For some Central Ohio law offices, keeping in touch with departed attorneys isn’t just collegial, it’s also good business.

When attorney Bill Nolan left Squire, Sanders & Dempsey in 2009 to start up the Columbus office of Barnes & Thornburg, it was tough to say goodbye to his 16-year employer.

“It’s hard,” he says. “There’s no question that it’s hard, because I think first and foremost, most of your best friends are there when you’ve been there that long. Ultimately, I think you try to be honest and professional and honorable. There are some awkward aspects because you are frankly competing for some clients, but on the whole, I think most people take the same approach and don’t take it personally.”

For Nolan, Barnes & Thornburg’s office managing partner, lunches, emails, phone calls and LinkedIn connections have helped him maintain ties to former colleagues. The legal culture in Columbus supports such relationships “even in the face of competition for clients and tension over the transfer of files and the like,” he says.

“Columbus is a great town to practice law in,” Nolan says. “Here in our office, of course, almost everybody comes from another firm. There are some awkward moments, awkward situations where you end up not being as close to somebody as you were, but on the whole, it’s good for everybody to maintain the relationships because all law firms may run into conflicts of interest and you’re looking for a lawyer you know is good to send [clients] to.”

Indeed, alumni represent a source of business development for many firms, even beyond conflict-of-interest referrals. Ex-employees who now serve as corporate counsel, for example, may be in a position to hire a firm or refer work. Other alums may no longer practice law, but have become top business executives in need of legal representation.

It’s that sense of shared benefit that has prompted a number of Central Ohio law firms to create networks—some more elaborate than others—to keep up with former employees. Through such programs, alumni can learn of job opportunities and stay in touch with former colleagues and friends, and law firms can keep track of talented ex-employees. Both individual lawyers and firms can tap into the networks as a potential source for new clients—no small matter in a tough economy.

Here’s a look at how some local law firms are leveraging these relationships.

Baker Hostetler

One of the area’s most sophisticated law firm alumni networks is at Baker Hostetler, which in 2009 launched a secure website to stay connected with alumni who have “graduated” to become corporate counsel, serve in political or governmental positions, start their own business, open their own firm or work at another firm. Baker Hostetler alums can use the website to tap into an array of networking, communication and career resource tools and also interact with one another or current employees.

The seeds for Baker Hostetler’s online network were planted several years ago when the firm began hosting an annual informal alumni gathering. The first year, it was held at an art gallery. “It was a great event. Lots of people showed up, and it was so much fun, we’ve done it ever since,” says Dan Gunsett, managing partner of Baker Hostetler’s Columbus office. “Those events are nice for networking, and it’s great to see old friends.”

The addition of a dedicated website was a newer development. “As we thought about our alumni connections, we thought about social networking on the Internet, and we thought we should include a website,” Gunsett says. More than 1,100 alumni were invited to participate in the password-protected site.

In addition to the online offerings, Baker Hostetler alumni can avail themselves of free continuing legal education (CLE) courses. The CLE courses on topics such as professionalism, ethics and substance abuse are available to clients, current firm attorneys and alumni. They’ve been popular, says Gunsett: “It’s free CLE on those tough-to-get hours. … We do that in Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati, and have done so for a long time.”

Why invest time and energy in people the firm no longer employs? “Over the years of working together, the attorneys have built collegial relationships and friendships,” Gunsett says. “And so when folks move on to other opportunities, we like to keep in touch. … It’s good to keep in touch with friends, and frankly, it’s good business.”

Gunsett takes a philosophical approach to employee departures. “Every law firm, every business, every job isn’t for everybody. Just because somebody moves on—for many different reasons—doesn’t mean that they’re no longer your friend or colleague,” he says.

Gunsett says he’d like to bolster Baker Hostetler’s website content, such as including additional information on events of interest. Ultimately, though, he doesn’t see the site supplanting in-person networking. “There’s nothing like the personal interaction with alumni to really maintain that relationship and connection,” he says.

Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease

At Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, alumni networking is a less formal undertaking that typically happens either among individual attorneys, practice areas or via firm initiative groups. “Different parts of the firm handle alumni networking differently, but one of the ways we do it is through the things we do in the women’s initiative,” says partner Susan Harty.

Often, alumni outreach is piggybacked on already-planned events and activities. The women’s initiative, for example, includes externally and internally focused activities, says Harty, who leads the effort. External events, often with a charitable component, provide an opportunity for attorneys, business professionals and alumni to network. “It’s interacting with our community, supporting charitable causes, being involved with our clients and kind of our peers out in the community,” Harty says. “There’s also the internal focus—making sure that we are providing mentoring opportunities to our newer lawyers and just trying to provide resources on issues of common interest.” The vast majority of women at Vorys have participated in one or more initiative-related events, she says.

Often, Vorys calls on alumni to come and speak about everything from how to maintain a work-life balance to how their perspective has changed now that they’ve taken a position in government or in-house at a corporation. “We may invite them to come back in and talk to us and share their insights about how they see the world differently from their new position,” Harty says. “Those are the kind of things I’d say fits our internal focus, but keeps us very much in touch with alumni.”

Vorys’ external outreach efforts were recently on display through events it co-hosted with LexisNexis at several of its offices. “We picked a charity that mattered to Lexis and to us, and invited a number of friends of the firm—including our alumni—to come join us to do something to support that charity,” Harty says. In Columbus, the beneficiary was Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Franklin County. “We had everybody come in, get together and just mingle, and then there was an opportunity for people to wrap journals to provide to participants in the CASA program,” Harty says.

Maintaining connections with former colleagues just makes sense, Harty says. “When we’re talking about reaching out and keeping in touch with people, they’ve become our friends when they’re here, so it’s a very natural outreach,” she says.

Porter Wright Morris & Arthur

Porter Wright Morris & Arthur has “a semiformal network,” says managing partner Buzz Trafford. “We do our best to keep track and to stay in touch with those who formerly were with us. We hold one or two social gatherings a year to which they are invited, and they are frequently invited to our continuing legal education programs for the areas in which they may be interested.

“There are firms that have very formal programs including separate Internet portals and things of that nature. We’re not at that end of the spectrum, but it is more than informal and less than very formal,” Trafford says.

Trafford says Porter Wright’s contact with alumni has evolved over time. The firm has long maintained contact with departed attorneys, and then began inviting them to CLE programs. Social gatherings, the newest element, started several years ago. Additionally, “Individual departments and practice groups and individual lawyers, they maintain contact with our alumni in various, less-formal ways,” Trafford says.

“We have been pleasantly surprised and pleased by the number of our alumni who join us when we have these events, who stay in touch with us,” Trafford says. There are many motivations to maintain connections with firm alumni, he says, but one stands out. “The most important reason is they’re our friends. These are the people that we worked with. We tend not to be only colleagues at work, but friends here,” he says. “We enjoy getting back together and seeing each other in the same way that some people enjoy high school reunions and things of that nature. It also gives both our alums and the lawyers here … a networking opportunity component, but I would say that is the low end of the scale for us.”

Porter Wright alumni events represent “a chance to get back together and see people who maybe you haven’t seen in a while, or maybe you do see. And although the strongest attendance tends to be people from Columbus, we’ve had people from out of town join us,” Trafford says.

Trafford says the network at Porter Wright strikes “a great balance.” It satisfies firm and alumni needs in a comfortable way, he says. “I think probably you would find that the larger the group of alums, the more formal it is, in part because it has to be. We have a lot of alums, but not so many that we have had to make it formal.”

Roughly 250 alumni are involved in Porter Wright’s network; most communications to them go out via email or in person. “It seems to be working very well,” Trafford says. “It’s allowing people to stay in touch; I don’t think we see a need to become more formal. It’s working.”

A Two-Way Network

Since graduating from Capital University Law School in 1988, Benjamin Zacks has become well-acquainted with transitioning from one law firm to another—and the complicated dynamics that can arise when doing so.

Before founding the Zacks Law Group in 1997, he worked at several area firms, starting as a college undergrad doing administrative work for his father Arnold Zacks’ firm: Zacks, Luper & Wolinetz (a precursor to Luper Neidenthal & Logan).

After working his way up the firm ladder while going to Capital, Zacks knew that “when I got out of law school, I didn’t want to go to a big law firm,” he says. But he also knew that as a freshly minted lawyer, it would be difficult to develop a client base. So, instead of hanging out his own shingle, Zacks joined a small firm, known at the time as Abroms and Weisz. Within two years, he was made a partner.

But less than a year later, Zacks left for Schrim & Greenwald. One of the partners at his first firm resented his departure; it took almost a decade for their relationship to heal, Zacks says. But he and two other attorneys kept “good working relationships, and I would call them. We would work cases together and refer work back and forth,” he says.

Next, Zacks was recruited to Cleveland-based Ulmer & Berne’s Columbus office. Again, he strove to retain good relationships with his most recent employer, and was able to do so with everyone but the two main principals, he says. “I maintained relationships with all the non-principal lawyers, the of counsel people, and we continued to refer work back and forth,” Zacks says.

He remained at Ulmer & Berne for three years before deciding it was time to start his own firm. After a one-year pit stop in an of counsel capacity at Schottenstein Zox & Dunn Company, he launched Zacks Law Group.

Today, the office has five attorneys, three paralegals and is looking to expand, Zacks says. Only one associate has left the firm since it was established. “We have a firm party every year, and we invite her and her husband every year,” Zacks says of his former employee.

As someone who has been on both sides of the fence, Zacks understands the importance of maintaining good relations. “My view is you should never burn bridges. No. 1, it’s a very big thing, and almost a cliché, but what goes around comes around,” he says.

Law, says Zacks, “is a people profession,” in which relationships—among fellow lawyers, clients, the courts and administrative agencies—are key. Treating people with respect—even those at competing firms—is an integral part of the work, he says. And it can pay off. “One of our largest sources of referral work comes from other lawyers. In part because we will take on difficult problems—and we won’t steal their clients,” Zacks says.

Likewise, Barnes & Thornburg’s Nolan says he’s happy to have a chance to send clients to his former employer, should the occasion call for it. “I know there are a lot of good lawyers at Squire—and if you’re making a referral, you want to make it a referral for someone you know is going to deliver for your client,” he says.

For the most part, says Nolan, those working in the legal field understand that departures shouldn’t be taken personally, and they seek ways to maintain ties to their former coworkers. “People are still having lunch with their old colleagues and still think highly of them,” he says.

Jennifer Wray is a staff writer for Columbus C.E.O.

Reprinted from the May 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.