Metropolitan New York LMA – Creating a New Chapter in Legal Marketing

by Tom Mariam on April 9, 2012

The Metropolitan New York Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association, like Facebook and the iPhone, did not exist 20 years ago.  Today, it’s hard to think of life without them, at least for legal marketers.

As the Metropolitan New York Chapter celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, you can best appreciate how much of an institution we’ve become in a relatively short time by going back to our rather humble beginnings.

The Legal Marketing Association actually began as the National Association of Law Firm Marketing Administrators, known as NALFMA, until the name was changed in the late 1990s, creating a much more palatable acronym, LMA.  But the identity problem went well beyond the name.

“Nobody had ever heard of this profession,” said Susanne Mandel, one of the chapter’s Founding Mothers, along with Deborah Farone, the late Susan Benjamin and several others.  They formed the core of a small group that met periodically over lunch with the idea of forming a New York chapter of NALFMA, which was based in Chicago.

“We had lunch at Grand Central,” Ms. Farone remembered.  “I was always very concerned about being away from the office for too long.  It was before any of us had Blackberries.”

Ms. Benjamin, who passed away late last year, became the George Washington of our chapter.  She served as our first president and became the only president to hold office for two terms.

“It was uncharted territory when Susan founded the chapter,” said Amy Fischer, Ms. Benjamin’s close colleague who helped Susan get our chapter off the ground.  “We didn’t know whether it would last or how the lawyers would react to it.”

As Amy recalled, there were “limited numbers of people, perhaps only 20-30, involved in legal marketing” back in 1992.  That made it doubly tough to start the chapter since not only was it difficult to attract people to a new organization, but there weren’t many people to attract.

“We were so green at this,” said Ms. Farone, the chapter’s third president who was honored with the first “Susan Benjamin Legacy Award” at the 20th Anniversary Gala.  “We would become excited when we heard that another law firm hired a marketing director.  That meant another potential member.  It was like someone else moving into the neighborhood.”

The neighborhood has grown into a city.  In fact, a region.  The Metropolitan New York Chapter now has more than 370 members with regional sub-chapters in New Jersey and Connecticut/Westchester.  LMA overall now has 19 chapters nationally. The neighborhood has also grown in prestige.

“None of us was trained in this business,” Carol Schiro Greenwald, another of the early leaders, pointed out.  “We all came in from somewhere else and created a world called ‘law firm marketing.’  It didn’t exist.  We basically invented it.”

“Twenty years ago, we never expected to have CMOs in this industry, much less CMOs supervising staffs of 20 or 30 people to head up the BD tasks,” said Ms. Fischer. “It is really pretty amazing.”

The changes in legal marketing are pretty amazing when you look back:  “When we started, the big issue was ‘do we or don’t we put color on the letterhead, do we or don’t we put the partners names on the letterhead, do we or don’t we dare to print a brochure not in blue,’” Ms. Mandel, the chapter’s second president, reminisced.

“Our biggest goal 20 years ago was simply to see a law firm produce a brochure,” Ms. Farone confirmed. “Discussions focused on the design of business cards.  Now you go online and see what the various firms are Tweeting.  The change in the media since then has had a tremendous impact on all forms of marketing.”

The concept of legal marketing became media-worthy in LMA’s first years in New York.  In April 1995, The New York Times let the rest of the world know that legal marketing was becoming a force in the business world.  The Times published an article, “Corporate Lawyers, Too, Turn to the Hard Sell” that focused on how lawyers were looking for new ways to develop new clients.

Ms. Farone, Ms. Mandel and Kelly Newcomb, another key figure in our genesis, were among the new breed of legal marketers featured in the story with NALFMA’s fast growth being cited as evidence of the new industry’s foothold.

Perhaps most telling that legal marketing was still in its infancy is the accompanying photo which featured Ms. Mandel in her office at Chadbourne & Parke standing with a wall of brochure racks behind her.  “We had six or seven rows of paper,” she chuckles now.  “That’s all legal marketing was at the time.”

The Metropolitan New York Chapter dug its feet even firmer into the ground two years later when it hosted the 1997 National Conference of what was still called NALFMA.  It was the peak of visibility for the New York chapter to bring marketing directors from all over the country to New York.  Sally Schmidt – one of the national organization’s founders – co-chaired that conference.  It was quite a success with perhaps one exception.

The chapter thought it scored big by getting Ed Koch, the former 3-term Mayor of New York and a lawyer himself, to address the conference.  But perhaps the concept of legal marketing was as foreign to him as New Jersey.  Mayor Koch spent the entire speech bashing the Mayor of New York at the time, Rudolph Giuliani, without saying a single word about law firms or law firm marketing.

Another initiative at the conference worked out far better, recalled Rita Menz, who later served as chapter president in 2001.  “Carol Allen was president then and put together this amazing book of restaurants and other activities in the city.  We set up a concierge booth at the conference and took turns manning it.  I thought it was one of the greatest things as a chapter we could do to welcome colleagues from across the country and provide information on things to do in New York City.”

The chapter was able to handle the national conference in part because of the success of its regular meetings for members, especially the luncheon series featuring guest speakers on all aspects of law firm marketing.  The luncheons quickly became so popular that they outgrew the chapter’s original home at the Williams Club and moved to bigger facilities such as the Penn Club and, particularly, the Harvard Club.

“We started holding events at the Harvard Club as an extension of our brand development as well as to accommodate our rapidly growing group,” said Andrea Stimmel, who served as chapter president in 2007.  “When we looked for a new venue, we wanted to continue to enhance the whole experience for our members and help them to gain greater credibility with their law firms.”

The Metropolitan New York Chapter experience has been upgraded in many different ways over the first two decades.  “The breadth of opportunities available through the chapter, particularly learning and career opportunities, has surpassed what the founders could have imagined,” Ms. Fischer proudly said.  Back then, most of those opportunities were communicated via fax when email and websites were as wild an idea as legal marketing originally was.

Another form of growth was the quality of the membership and attendees at chapter events.  It was a big challenge as the profession evolved.  “We still had to get senior people to come to meetings,” noted Ms. Greenwald, who was president in 2000.  “We had to produce a product that was relevant.  We were able to build up the chapter through content and structure.”

A good example of how the chapter has used content to build its own brand came in the mid-2000s when New York State implemented new advertising rules for lawyers.

“We seized the new New York rules on legal advertising as a thought leadership project and to establish greater credibility,” Ms. Stimmel explained.  “We created a webinar that turned out to be huge, with more than 300 participants.  We demonstrated value to our members and to lawyers, many of whom took part as well.”  The Metropolitan New York Chapter was rewarded the following spring for the initiative with the 2008 Chapter Your Honor Award from LMA National.

The greatest reward of all over the 20 years is what’s made the chapter most attractive to many of its members: the friendships and what Ms. Farone calls “the great collegiality,” despite the fact that professionally many of the members are direct competitors.

“We were initially concerned that people wouldn’t open up to each other because they are competitors,” said Ms. Menz.  “But the one thing I learned quickly is that people share all but the most strategic and proprietary initiatives on which they are working.  We really bonded and grew friendships that have endured.”

“The fact that you can pick up the phone and call someone is what I value so much,” Ms. Farone declared.  “We are always extremely cognizant of confidentiality issues and the competitive nature of the business.  But we are really very supportive of one another. On a personal level, I have made so many good friends through legal marketing.  These are complicated jobs that many people may not understand.  Your peers truly understand the challenges.  Maybe it’s due to that unique bond that you end up becoming friends with these people.”

“We were a very close knit group,” Ms. Mandel fondly stated looking back 20 years later.  “It was a really close, close group.  It was special starting something and special building something.”

See a photo of the NY LMA officers at New Orleans LMA Conference

Tom Mariam is the President of Mariam Communications LLC.  You can reach Tom at tom@mariam.biz.

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