Legal Consultant Limelight: Terry M. Isner and Vivian Hood

Terry M. Isner, President, Marketing & Business Development, and Vivian Hood, President, Public Relations, are considered two of the most successful and vibrant professionals in law firm marketing – building on a rich legacy of a firm considered by many to have invented law firm marketing.

Both started their careers in Washington, D.C., in creative roles in marketing and public relations. Through connections, they made their way to Jay Jaffe, who founded the firm, and have never looked back over nearly two decades of tremendous change in law firms and an ascension of the importance of marketing, branding and communications.

We had a chance to catch up with them about the need for inspiration, risk and running a law firm like a business.

Fortune truly does favor the bold.

Lawdragon: Can you each tell me a bit about your background and how you came to specialize in consulting with lawyers and law firms?

Terry M. Isner: When I entered into the world of legal marketing, I thought I was making a horrible career move. I was doing great creative work in D.C. for associations, retail, National Geographic and Smithsonian magazine. I did some work as a freelancer for Greenfield & Belser and that introduced me to legal marketing. I went in-house at Howrey & Simon as their creative director. Luckily for me, I started off at a firm that was leading the charge in creative legal marketing.

The funny part of the story is it was Jay Jaffe whom I followed into Howrey. Jay started Jaffe in Howrey, and as he left to start working for more firms and to get Jaffe Associates up and running, I came in. Up until that time, I had never met him, nor did I know anything about him. From Howrey I went to Patton Boggs as their CMO, one day Jay came in to meet with us, and from there I went to Jaffe and never looked back.

Vivian Hood: I started my career at Ketchum in Washington, D.C., which gave me a broad foundation and exposure to all types of public relations. Working in media relations was what I enjoyed most. A former Ketchum colleague joined Jaffe, and when she told me about a position that became available that would allow me to work from home, I jumped at it. It was perfect for me as a young mom, to have that flexibility while maintaining a career doing exactly what I wanted. I’ve now been here 20 years, and I still get a thrill when a particularly great news article features a client or includes a comment!

LD: Terry, you are an artist at heart. How does that combine with working with lawyers?

TMI: Well I’m a kid at heart and that gives me the ability to look at everything I do creatively. There is an intersection where my personal and professional worlds overlap and that area drives most of my imagination. I mix branding, shameless product endorsement, and storytelling into my paintings and photography work. I also apply whimsical, cutting-edge, and playful ideas into differentiating our clients and creating innovative strategies designed to reach our client’s goals and break through the noise. It’s my job to push the envelope, and being an artist allows me to think without constraint and to simply ask: “What if?”

LD: Vivian, while you also approach firms from a marketing perspective, you seem more focused on core communication and crisis management. What are some issues you see lawyers and law firms consistently grapple with there?

VH: One of the most significant changes in communications/PR over the years is that many lawyers still expect every bit of news to get printed, but that’s not how it always works. So my role as a PR counselor has changed and splintered more over the years: I am part educator, and I have to teach lawyers about the changes within the media industry and manage their expectations; part strategist, as I develop creative PR plans that will work for them using a variety of tactics that may not even involve a newspaper; and part publicist, as I implement and advance their visibility and thought leadership through targeted media and other opportunities.

When it comes to crisis management, I am constantly surprised at the reasons and decisions that created the situation in the first place. The same types of problems seem to repeat themselves, and despite the often highly publicized examples of wrongdoing - for example financial embezzlement - the same things still keep happening. But I guess that is human nature. Lawyers are people, despite what some think!

LD: You are both highly acclaimed veterans in the legal field. How have you seen law firms evolve, for good or bad, during your time advising them?

TMI: Law firm evolution is happening at the speed of a sloth. But there is movement. Good or bad, slow or fast, the important thing is to always keep moving forward, to learn from that movement and to quickly make the changes needed to maintain relevance with your clients. It’s time to evolve or perish.

There are so many areas within the law firm that can and should evolve constantly, like technology, marketing and business development best practices as well as generational needs. So if you aren’t focused on these even a little bit, you are way behind. How can you keep up with client expectations if you are not operating more effectively and efficiently for them?

There are still firms out there with their heads in the sand that are not interested in entertaining any thoughts about changing. They are not building a legacy nor do they have a long-term business strategy. They are destined for extinction. Those that are focused on changing their firms to be more in line with today’s business cultures are succeeding internally and externally. They are gaining and maintaining the trust and loyalty of their clients, staff and shareholders. Change is happening at every level from law firm leadership to branding, office location and layout, to technology, hiring and retention. How sad it is for those firms that see value in the status quo.

LD: Can you each speak to the life of a law firm consultant. What's the travel, what are your days like, what are the stresses and joys of your work?

TMI: The life of a law firm consultant is a bit schizophrenic. I find it to be a juggling act everyday. Working in-house you have one brand to manage; as a consultant you could be managing up to six different brands a day.

You need to be very flexible, very knowledgeable, and confident in yourself and your skills because they will be tested. For Vivian and I, there is a lot of travel, our clients are all over, and we both speak at a lot of legal marketing programs, so we find ourselves on the road quite a bit. I find it very rewarding to have the opportunity to work with many different firms and to have multiple projects going on. There is great joy in partnering with a law firm that gets it and wants to learn and evolve.

VH: As a law firm consultant, I never have the same day twice. Most often, when I try to plan my day in the morning, it never happens the way I expect! That variety and unexpected direction has always appealed to me and keeps my days from being boring.

As I took on the co-ownership and management responsibilities, my travel definitely increased, but it’s usually at a manageable level. I have learned to better control my stress load by staying organized of my ever-growing and never-finished task list. My system works for me, and I can’t manage my days and weeks without relying on being organized. The joys are so many: collaborating with my amazing colleagues on client work, developing long-term relationships with clients that evolve into friendships, succeeding in our client’s PR campaigns, working from home and being available to my family. The list goes on – I truly love what I do!

LD: Do you each have a favorite law firm success story that exemplifies the importance of strong marketing and branding to your clients?

TMI: We have several, but there is one recent success story that I will refer to. Recently we were asked to help a firm with their branding and marketing initiative. We were already their PR provider and they were also using three other agencies to help in the rebranding project. For the most part, everyone did a great job.

Yet, while they had a new logo they liked and a new website design and strategy that they loved, they were still missing the brand. We were asked to help them solve this brand identity challenge and help tie everything up into a strategic rebranding campaign. Our goal for branding is to find those brand promises that your clients, staff and stakeholders expect and have come to appreciate.

Branding is not about marketing phrases; it’s about actions, core values and culture that you cultivate over time. History plays a big part in this. We found the brand, and we identified why their clients, attorneys and staff were loyal to the brand. The marketing strategy and the type of images, messaging and business development tactics used were all formulated based on these findings.

VH: One story that sticks in my mind is the importance of being strategic, but it’s a story that many law firms still don’t tell enough. A “throw every PR opportunity at us and see what sticks” approach won’t support the business development and marketing goals that a practice, or a firm, should have. A lot of firms still are taking baby steps at best practices, and when I can convince them to be strategic and focused versus “give us everything and anything,” that is a success! We have some clients that just can’t commit yet to being fully strategic with their PR, but we’ll get them there!

LD: How do you stay current on trends in legal marketing, and what do you think is the most important issue facing law firms today?

VH: I believe it is incredibly important to be involved with our industry, such as by participating in and attending Legal Marketing Association meetings and conferences, reading relevant news, understanding what is happening in other professional services and corporate environments, connecting with industry peers, writing and sharing our thought leadership, and – equally important – listening to our clients’ needs. We have to stay current, even ahead, of what is important because we are in the position of advising our clients about those matters.

The most important issue facing firms is how to adapt to change and grow. The legal industry has seen enormous change particularly in the past 10 years; it’s incredibly different than it was 20 years ago when I first started. The impact of social media, new technology, mergers, law firm failures, fee structures, succession issues, generational differences – these dynamics and so much more are changing the future of law firms. Those that have understood and accepted these external and internal influences are the most successful. It is a privilege to help law firms understand what they are facing and to assist them in making fundamental shifts that will shape their futures.

TMI: I think some folks are doing some very creative things in legal marketing, and I am proud of them for pushing the envelope - it gives me hope. I don’t really follow current legal marketing trends; if I did, I wouldn’t be providing the industry with innovative ideas.

I prefer to be setting trends. To do that, I focus on the marketing trends of our law firm’s clients. Marketing in other industries is currently more creative and more client focused, and I see greater value in understanding these strategies and applying that creative thinking to legal marketing. For those that trust in our creative strategies, they end up doing some very nontraditional things, and law firms love to wait and see what the other firms are doing, so it is easy to be a trendsetter when it comes to legal marketing if you are not a follower.

I think there are several important issues that law firms are facing. One is leadership and succession. Too many firms operate without a strategic plan, too many law firm leaders lead by consensus building and, sadly, too many firms are not grooming their next leaders. It’s time to run the law firm like a business.

Differentiation through branding is another issue; we still aren’t branding our firms correctly. Branding is about culture and core values and how those resonate with the client. These qualities set you apart from the other firms, and it is extremely important to know them and live by them. A third is generational synchronicity, i.e., how can firms adapt to the needs of three generations of lawyers, each equally important to the success of the firm.

LD: What do you see on the horizon for law firms, from small firms to global powers. In particular, we seem to be nearing the end of a phase where big law firms seemed intent on creating global platforms through principally branding. How would you grade those efforts, and what do you see coming next?

TMI: There are so many disrupters out there at the moment it’s hard to predict the future, but I don’t think it will include the Big Law model. I can’t see millennials conforming to the culture of mega firms. That said, I do see law firms being run as a business and not a partnership, and I am surprised that some legal vendors don’t already offer legal services. The legal industry is being redefined, but we are way off from seeing its new iteration. Different work-environment concepts, work-life balance, knowledge sharing, technology platforms, collaboration, these will be factors driving the legal industry of tomorrow.

LD: What do you most enjoy about working with lawyers? And what are you most proud of about the Jaffe organization and its work?

VH: I have always said that working with lawyers has made me smarter. My education didn’t stop when I graduated college. Every day I learn something new in a number of topics. It’s fascinating, and I appreciate that I am a more interesting, well-rounded and knowledgeable person as a result! I think that my family and friends, and future clients, appreciate that, too!

I am incredibly proud of everyone at Jaffe. Each person here has a role and a talent – a gift – that interlocks with each other and our clients. We are fortunate to have a low employee turnover rate, and I believe our culture is one reason why – we strongly encourage a lifestyle balance. We have many long-term employees who have been here eight, 10, 15 and more years, such as Senior VP of Public Relations Kathy O’Brien, who started off part-time and now is recognized on the Lawdragon 100 Leading Consultants list, and deservedly so. I so appreciate the passion and commitment and enthusiasm and professionalism that everyone here gives every day. They are all among the best in the industry, and I know they could work anywhere they wanted to. But they choose to work here!

TMI: Working with lawyers is fairly predictable, but when they get it and see the value of strategic and creative thinking for branding and business development purposes, it is at that point I get the greatest joy, knowing you just provided someone with the knowledge and tools to succeed. Lawyers are smart, funny and creative; you just have to know how to tap into it.

Jaffe is exactly where it needs to be right now. We have a very diverse, talented and loyal team, and it is that team that makes Jaffe what it is today. Many of us have been together for over 10 years, and it’s the team dynamic that makes us. My two business partners, Vivian and Melinda Wheeler, complete me as an agency leader, allowing us to focus on individual areas and then collectively manage Jaffe. We take great pride in our people and respect the unique makeup of our team, and I believe this resonates with our clients.