Iris Jones, chief marketing and client development officer with Akerman, highlights how a firm’s culture plays a role in client retention and satisfaction, the growth of women general counsel at Fortune 500 companies and why the next generation should embrace artificial intelligence and cryptocurrency.
CCBJ: Iris, your career has offered you access to your fair share of high performing law firms. What qualities of a firm’s culture have you identified as a formula for success?
Iris Jones: I have been blessed with the opportunity to practice law in both the public and private sectors for two decades before transitioning to business development and marketing departments where I have lead for over 19 years. Client satisfaction is the most important ingredient for success in any size law firm. A firm’s approach to client satisfaction may vary but the goal is consistent across the board.
The days of acting sincere even if you don’t mean it are long gone. Clients have always been savvy buyers of legal services and now can be quite shrewd with a market saturated by reputable law firms, extremely talented lawyers, and dozens of Alternative Legal Providers (ALP’s).
A firm’s culture plays a major role in client retention and client satisfaction. Attracting and hiring exceptional legal talent is now considered “table stakes.” Talent may get you in the door, but it won’t keep you top of mind with your clients. The formula for success is to take good care of your greatest asset—your people. Today’s business model is a drastic improvement from yesterday’s. Law firms are more empathetic and caring of their talented employees. Firms with a culture of valuing its attorneys and other professionals will be successful in retention efforts and will experience a higher level of productivity from employees. The past two years have taxed even the strongest minds. That coupled with the added pressures of a country divided along racial, ethnic and religious lines has highlighted the need for mental and physical wellness programs. Law firms who provide access to mental health professionals instead of stigmatizing individuals who seek solutions will be the firms that hire and retain the great talents. Money is not the only draw for new associates and other professionals. It's time to create a culture of belonging, inclusion, and support which every one of us needs at some point in our lives. When a law firm or any business entity creates a culture of trust, belonging, psychological safety, and respect, I assure you that will be a place where employees will always go above and beyond in productivity.
What are some key changes you have observed in the advancement of women in legal the profession during your career?
From the time I entered law school until now, there have been countless advancements for women in the legal profession I’ve been proud to witness. In the 1980’s there were very few, if any, women managing partners of law firms and even fewer general counsel of Fortune 500 companies.
Though it is vastly different today, we still have a long way to go to achieve the C-suite ranks in Corporate America. In 2007, I was the only chief marketing officer serving an AmLaw 100 firm. Now, there are three African American women serving as chief marketing and client development officers in the AmLaw 100.
The number of women named general counsel at Fortune 500 companies grew to 34 percent last year, which is very encouraging. The number of both women and men of color serving as general counsel is increasing, but we still have work to do!
Whether within the legal profession, or not, who and what has influenced your leadership style?
The way we are treated influences us all. A step beyond the Golden Rule is the Platinum Rule: “Treat others not as you want to be treated, but how THEY want to be treated.”
In my early years as a law department head at the City of Austin my major responsibilities under the City’s Charter were to manage the outside counsel relationships, review and approve invoices from major law firms, and discuss pending litigation with the mayor and City Council. Outside counsel who treated me disrespectfully or circumvented my role, taught me how NOT to treat others. Oftentimes, we learn more from others’ poor examples than from great leaders.
I admire those who value different opinions, who listen actively, and appreciate diversity of thought before making impactful decisions.
What advice would you like to offer to the next generation of law firm and legal executives?
Some in the legal profession still think diversity and inclusion initiatives motives are distinct from legal excellence and achievement in the law. That thinking must change. Legal excellence is one of the many benefits from bringing superb lawyers and executives of diverse backgrounds into the law, partnership, and leadership positions. Undoubtedly, employees want to be a part of a firm that embraces DEI. Research shows that nearly 80 percent of workers want to work for a company that values diversity and 52 percent would be more engaged at work if their employer improved their efforts on this front. Diversity has a direct impact on lowering attrition with diverse teams experiencing higher rates of retention. Research continuously shows that diverse workforces increase profitability because varying experiences and viewpoints enhance innovation.
Secondly, I strongly advise the next generation to remain open to the next big thing, embrace artificial intelligence, Cryptocurrency, and the newest innovations in technology. Next generation firms should consider increasing its “other professionals” category by hiring medical professionals, scientists and computer programmers, and senior level data analysts. Some firms are already in the advanced stages of expanding offerings to clients to address retaining the significant market share that ALPs have pursued and captured.
Third, I would also advise the next generation of law firm and legal executives to examine the compensation structure of your firm/company. Is it a system that rewards individual achievement or does it encourage, recognize, and reward teamwork and team accomplishments?
Diverse teams are more likely to constantly reexamine facts and remain objective. They may also encourage greater scrutiny of each member's actions, keeping their joint cognitive resources sharp and vigilant. When people with varying “tools” for solving complicated tasks come together and work inclusively to find solutions, we achieve powerful results. As we strive for differentiation in a highly competitive marketplace, most of us want the most powerful team to deliver the best results for our clients. The key to differentiation lies in how we best address our clients’ issues.
What are your hopes and predictions for the future of the legal profession?
I hope that our society continues to recognize how great lawyers and great lawyering can help improve society. The last two years have not only impacted in person communications and budgetary objectives, but also revealed long-standing racial injustices which have motivated clients to increase the pressure on outside counsel to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). In response to heightened client expectations for formalized DEI policies and metrics, many firms “say” they have programs in place; however, most are early in the journey. Akerman’s Racial Justice Initiative (launched in 2020) is one of the reasons why I joined the firm. The firm believes in action and it speaks volumes. It is my hope that more firms will internalize this deeper commitment instead of just repeating a simple slogan or issuing a press release.
I predict more law firms will directly engage in service and support of their local communities and organizations. Lasting progress can be made through meaningful programs and initiatives that directly impact the lives within their communities. Pro bono is one of Akerman’s (as well as other firm’s) major focal points across the country. I predict that the genuine interest in making a measurable difference will grow to the highest level of dedication to serving our neglected communities.
Helping to extend justice to the underserved and needy should be a badge of honor. The law is a pillar for the kind of America in which our best selves can be realized.
Published February 4, 2022.