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In an increasingly competitive field, a smart and effective marketing team can make all the difference for lawyers and firms. Iris Jones is one of the best in the field, leveraging technology and the evergreen power of relationships to position attorneys for long-term success.

Jones comes at the work with a firsthand understanding, as she is an attorney herself: She previously served as an assistant attorney general in Texas and also worked in private practice. She found she most enjoyed the business side of law, particularly client relationships and retention, so she made the move into business development.

She now serves as Chief Marketing and Client Development Officer at Akerman, a national law firm with 24 offices across the country.

Jones brings a forward-looking approach to client development, utilizing video messaging, social media and other digital content to help lawyers and firms connect with clients and position themselves as thought leaders. After two decades in the field, she remains a student, always looking for new ways for attorneys to have an impact.

Jones was inducted into the Legal Marketing Association's (LMA) Hall of Fame this year, a much-deserved recognition that is only bestowed on a select few.

Lawdragon: How did you decide to make the move from practicing law into business development and marketing?

Iris Jones: Even as a young lawyer, I was drawn to business development and high-level client service. When the opportunity arose to instruct Client Development/Relationship Management, I jumped at the chance.

Working at the WJF Institute under Bill Flannery honed my client development skills and taught me how to launch client service team initiatives while making contacts nationwide. The training I, in turn, provided for AmLaw 100 firms across the country and in the UK led to my first in-house role as the client development and team building leader.

LD: In what ways do you leverage technology and/or systems in the work you do?

IJ: Akerman is disseminating our attorneys' voices and messaging by launching permanent in-house video studios in three of our law offices (Chicago, New York and Miami). Continuous contact and engagement increase retention among clients and business relationships. Most marketing professionals agree video is significantly more effective than text as a messaging tool. Studies show viewers remember 95 percent of a video message and video connects us with our audience on a more personal level than the written word. 

We are also leveraging existing advances in technology with regard to the development and promulgation of RFPs (Request for Proposal). Databases allow us to select target audiences for specific messages and media outreach technology helps us deliver our news to select journalists instantaneously.  

LD: Do you have any "quick and dirty" tips for lawyers who want to raise their profile? 

IJ: I encourage all lawyers to regularly review their bios/profiles on their firm website and on social media platforms. Keeping your online presence up to date with your latest notable work and achievements is essential. Clients hire you not only for your pedigree, but for your achievements and legal savvy. Using these tools effectively is itself a sign that an attorney is keeping up to date.

Keeping your online presence up to date with your latest notable work and achievements is essential. Clients hire you not only for your pedigree, but for your achievements and legal savvy.

LD: What tips do you have for law firms and/or lawyers who want to leverage the power of social media?

IJ: My tips are as follows: First, provide the attorneys hands-on training to improve their knowledge, comfort and social media acumen within these platforms. Next, each platform has its own style, lexicon and culture. I encourage firm leaders and lawyers to lean on their Marketing and Client Development team for guidance and support to ensure success and to use each platform in the most effective ways. 

It’s important to properly staff and budget necessary activities to keep the firm and its lawyers in a top-of-mind position. I also highly recommend that attorneys research current information about their clients and prospects by following and connecting with them on social media.

Finally, encourage content-rich postings deliberately focused on intended clients or prospective clients. Motivate others to retweet or share firm content and use the social media platforms to receive information, not just to transmit. We all need to be better listeners than talkers, in every forum!  

LD: You've long been an advocate for diversity and inclusion in the legal industry. How do you think the industry is doing in that regard?

IJ: The legal industry has improved greatly from several decades ago when there was zero accountability for steps taken and progress made in recruiting, retention and promotion of women and people of color. We are well aware that many law firms continue to face challenges in retaining lawyers due to the talent wars that are more fierce than ever. Have we made progress toward a more diverse staff and attorney head count? Absolutely. However, the numbers and statistics still speak volumes about the work we have yet to accomplish. When law firms are asked to describe their Diversity, Equality and Inclusion initiatives, they often have a compelling story to tell but when it comes to actual goal-setting and accountability for achieving same, there are way too few voices heard.

Akerman is the most diverse firm I’ve ever worked for, and I am honored to serve as its Chief Marketing and Client Development OfficerOur firm is proof that a diverse group of lawyers produces greater results. The power in our diversity is evident from the courtroom to the deal room, and our achievements are held in high esteem by our clients because Akerman’s commitment to diversity and accountability is authentic. Our high ranking with the Mansfield Rule Certification 5.0 Plus shows 75 percent of Akerman lawyers promoted to equity partner in the last year were members of historically underrepresented groups. Additionally, 41 percent of lawyers serving on our firmwide board of directors are from diverse backgrounds. As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding.

LD: What advice do you have for female and/or BIPOC lawyers who may find it more challenging to build their book of business?

IJ: I advise women and attorneys of color to retain and/or build strong relationships with friends, neighbors, colleagues, fellow law school/undergraduate alumni and alumnae, and to connect with smaller firms for referral sources. Business is about the give and take, so remember not only to encourage and receive referrals but refer work to others; offer ideas for collaboration and possible joint ventures. Be proactive by volunteering for stretch assignments and offering to participate on firm client, business development and research teams. This allows you to actively seek and share cross-servicing opportunities within multiple practice areas, to expand your knowledge base and to increase your visibility within the firm.

LD: Did you have mentors when you were first starting out in the field? 

IJ: I’ve been blessed to have more than a few outstanding mentors since my early days practicing law. The immense positive impact mentorship had on my life is one of the many reasons I advocate for mentorship to accelerate growth for young professionals.

One of my first and longtime mentors was Gabrielle K. McDonald, my law professor, practicing attorney and the first Black woman appointed to the Federal Court in Texas. She later became the Presiding Judge over the War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, in the Hague. I had the honor of trying a case before her and the opportunity to witness a court proceeding in the Hague at which she presided.

Business is about the give and take, so remember not only to encourage and receive referrals but refer work to others. Offer ideas for collaboration and possible joint ventures.

While working as a Senior Litigator and Deputy City Attorney for the City of Austin’s law department, Barney Knight (then City Attorney and my direct supervisor) mentored me by affording me stretch assignments and empowering me with challenging projects and responsibility leading the litigation department. His support and mentorship led to my appointment as the first woman and first Black City Attorney for the City of Austin.

After my work for the city, during my early years working in a law firm, the late Larry Langley was a great mentor, leader and friend. As Chairman of the Board, his spirit of fairness and inclusion, in large part, led me to high level first chair trial experience and ultimately a promotion to Shareholder in less than one year.

There are too many mentors who were instrumental in supporting my career trajectory and I encourage everyone to consider seeking out mentors at every stage of one’s career. Becoming a mentor is also quite rewarding.

LD: What role does mentorship play in your life now?

IJ: After decades in the legal industry, I still work with mentors. At this stage in my career some are younger than I. We can learn from people of just about any age. Recent technological advances have taught me the importance of broadening my thinking about its potential application in driving innovation for the firm. My shining example of reverse mentorship was with Toshiko Nelson, a former associate producer at a local news station, whom I hired to launch the digital marketing program at a former firm. She provided tremendous insight into digital marketing and the importance of video messaging for law firms. Toshi now serves at the Hershey Schools for Early Living as a Communications & Media Relations Manager.

LD: How has legal marketing changed since you first started in the industry?

IJ: Twenty years ago, legal marketing was straightforward and a somewhat simplistic profession. Marketers were primarily order-takers and executed small-scale, limited projects that lawyers felt were necessary, largely irrespective of their effectiveness. Today, the top marketers are seen as innovators and leaders. We must be proactive and assertive. It’s our job to go out and find the best new tools and people to grow our firms' business and visibility. We are competing and operating at a much higher level – it’s an exciting time to be in legal marketing.

LD: What do you think are the keys to success for an in-house BD or marketing team to function well and best serve the lawyers and the firm? 

IJ: A well-functioning Marketing and Business Development team needs ongoing communication and collaboration. A successful team respects and understands each member‘s roles. At Akerman, we make every effort to bring the nationwide marketing team together in monthly meetings to interface and interact virtually. The key to successfully serving our firm’s lawyers is to treat them as internal clients. Understanding what our lawyers do positions us to serve them proactively. Fostering relationships year-round builds comfort and collaboration between firm lawyers and their marketers. 

LD: What did it mean to you to be inducted into the Legal Marketing Association's Hall of Fame?

IJ: It was a tremendous honor to be inducted into the LMA Hall of Fame in 2022. Over the years, nineteen to be exact, I have been actively involved with the organization, as a presenter, panelist and moderator, and I’ve served on and chaired numerous committees.

Receiving this distinction is the highlight of my legal marketing career. I will always strive to live up to all that it stands for and will continue to mentor and support the careers of LMA members and newcomers to the marketing field.

LD: What do you do for fun outside of the office?

IJ: I am an avid reader, lifelong learner, movie and theater aficionado, and enjoy all genres of music. I am happiest in the garden, attending wine tastings or wine education courses. My passion is creative writing, and I am currently working on my fourth screenplay.