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January 30, 2023

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Law Firm Culture After COVID-19 with McCarter & English [PODCAST]

How has law firm culture changed in the world post-COVID-19? Rachel and Jessica discuss that and DEI with Bernadette DeCelle with McCarter & English law firm.

Read on for a transcript of our conversation, transcribed by AI:

 

Rachel
Hello and welcome to legal news reach, the official podcast for the National Law Review. Stay tuned for a discussion on the latest trends in legal marketing, SEO law firm best practices and more.

Rachel

I'm Rachel, Editorial Manager for the National Law Review.

Jess  
And I'm Jessica, a web content specialist. And we're the CO hosts for legal news reach

Rachel 
Today Bernadette DeCelle Senior Director of Client Development and Marketing for McCarter and English joins us for a discussion on law firm culture COVID-19, and more. Bernadette, would you like to introduce yourself to our listeners?

Bernadette 
Sure. Thank you for having me today. I'm Bernadette DeCelle. I am senior director in charge of client development and I have over 20 years in legal marketing. And before that I started as a graphic designer doing consumer product designs, quite a range of experiences over the past 20 years starting in communications and then learning business development and eventually leading teams at Weil, Gotshal, Herrick Feinstein and now at McCarter.

Rachel
Thank you for joining us today. We're excited to get your insights. So one of the questions I want to dive in first here was we wanted to learn a little bit more about how what McCarter has done differently in terms of other law firms of its culture compared to other law firms you've worked with. 

Bernadette
So McCarter is based in Newark, New Jersey. And I think maybe that has something to do with there's a real lack of pretension among the lawyers, which is refreshing. There are plenty of smart people. We have 27 PhDs on the staff, and we work for very sophisticated fortune 100 clients, but you just don't get that arrogance that maybe it's a New York thing, I don't know. But that sense of down-to-earth quality is really nice to be part of that kind of a collaborative team. There are no lawyers versus staff kind of mentality in our firm. Everybody collaborates together. It's a real collective team, which is, I think, great for the clients. Because everybody gets together does whatever it takes to solve client problems, I think makes it a lot more rewarding for a lot of the lawyers here working and stuff as well.

Rachel
We want to talk a little bit more about just law firm culture and pro bono in general. So I was curious if you could speak a little bit about McCarter's DEI initiatives and how that affects law firm culture.

Bernadette
Sure. McCarter has been very involved like most firms in expanding their lawyer ranks, especially on diversity. And they've been doing all types of partnerships with different organizations from sponsoring high school programs and debate programs in high schools even adopting a few high schools in each of our cities so that students see what a law career could look like. High school students spent a week in our New York office during the summer, you know, doing intern positions after 2020. And after the murder of George Floyd, it was really great to see our firm, combining the efforts of our pro bono team and our Diversity Committee to create the Social Justice Project. And that has been a great initiative, having McCarter behind ways to really dismantle structural racism. And what we're going to do is it's really through we're looking at it through the lens of criminal expungements Housing and Economic Development. So there are three pillars to the Social Justice Project, which allow both lawyers and staff to do community service and pro bono projects. One of the best things I think about the social justice project has been the educational component so far, because we put on educational webinars that were open to both staff and to clients. And one of the first ones was three of our lawyers giving very powerful stories of what it was like to be a black lawyer in America and in the ratio of things that they've faced the hurdles that they've overcome, and really poignant stories, some of them had, they said they hadn't even shared with their own families, but it's, it was eye-opening, I think, to a lot of us who don't understand every day what they go through just being a person of color and being treated differently. 

Rachel

So how do these pro bono efforts fit into McCarter's overall Legal Marketing Program?

Bernadette

Our pro bono program is great because it gives us a chance to partner with clients on pro bono projects. Oftentimes corporations and legal departments don't have the same either time or structure to bring pro bono and to do pro bono internally. So it allows our team our pro bono partner to come up with ways to collaborate with clients on immigration clinics, we do things with veterans, helping them get medical things past appeals, there are things that the VA hospitals have turned down on the business development side always see pro bono as a way to reach out to clients and to do something different with them. And they welcome it helps our without our partners don't have to do an ask, you know, in terms of getting new business, it's just a way to work with the clients in a different way. There's a number of clinics, we're going to start a housing clinic soon as well. So there's a bunch of ways we can collaborate with clients. And that's been huge for business development purposes.

Jess

I just want to comment that I think it's great, you guys have those initiatives. I know the general public has a really strong distrust for attorney offices in the legal industry, just in general. And the fact that you guys acknowledge and try to host those webinars on minority attorneys can really create a different kind of trust that, oh, this law firm acknowledges that this is something that exists. And I think just saying that you see that and that you want to try to be better with the initiatives you have helps people see that maybe things could change, or, you know, I want to hire this attorney because they're not ignoring something that I'm worried about. Not me personally, but somebody who's affected by those things.

Bernadette  
I'm impressed that we're putting our money where our mouth is basically it's not just saying and putting a statement up on the website, we've also hosted two or three webinars where we invited professors from different universities, people from the University of Chicago, who are experts on either criminal reintegration and all of the problems with the prisons or on voting rights. So we've had some really interesting speakers from outside, we've decided as well to hire a full-time social justice fellow, and part of their role is to help with the educational programming, but to also work with the pro bono committee in terms of doing a lot more pro bono that's focused on social justice issues. We had a pro bono fellow for the City of Newark, where I'm proud of the fact that we have two full-time lawyers just focused on various social justice issues. It is part of that culture that makes McCarter unique.

Jess
So to dive in on COVID. That's kind of been a common theme with some of our other interviews with marketing and law firms. On our other episodes of this podcast, how have your guys' communications and marketing efforts changed since the pandemic started?

Bernadette
Well, it's been all webinars all the time, it's really was a complete pivot to what we used to do, or which were so many in-person events, we quickly realized there was such a need for alerts and all the new rules that were coming out. Our lawyers really stepped up and created a lot of content. For the website, two of my team were working almost full time on just webinars last year, it was crazy. It really was amazing that the amount of content they created. 

Jess
I'm sure that was a shift by itself. Are there any other surprises that you guys had to deal with also, because of the pandemic?

Bernadette

I was quite surprised by the number of lawyers who actually stepped up and lawyers who didn't, in the past, write as many alerts became subject matter experts almost overnight, and really read through all those regulations and PPP loans and really became creative in their responses and ways to create short alerts that our clients could digest quickly. I was also surprised at the demand for legal work, everybody thought things would slow down, but it seemed like clients needed our expertise in different areas, Employment Insurance recovery, what they could get back from, you know, their insurance companies. So it really created demands and other areas, which was nice since the litigation, you know, slow down for a while, but then litigation did pick up again, once they figured out how to do courts do everything over zoom.

Jess
And I'm sure anything related to real estate and property and evictions was probably another surprise with COVID especially so it's good. You guys had that initiative kind of already in place to help those people because that's going to be a large trend that we see still being talked about, especially when the moratorium was still in place or

Bernadette
Right yeah, once the moratorium lifts me with I think it just lifted right it depends but some states where we are have extended it through the state not through you know, but it is gonna really create a huge crisis, I think. And that's where our social justice fellow is going to be working with the pro bono fellow in Newark to really work on different things.

Jess
It was definitely a huge worry among people. And, you know, reaching out to attorneys, even just calling I'm sure to ask a question about it. Among those surprises that you guys had, do you still have any challenges that you're dealing with? In the firm? Now,

Bernadette  
I think, you know, keeping our lawyers engaged right now in business development activities a little more challenging, because we don't see them, we can't go knock on their office door, you know, they might be working more from home permanently. So it's as much on our part to reach out to them and communicate and stay top of mind. When they see us. They're reminded, oh, yeah, I have to write that client alert. I have to, you know, get ready for that presentation. But out of sight, out of mind, I think sometimes and that's a definite challenge for us.

Rachel
So you spoke a little bit about the surprises brought on by the pandemic, and what you guys have been doing to sort of keep things going, I guess, moving for, like, how do you see things changing the legal industry, in terms of like these topics of like, remote work, like how to keep attorneys engaged? How will we work with people working remotely and be working in the office? I think these are things that are really on top of mind for a lot of firms right now. 

Bernadette
I agree. There are so many unknowns out there. And firms are doing it in so many different ways. I'm hoping that a hybrid workforce becomes the norm. Now, I hope law firms get to that point where they realize all of the teams were amazing and productive during the pandemic, at home. So there's no point in thinking you have to be in the office to be very productive. But I also see real shifts in technology. So my firm went to paperless billing during the pandemic, it was maybe the second month and I applaud my IT and finance department for rolling that out. It was out of necessity, I actually think they never would have gotten it done as quickly had had we been in the office. And I think they agree you know that because it was imperative because nobody wanted to be shipping out bills and having that back and forth. On paper, it really was a success. So I think you'll see a lot more technology being rolled out a lot easier than in the past because we all know lawyers don't like change, but technological advances for the better are welcome.

Rachel
And do you think an increasing focus on technology will help law firms be more prepared for future challenges? Like COVID or after COVID? I think one of the things that we've talked about in the last episode is really just how to pivot when things like this happen when like these are large disruptions occur?

Bernadette
Absolutely. I think technology's going to really be a factor in firms that succeed. I think firms that stay nimble, you know, and lose, I think also a lot of the bureaucratic approval processes, there was no time to go through approvals. People just had to get things done. Right. They had to move forward and come up with decisions quickly, whoever was on, you know, committee call made those decisions. They didn't wait. Slow grinding process of approvals. Staying nimble is really going to be I think, a key to a lot of law firms succeeding in the future.

Rachel
Yeah, so one thing you said earlier about how moving from paperless billing to now using virtual billing. So sort of like it was something that happened because of COVID. And like really sped it along because of COVID. I think that's something that we've heard from other guests, too, that the pandemic really spurred law firms to make these changes that they had been considering for a long time, but just hadn't had the catalyst to do it. So I think that probably has been a really big lesson as well.

Bernadette  
Our IT department had to train everybody over Zoom remotely. And it was tough.

Rachel
Obviously, law firms didn't really have much of a choice, either switch or you know, stuff doesn't get done. So sort of like in that same vein of working remotely doing things over zoom. How has McCarter really made hybrid work arrangements work during the pandemic? And how do you think you know, other law firms can really learn from that moving forward?

Bernadette
I think the biggest thing is to trust your team. And so, again, when you have a collaborative culture already that it really helps. Our Managing Partner and our chairman did a great job communicating, especially at the beginning, when everybody was feeling really unsure and not knowing what was going to happen next, they would send almost daily emails, those daily emails and that communication and keeping people in feeling like they're in touch, we're really important. Our Chief Human Resources Officer also sent out one to the staff and hers were kind of funny and just kind of motivational to make people feel like they were still part of the team and in touch with each other, you know, should send out Happy Anniversary things. And I think going forward, people just have to maintain that trust in that everybody's going to rise to the occasion, you know, everybody's going to do their best job, whether they're in an office or whether they're at home, people want to perform and do well, that hasn't changed. And that's not going to change.

Rachel  
Right. I think that is something really important to move forward with, I think, especially code has shown us that it is possible to have people working remotely. And now that, you know, I think some people have gone back to the office. But if it's working well now, then I think you can trust that it's going to work well in the future.

Bernadette
Yeah, we're back in the office two days. I, you know, I think they want us to get back five days eventually. I hope, maybe four days would be nice. It feels nice to be in the office. But I sure would love to not have that commute.

Rachel 
Oh, yeah. I understand that. So we also have a Q&A section here. So if you have any questions you'd like to ask us, we'd be happy to answer them.

Bernadette
Yeah, I was wondering what you guys have seen in terms of any new marketing trends that have emerged since COVID? Or even just in general, not because of the pandemic?

Rachel
Yeah, so we sort of already touched on two of the ones in our conversation so far. But I think one thing that we've definitely seen is the sort of switch to virtual events, and also this really big influx of more firms doing webinars and things like that, we specifically have a place on our website where our publishing clients can share their webinars with us. And I think, you know, we've had a pretty full schedule of things that people are putting on basically, since last March, when things really started to get really crazy. And I think also, one of the things that I think has been really important Since COVID started is just the focus on social media, lots of people being more active on LinkedIn, people staying connected with their clients and other followers on Twitter. I think that's a really great way. You know, if you can't meet in person, you know, you can't network in person, like just staying connected, when people just can't physically be in the same room together, I think has been really important.

Bernadette 
We've been posting a lot more on social media ourselves, it's a good way to stay in touch. Do you see technology like artificial intelligence? How do you see that in the marketing space changing?

Jess
 Well, it's interesting, because you already mentioned that you guys just switched to electronic billing. And I think that's been one of the first changes law firms have made with AI, it's already a difficult task as a firm to keep your clients updated to make sure attorneys are submitting their billables. And if there's a way to automate that, that just takes maybe one task, but it makes a huge difference. Sometimes when you have such a heavy workload. I know in small ways firms usually have, you know, their chat bots on the websites. So somebody is going on their site has a question, it'll usually try to divert them to a different way that might be helpful, you know, instead of having a person have to monitor that, or maybe it could bring down some of the call volume. I think some of the concerns that attorneys have when it comes to implementing more technology is, you know, this huge concern with cybersecurity. We see that a lot when it comes to business. A lot of our clients write about that, just because I mean, the more in depth you get with technology, the more you intertwine your business with it, you are opening yourself up to more risks, especially with a law firm, you know, you have very sensitive information, attorney client privilege, you really don't want someone to hack, even if you're a smaller firm. So I think some people are really resistant to that part. And I think everybody's always afraid of technology replacing people. So support staff, if you have AI that can look up case law. There's a law clerk you didn't need in your office that can help you with that or your paralegal. So,

Bernadette
Well, one of the heads of our emergent growth practice only says that young lawyers need to be coders because, you know, even just in contract law, there's a lot of AI starting to do the basic template and contracts. So there goes the junior lawyers work they might need to be coders instead of lawyers.

Jess
I worked at a law firm when COVID first started. And one of the big, I think the first change they made was getting people to be electronic notaries just because everybody was now either in office or not in office. So it's not technically AI, per se. But just having that, I guess they use something similar to blockchain, to know that someone's signed it at this specific time on this computer to make sure it's just as legitimate as in person signature. So that's kind of been interesting as well, I think can be for the better, though. Now you can reach clients anywhere.

Bernadette
I totally agree, I think there's gonna be a lot of good changes. But as we all know that lawyers don't like that they don't adapt so quickly. So maybe the adaption rate will be quicker. And they'll say that it's not so bad after all.

Rachel  
Another sort of technology adjacent thing that we've been seeing is just lawyers feeling more empowered having more readership analytics available to them, we of course, offer a platform of analytics to our publishing clients. But one of the things that we've heard from other people is that, you know, since people are working remotely, especially from like a legal marketing perspective, like just having that information, that data at your fingertips, like sort of informs lawyers on in terms of like how their content is doing, and, you know, trends that they can follow, and things like that. So that's been another thing that we've noticed,

Bernadette 
Those kinds of analytics are really helpful, especially for us to say, this is what you should be writing about, you know, with so many great firms out there. And that's what I try to get my lawyers to understand to differentiate yourself is pretty difficult because there are so many smart, talented lawyers what to you to recommend to, you know, to differentiate themselves on a platform like the National Law Review, how did they go about that?

Rachel
 So a few things that we often recommend to people who publish with us is to post regularly. So if you're going to launch a new blog, don't just like post one thing on it, and then like, not touch it again, for six months. So that's, that's also important. Another thing is to post timely content. So if there's like a new decision out of I don't know, the Biden administration, or the EPA or something like that, like right on it ASAP. And basically, as soon as that decision comes out, otherwise, you know, if it's already been out for a couple weeks, it may not be as successful as article, it was posted pretty quick to win the decision happened. And then also, like, just another thing in terms of like, us being a news website, if at all possible, we try to encourage our clients to publish articles, you know, in the afternoon, like earlier in the day, rather than like, 5pm on a Friday, you know, because often, you know, people just won't see it. And, um, you know, you put all this effort into something and you know, no one really looks at it. So those are just like a few, just like sort of basic timing, things that we find is useful. And then like moving forward from that, in terms of how the content is format is also important. So we find that like strong use of keywords, bullet points, header status questions, just trying to imagine the piece of content in terms of how your audience will actually find it. So you know, if they're looking for information on California Employment Law, like trying to imagine the questions they have, and try to work that into your articles, you'll be more likely to find it that way. And then also, you know, like a wide array of different pieces of content. So a lot of our clients, they don't just do blog posts, they also do videos and podcasts, things like that, just so they even tie the two together, where have an article that has a video component, or if they post a podcast that also include the transcripts, just sort of making content go farther, and just making it as diverse as possible. And then other thing is just like to make it personal and to sort of tailor it to your audience like trying to imagine who's going to be reading this, and how can you make it as digestible and relevant as possible. As always, as we discussed earlier, just having a presence on social media, getting your work out there and finding your audience in your platform have all been really important, useful things you find for clients to do.

Jess

One of the most important things to remember is that there are people out there who want the content that you guys would create, like there are people who want that information. They want your expertise. And when law firms maybe specialize in certain areas, that's a way you can differentiate yourself and produce content that's really valuable with any website, anything that you're going to post on any page. If the content is relevant to an audience, and it's informational and useful. That's always going to do better with SEO. And just get more eyes on in general because, you know, a lot of legal information on cases and case law is not public knowledge. And the public really wants that they will eat that up at any chance they get, especially if it's really relevant to what you know this user wants, or this visitor really is looking for specifically.

Bernadette
Do you see a lot more video? And do you see a lot more eyeballs on video on your web, on your platforms, because we're starting to dip our toe in, but it's a whole different world for our lawyers.

Rachel

So a lot of our clients do use video really effectively. And they have been successful with video, probably the most prominent example I have is Epstein Becker Green does, like an employment law this week video every week. And I think that's pretty popular. And they also do a podcast, they do articles, and they're all sort of under that same umbrella. So it's just a way for them to sort of integrate video into the written content, and also have a podcast on it. And they have, you know, the same attorney does it every week. So it's a way for that attorney to really be front and center.

Jess
And I think when it comes to video, you know, the biggest hurdle is when people are hesitant about it, or they're not comfortable with video, just to remember that putting your face on someone's screen - clients already like to talk to the attorney directly, whether it's over the phone or in person. So having a video kind of also tones that need down or takes care of it a little bit better, I think. And if they're a little hesitant, even just what is the question, our clients are asking a lot, and then just doing a really short video on that just to get started doesn't have to be a whole event, or it doesn't have to be a long video with guests. It can just be I've seen attorneys just sit down on a video for Facebook, like their Facebook page and just do a real quick video on a very specific topic. And I think people are so used to being visual online now that that tends to garner more interest just because they get to just sit and watch it. That or listening to something.

Bernadette
I think you're right that people are watching a lot more video on every platform. So even for law firm websites, because people are used to it like maybe eight years ago, and they didn't want to watch a talking head on a law firm website. But now everybody watches videos pretty much all the time. 

Rachel
I think one of the other important facets of it is just like doing what the attorneys are comfortable with. So some attorneys are better talkers than they are writers. So if they're comfortable being in front of a camera, and sort of speaking about employment law, that's definitely something they should do. I think, you know, just really thinking of who the attorney is and who their clients are. It's an important aspect of that.

Bernadette
And that weekly repetition is huge, because that's one way that you really create an audience. So what are ways that you guys are hearing trends in recruiting? And how are people attracting talent, I know a tight labor market out there.

Rachel 
Right. So I think one of the things that we're definitely hearing the most, and like I said, from other guests, we've had on this podcast, a lot of people are finding it really hard to find good talent right now. Um, and I think one of the big trends that we're seeing is just people wanting to keep the remote flexible working options, sort of going back to our conversation earlier, just the trust that people can work from home, and that they can basically have more control over their schedule. And if they have a really big commute, then they don't really want to have to sit in the car be pm the train for an hour, I think a lot of people have really realized just how much sense remote work really makes. Um, and so I think firms that embrace that they, you know, are nimble and allow their employees to work remotely and have that flexible hybrid option. I think that will make a big difference. Um, I think also just up on the big trends that we're seeing is just firms like really strong company values, like diversity inclusion initiatives, um, you know, feeling like you have a voice and that your firm does really great work, I think also helps set it apart.

Bernadette
Making sure people are heard in it during the pandemic and actually our head of human resources sent out a survey on our wellness initiatives and how well we're doing. So I thought that was really nice today to make sure that what we're actually doing is what people want. And again, that's part of communication, which is the world the three of us are in so it all comes down to communicating I think.

Rachel
Yeah, and I've heard of other firms just staying connected with their employees sort of like what you mentioned earlier with sending out you know, e cards on anniversaries and birthdays and things like that. I think just finding ways to stay connected and making people feel appreciated is also important. I think especially now that I think because of the pandemic, like workloads are just really high. And I think people might start to feel a bit burnt out, and trying to cope as best as they can. 

Bernadette
There's been so many challenges. And on top of the increased workload is everything. You know, if you have kids at home, and all of the issues that people have been facing, you know, whether people in their family are sick, or whether it's just been a lot for so many people, it's important to step back and remember that we're all we're all human. And just to celebrate little things like birthdays and anniversaries are really important, just to be with the fact that you remember and recognize somebody's birthday is always nice. I think we covered a lot today. Thank you. Again, I really appreciate the opportunity to be on the show and look forward to speaking with you and listening to the podcasts later.

Rachel 
Yeah. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to come on today. We really appreciate it. So yeah, special thanks to Bernadette DeCelle for joining us today.

Rachel Popa and Jessica Scheck contributed to this content.

Copyright ©2023 National Law Forum, LLCNational Law Review, Volume XI, Number 307
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