresh is to participate in seminars," said Joshua A. Hawks-Ladds, chair of Pullman & Comley's Labor and Employment Section. "What I really find valuable from these seminars is the cross-selling that goes on from across multiple practice areas. We'll have a property valuation or real estate client attend a seminar and not realize how an employment issue on harassment in the workplace might be of use" for that client, he said.
Peter Giuliani, a Weston, Conn.-based law firm consultant at Smock Law Firm Consultants, said seminars have the added advantage of providing face time with clients and prospective clients. "There is an uptick in law firms using seminars," he said, "because firms are starting to realize that the more they communicate with clients, the better their chances of developing business."
While each firm has its own take on how seminars are best organized and conducted, executives at a large number of Connecticut firms -- including Day Pitney, Robinson & Cole, Shipman & Goodman, Pullman & Comley and Murtha Cullina -- agreed that they have sped up the delivery of information to clients through seminars. All agreed that presentations are best when kept to about an hour's time and include new information targeted to specific client groups and provided by "people in the know."
"The key is, you have to have something meaningful to say," Giuliani said. If word gets out that a law firm is holding seminars that bring little to the table, future efforts won't be well-attended.
"I have a wonderful client in Florida that has a practice in insurance regulations. They [also] have a lobbying practice," Giuliani said. "And once a year, they host this thing called a summit. They invite everyone with an interest in insurance regulation. In terms of developing new business, it's like shooting fish in a barrel, because they have been a player and they are at the table when the new laws are being written."
Webinars, which stream presentations over the Internet to lawyers and business executives in their own offices, have been gaining popularity among Connecticut firms.
Unlike traditional seminars, participants don't need to spend time and money traveling to organized events. These are less polished presentations. The topics often involve environmental, employment and labor law because of frequent legislative actions in these areas.
"Since the economic downturn, we've seen a shift from seminars to webinars," said Mary A. Davidson, director of marketing and business development for Day Pitney. Her firm recently held a conference for clients and invited guests on labor and employment law. It followed up with a webinar, so clients could focus on the areas that interested them the most.
"Typically, people who organize seminars are starting to look to the webinars for information because they are quick and you don't need to rent space. They can be held over lunchtime," Davidson said. "The webinar really allows you to tackle a topic quickly, as opposed to a pre-planned seminar that you have to mark on your calendar."
Most firms don't charge participants for webinars. "Our No. 1 goal is to provide value to our existing clients," Davidson said. While large live seminars won't "go away anytime soon," Davidson said, the webinar format has appeal for clients who want access to information more quickly.
Marnie Rubin, director of legal recruiting and professional development at Robinson & Cole, said the firm uses seminars and webinars internally "for professional development" and externally "as a client service."
The Hartford-based firm presents about a dozen such programs a year, in practice areas that include employment, energy and environmental law. They often use events in the news as jumping off points. For example, after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Robinson & Cole attorneys worked with a shipping company to create a PowerPoint presentation on maritime environmental law for other corporate clients.
"I think using real-life situations and facts can be a great teaching tool," said Robinson & Cole marketing director Brian T. Smith.
LEARNING BY TEACHING
Attorney Peter Bartinek, of the Bartinek Law Firm in Groton, Conn., has been a guest speaker at seminars on civil litigation organized by other firms. He was a panelist at a seminar a few weeks ago on the topic of presenting evidence and expert testimony at trial.
He said his primary motive isn't to cultivate new clients. While he has picked up "a case or two" in the five years since he started participating in seminars, Bartinek said he considers them more a way of keeping himself educated on the topic at hand. "It's the type of thing where you really learn a lot by teaching something," he said.
But Jiran, the Shipman & Goodwin employment law partner, said client cultivation is a valid goal of some seminars.
He said the secret to success is to avoid topics that are overly broad. When holding seminars for prospective clients from the corporate world, the firm might focus on "a particular market, for example a trade group or trade association, in order to highlight our expertise in an area that is important for them."
The bottom line, he said, is for the law firm to impress the seminar attendees with their expertise. "So if someone thinks of labor law [in the future], we would like them to think of us," he said.
Seminars involving existing clients have a slightly different purpose, he said. It's "to show added value by bringing the clients information beyond just the legal work you do," Jiran said.
He says those seminars provide time to talk face-to-face with clients in a setting that is less stressful than instances when there is a specific legal problem to discuss. It's a way to "educate clients and strengthen bonds," Jiran said.
He agrees that webinars are gaining popularity. "I don't think there is any substitute for face-to-face contact, as far as getting new business," Jiran said, "but the Web is a way to reach anyone who has a computer."
WINE AND CHEESE
Giuliani, the law firm consultant, said law firms have two main challenges when offering seminars. The first is providing fresh, useful information to sophisticated consumers. The second is deciding whether the costs are worthwhile.
"Seminars are not cheap to do," he said. "You've got to find a venue and then give them a little wine and cheese and light appetizers. If you're going to find a place with some cache and appeal, that's going to get expensive."
He continued: "The ones who have really figured out how to make seminars work are the firms that have the flowing access to valuable information only they can provide. And they have access to a potential client base whose businesses rise and fall based on this information. And on top of that, they know how to throw a great party."
In addition to cutting-edge information, firms can also offer seminars that give clients access to public officials who run agencies that help regulate the corporate clients in attendance.
Diane Whitney, head of Pullman & Comley's environmental group, spoke of a pair of seminars held for clients and friends.
The first, a breakfast at the Hartford Club last year, featured an appearance by Daniel Esty, the commissioner of the new state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. In May, the firm held a follow-up seminar for clients and friends, who were given the opportunity to question Esty and members of a Pullman & Comley panel on recent developments in energy and environmental law.
Whitney, who organized the event, said she will continue to look for more opportunities to connect clients with decision-makers. "I like doing seminars," she said. "I think there is a real value in face-to-face presentations and it is very effective from a marketing standpoint."
Gauging the return of an investment on a seminar can be tough to measure.
"You never know why someone walks in the door [of a law firm to do business], but it might have been because you met them seven months ago," she said. "I always enjoy when I see someone and they say, 'That was a great seminar.' That's always very encouraging."