Love For Client Development Kept This Texas Trial Lawyer Out of the Courtroom

Iris Jones, chief marketing and client development officer at Akerman, spent the first few years of her career as the Austin city attorney and doing civil trial work at a small firm in Austin. Since then, Jones, who joined Akerman last May, has spent more than two decades working in client development and marketing.

Prior to joining Akerman during the pandemic, Jones formerly handled client relations and marketing at a number of firms including McNees Wallace & Nurick, Dykema Gossett, Chadbourne & Parke, and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

This month, Jones was one of three firm marketers inducted into the Legal Marketing Association’s Hall of Fame, The others are Deborah Farone, strategic marketing adviser at Farone Advisors in New York City, and Ashraf Lakhani, chief business development and marketing officer at Porter Hedges in Houston.

Jones sat down with Texas Lawyer to discuss her passion for client development and marketing, how it has changed over the years, and where it is going.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did you end up back in Austin during the pandemic?

Like everybody else, I was working remotely. A number of family members moved to Austin. I decided [to consider] where would I most like to be for the rest of my career as well as after retirement. Austin with family and friends. It was the perfect place. …Then I found an opportunity at Akerman, because they have four offices in Texas, including Austin. I really lucked out. I did step out in faith.

Early in your career, why did you move from the practice of law to legal marketing?

Actually, I was very intrigued throughout my legal practice. I was always intrigued by client relations, client development, just making sure clients were the priority. When I was practicing it was none of those things. Clients were silent. We did what our license said. We advised.

As city attorney, I hired outside legal counsel. I was the client. When you walk in someone’s shoes, you experience what they experience, and you always want to give the best service and deliver the best results. When I went into private practice, I wanted to treat my clients like I wanted to be treated when city attorney.

I was able to do a really great job at what they call rainmaking, really based on service, on how you treat the client. It evolved into my affiliation with WJF Institute in Austin. I worked as an instructor for Bill Flannery. That was at the time I was serving as president of the International Municipal Lawyers Association. In that role, we had to travel, and it gave me an opportunity to pull back on my private practice a little bit and work as an instructor.

It was huge, huge. I did that and absolutely fell in love with it—teamwork, team building, using data points … client pursuit, clients relationships, client management [and] how do you ensure loyalty. We always looked at the client’s perspective; that was really new for law firms, that was new for marketing. When I was a young lawyer, it was primarily this is what we should do for you, this is why you should hire us. It wasn’t about the client, their needs.

I loved it, and I happened to be in right place [and was] hired by Akin Gump. It was post-9/11 and I was really ready for something less adversarial. I was really looking for something that was more service-oriented. From there, opportunity after opportunity presented itself and the growth of legal marketing evolved from my days of working with Bill and the WJF Institute.

How has the profession changed over your career?

It’s much more sophisticated. Because we were late bloomers—the legal industry—late to the party, when it comes to advertising and marketing, we were a little bit behind other industries…because [it was] prohibited by state bars…We had to be very, very careful how we represent ourselves. Now things have changed significantly. Still competitive, the marketplace is competitive.

As marketers, we have to make sure we are putting our lawyer’s best foot forward, making sure they have high visibility, making sure our lawyers are top–of–mind in the right markets. Years ago, we were just happy to throw a few ads out here or there and attend a few conferences. It was random, but now it’s quite intentional … even the thought leadership content we generate. It’s no longer random acts of marketing. It’s who are we, what are we known for, what is our brand, what are we about, how are we are expending our resources [and] what is our focus.

That’s why I was so attracted to Akerman. They know where they are going. They know what they want, what their focus is. My job is to help them get there … and make sure clients know how much we value the relationship.

TL: What are the best ways to use social media to promote firms?

IJ: Everybody has their approach to social media. Posting random content is not what we are doing. We develop a new strategy. We are very intentional. Our primary focus in on LinkedIn profiles of our attorneys, making the right connections on LinkedIn and joining the groups that make sense based on their practice group and interest. And also we use Twitter. What we like to do is make sure at least 80% of our content is good communication about our capabilities. I really like for our team to ask this question: Are we communicating anything about what we do, who we are and how we can help them?

It’s for the people who have a need, but also intended to deliver a service as well. But, a lot of times, instead of sending a random client alert [we are] addressing an issue and solving a problem that can help our clients. That in itself is a validation.  We are staying on the cutting edge of what we deliver.

It’s one thing to have an account and you post, or you link to information in that post, but it’s another thing to know why you are doing it. We did an assessment of our top clients and where they are with respect to social media, and we found out 75% had Twitter accounts. And it made sense to not just have an account, but follow your clients. What would our clients want from us? When I talked earlier about client service and client deliverables, it’s not just empty words. We truly want to know from the client’s perspective.

Does legal marketing differ depending on the size of the firm?

It is similar. We all work really hard to do basically the same thing, in a nutshell, to ensure our firm is perceived as the go-to firm in particular areas, and the attorneys are always top of mind. You don’t know from one day to another when someone is going to look at your attorney. [It’s] very targeted and very focused.

Small firms do these same exact things, but in some cases, appealing to middle–markets and just a whole new clientele. That’s what differentiates a smaller firm from an Am Law 100. It’s in a different market, but the same approach.

We’re getting ready to launch our digital marketing through audio podcasts, creating studios in key offices across the country. Even an electronic transmission of a newsletter, that takes a long time. We want to make sure [that] we are on the cutting edge of that, when you have a larger firm, you have a greater capability. Streamlining is really critical.

What technique or campaign are you most proud of during your career?

When I worked with WJF Institute, teaching high-level attorneys in these large firms how important teamwork is, [and] working across geographic regions and across practice areas. To me, one of my greatest achievements has been to hone the client service team model. It helps to bring about collaboration [with] extremely good communication, cross-office consistency and efficiency. That leads to a happier client. It also leads to cost savings.

It’s a very difficult thing to do to convince lawyers you need to work together, you need to trust your partners.

The other initiative I’m very proud of is gravitating from traditional marketing models. We need to understand [that] our world is changing …. a move from auditory—listening to the words—to visual. We are stimulated by video. We engage very well and retain a lot more, surveys say, like 85% from a video and 15% from the written word. What that tells you is obviously you want people to remember.

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