Building A Community

by Erik Cummins on August 22, 2011

Last week I had a nice, long conversation with the leader of a major Bay Area legal services provider . We talked about marketing, PR, Social Media, blogs and the changing nature of charitable giving.

Many large law firms, we observed, are trying to match their charitable giving and pro bono campaigns with their overall marketing efforts. For instance, rather than have a hodge podge of charities that vary from office to office, many firms are choosing single charities that they can support throughout their U.S. offices or even worldwide. Examples could include the United Way , Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders . Likewise, many firms are matching their pro bono efforts to very high profile efforts, such as the same-sex marriage cases .

From personal experience at a large law firm, I agree that firms can and should do a better job organizing their giving efforts. For instance, rather than simply sending checks to charities “because we always have,” it might be good to ask whether anyone in the firm volunteers with that organization, attends their events and/or serves on its board of directors or executive team. The reason I say this is that firms will often financially support community groups, but not actually participate. A firm may, for example, buy a table at an organization’s annual dinner. Yet, no one actually shows up and uses the tickets. I think that’s a shame.

However, those firms that are abandoning local charities for nationwide giving are breaking one of the best pieces of advice in marketing: Get involved in your community and be active as a board member or officer in many non-law related activities. One client, for instance, is deeply involved in her local rowing club. While that’s not exactly a charity, it does show that she participates in the community where she lives and works.

Our conversation last week also veered into another trend among large law firms. Some consider their charitable giving and pro bono activities as newsworthy and as something that should be paired with PR. I think that’s a bad idea, too. Imagine this: suppose you are a legal affairs journalist and you receive several press releases on charitable giving each week, on such things as “We raised $10,000 for tsunami relief” or “Several associates spent the weekend helping build houses for .” After a few weeks, you get press release fatigue and realize that all these press releases are really self-serving and definitely not newsworthy. If you actually wrote about all of them, you could fill a newspaper each day with copy. But who would read that? And why do these firms think they are so unique in giving? It’s a responsibility and shirking that responsibility would actually be more newsworthy.

Older lawyers will often tell me that they were taught early on that law is a profession that demands pro bono giving. The idea is that lawyers are very fortunate and therefore have an obligation to give back to society. Particularly now that California civil and criminal justice systems are suffering with enormous budget cuts , and so many people cannot afford the legal services they desperately need. If the justice system is in fact broken, then lawyers need to step up to the plate and find solutions for those in need whether it means representing a pro bono client in your community or going to Sacramento to lobby against those cuts. That may be wishful thinking, but I think it’s a reasonable request.

Certainly, charitable giving and pro bono efforts should be better and more efficiently managed. But the reasons to do that shouldn’t be for marketing and press campaigns. Surely, getting involved in your community has its own rewards and, who knows, you might actually get business from one of the relationships you have developed. But really, let’s not be that selfish.

[On a completely separate note, I want to point out that an old friend, C.M. Evans , will be doing original cartoons for the blog from time to time. He is a published cartoonist and a skilled artist and writer. His charity? He spends his sabbaticals doing hard labor at a Buddhist monastery. Why? Because he likes it and probably is doing some good. Speaking of which, be sure to check out his irreverent cartoon blog.]

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