Full interview transcript:
Jamie Diaferia: Welcome to the latest infinite global podcast. My name is Jamie Diaferia, I’m the CEO of Infinite Global. Today I’ll be speaking with Michael Coston, the CEO and founder of Coston Consulting. We are going to be talking about effective marketing practices and considerations in the wake of the pandemic and the racial justice movement.
As everybody knows, there’s been quite a bit in the news and Michael, who founded his company last year, really finds himself in the perfect position in terms of his background and his skills for what’s going on in the world. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Michael as a client, as one of our external consultants and as a friend and I highly recommend all three of those roles if you’re lucky enough. Michael, why don’t you tell me a little bit about what the opportunity was or what the hole in the market was that made you launch Coston consulting in the first place?
Michael Coston: Yeah. Thanks, Jamie. Thank you for the intro, that was fantastic. I would have joined sooner if I would have known it was going to be so nice. As you said, I opened the farm a year ago after being at McKool Smith for about a decade. And one of the reasons why I was in the firm is that there were so many things that I had done internally that I wanted to expand my exposure and expand my reach and sometimes you have to kind of take a leap of faith in order to do that. So for instance, I really wanted to get more involved in diversity efforts, not just in the legal industry, but beyond. I really wanted to get more involved in coaching and recruiting and so, so I kind of just packaged up all of the services that I had provided over the course of my career and used it as the framework to design the company. And so far things have really been great for us. Things have taken off and we have continued to grow over the past year. So it’s been exciting.
Jamie Diaferia: Tell me a little bit about the kind of people that hire you, who are the audiences that you go after, who gets value from working with you?
Michael Coston: It’s a broad scope of clients that we serve, that’s really kind of contingent on what they’re looking to do. You know, or you’re looking to make your company more profitable? Are you looking to enhance your image? Are you looking to better engage your people? It’s a host of services that kind of run the full gamut of marketing related activities.
Jamie Diaferia: Well, that’s, I think where you have a big difference or big differentiator in the marketplace, you have filled so many different roles. I’ve only ever been really on the PR side for external agency. You’ve been in house, you have a PR background, you’ve got the business development background. How do you think that’s really played out in the current environment?
Michael Coston: Yeah, I think it allows us to see different obstacles and different opportunities and then to apply different solutions in a way that’s strategic, customizing, creative. You know, sometimes when your lens, and you’ll probably hear me say the word lens a lot, but when your lens is just geared towards one discipline, you find yourself not being able to really offer the full scope of solutions that it takes to solve a problem.
And it’s impossible for me to take off my lens of being a person who has handled a significant amount of PR for various companies in and outside of the legal industry and I’ve done events. And so you’re kind of, you know, the disciplines that kind of need to collaborate together in order to advance the organization’s goals and then you also know where there are shortcomings. So where companies kind of need to kind of double down their efforts because you’ve seen it before and you’ve been in the trenches. And so I think it allows us to provide, not only a full scope of services to different companies and organizations, but it allows us to maximize and leverage our understanding of how these disciplines one work together and independently to accomplish certain goals.
And so I think it just provides more value. You know, we always talk to our clients about how do you enhance the value that you’re offering. And I think that our framework in our experience of various disciplines definitely allows us to dig deep in the value that we provide.
Jamie Diaferia: Yeah. And I know you talk to a lot of people in the industry, people come to you as a mentor, you’ve got that broad perspective, but many of them are often making a choice between working in house or working as an external consultant in there. And they’re looking for guidance. What would you say is the biggest difference between being an external consultant and working in house?
Michael Coston: One thing is that when you’re actor external consultant, you don’t have to deal with a lot of the obstacles that it takes to get things done internally. And no matter how sophisticated the organization and how entrenched you may be or embedded you may be, they’re all oftentimes obstacles that you just have to face.
You kind of have to go against culture sometimes, particularly in marketing, particularly in the professional services arena. And so when you’re a consultant, usually you don’t have to deal with head on at least, the same sort of cultural constraints and red tape that oftentimes prevent you from really making a dent or really being able to advance a project. That’s one big difference that I really noticed, particularly in the legal industry.
And I think another thing that I’ve noticed is that I feel unleashed. I feel like, and I know my partner feels that same way when we discuss it and so two other members of my team, I feel like there are a number of ways in which you can contribute and in which you can provide value that may be outside of the box or outside of the confinements of what your in-house institution may provide for.
And so I think there’s a lot of flexibility. I think that there are a lot less obstacles in some way. I mean, those are some of the upsides that I do see.
Jamie Diaferia: Certainly when you started this business, the times were very different, things were rolling along. I’m guessing you probably didn’t anticipate the level of upheaval. So how has it been, we affected your, your business in terms of when you started out, you had objective yet a core set of services that you planned on probably selling to the market and then the world changed quite a bit? So how has that shifted your business strategy and the kinds of client engagements you’re getting?
Michael Coston: Thank God for the ability to be nimble. When we first started out, we found ourselves doing a lot of recruiting, more so than we could have ever anticipated. And so that was something that really picked up in the beginning of the launch of the firm. And then, you know, subsequently since, you know, the pandemic that has stopped to a certain extent, the client development activities that we’ve been involved in for our clients.
Primarily for the litigation firms and clients that we represent, there’s been an uptake in litigation, surprisingly for our clients, which is a very fortunate position for them to find themselves in, so we’ve been busy, very busy in that regard. I do think a big shift is that given the pandemic and then obviously given the civil rights movement that’s taking place, a lot of our efforts have focused on internal communications. How to advise law firms on providing reassurances and staying connected to their people, given the truth work environment that we’re all dealing with. So that’s something that I don’t think we anticipated as the internal messaging and the advising from a management perspective on the importance of the messaging. I don’t think that’s something that any of us could’ve really anticipated. And then too, I approached business development from personal communications perspective. That’s my background, that’s what I studied in graduate school. And I think that the environment that we’re in now has totally underscored and highlighted the importance of effective communications from people to people and how to navigate through certain obstacles and how to stay engaged and finding authentic reasons to connect with people.
All of those things are crucial now, given the environment that we’re in. And so a lot of our efforts have focused on that.
Jamie Diaferia: Covid has come up quite a bit in the last couple months, firms are talking about it, incessantly as a problem, but thinking ahead a bit, and as firms look to come out of this, when we have a vaccine or when there’s some sort of a uptick in business activity, what should firms be thinking about from a marketing and business development perspective so that they’re well positioned to emerge from this?
Michael Coston: These are unprecedented times and there’s not a rule. I think that one sure bet for law firms in terms of how to best engage their clients is to really foster a dialogue that provides for law firms to really collaborate with the clients and really strategize about how have the clients been impacted by the pandemic, not just an industry basis, but what has it done for our bottom line and what has it done for our business. And then to be a part of that rebuilding. It’s important for the law firms to be looked at as the strategic advisors, to be a part of the rebuilding of the companies and theyre a part of the business generation and a part of the ongoing dialogue of how companies become more sustainable in the new normal that we’re operating in.
The more. We collaborate, the more opportunities there are for us to see the pain points and then develop and present solutions.
Jamie Diaferia: You look for silver linings and all this it’s really squint with COVID to see them. But one thing that’s come out of it that’s really interesting is that communications piece. It’s the process itself, that the situation in which we all find ourselves has forced us and our clients to communicate in a way that is healthy. And it’s really interesting and hopefully lasting that it took a crisis like this to humanize the client relationship. You start seeing people sitting at home on video with their dogs or their kids running around. It fosters a more personal relationship, but the conversations that we’re having are the ones we should have been having all along. But it didn’t because we were so bogged down in our day to day.
Michael Coston: It’s so true. We’ve all heard about how powerful acts of kindness are and I think that, you know, those acts of kindness are really forced to those types of interpersonal connections. And hopefully we just continue to see more of that. I think that when you have a great interpersonal framework and interpersonal rapport, it allows you to really talk about substantive issues at a deeper level, because you know that someone really cares about your business and your wellbeing and the livelihood of your organization.
Jamie Diaferia: Well that’s a nice segue into the discussion about racism that’s going on as well, right? Because the same principles apply there. There’s so much about authenticity and how far authenticity can go in one and helping you build a rapport with people, but then too, in order to creating an environment in which people feel comfortable, sharing and comfortable providing feedback for these really trying times. And, you know, listen, we’ve got a large number of businesses out there now, mine included, that are for the first time confronting these challenges in a different way. In probably in a much more educated way. You’ve got a lot of law firms that want to make change. They want the differences to happen in their organizations. What would you advise them? Particularly the in-house marketing professionals and how they can be the support for those initiatives.
Michael Coston: I think that marketing professionals, no matter what discipline of marketing it is that you specialize in, you know, whether it’s communications, business development, strategy, offense, you know, so forth and so on, I think that we can all play a really important role in advancing our law firm or our company or not-for-profits efforts in advancing. Issues that impact diverse groups that support or our firm’s diversity and inclusion efforts and that kind of move to provide for the equity that a lot of diverse lawyers and a lot of law firms thinking about now, you know, I think that we can help our law firms make good on a lot of the promises that are being made.
Jamie Diaferia: Right. I think a lot of these firms and like my company as well, which are candidly, not that diverse, we’d like to be, you talked about authenticity and that’s a real big issue, I think in terms of the response and for many of us who handled it, frankly, not as well as we should have. Authenticity was really the barrier in our view. How do we. Talk about race and anti-racism in a way that’s genuine when we have in our view, no real value or perspective in talking about those things? How do you get over that obstacle? How do you advise companies that probably are feeling the same type of paralysis?
Michael Coston: I think that consideration is key. If you’ve never had a discussion about anyone, about their feelings in the past, it’s certainly, I don’t think that they’d be comfortable sharing their feelings about race or about inequality now. And so that’s really important to keep in mind. And then more broadly than that, I think that for the people who feel that they may not necessarily understand the issues that are taking place, I think that everyone should do their homework.
You know, when I was in high school, I didn’t really learn about African American studies. I learned about Martin Luther King and I knew that there had to be more to black history of the Martin Luther King. And so I made the conscious decision to study African American history during undergrad. And while, you know, I don’t think everyone needs a degree in black studies to be familiar with black issues, I certainly think everyone has the opportunity to do their own work, to do their own homework, to read more books to become more enlightened. And so enlightenment and education is really key for communication, I think. And that’s something that we all have access to. So I always encourage people to do their work.
And then finally, one point that is important to stress is that I’ve spoken to people who have kind of said, you know, Michael, I really want to help, but you know, I feel like I’m part of the problem or so forth and so on. And I think that instead of that guilt, that seems to be resonating with some people that we should kind of redirect that and turn that into power. So what are ways that you can use your privilege and use your leverage and use your access to kind of advance a lot of the issues that we’re talking about? How can you use your privilege and your access to advocate for speak up for people who are underrepresented? You know, how can you use those luxuries?
To advance causes that directly impact the advancement of black people and other people with inside your institutions. You know, how do you use it to have a lens that allows you to make sure that you or professional environments are fair and equal for everyone? And sometimes fair and equal means kind of making advances to make up for inequalities.
And so I think that we should all feel inspired. And we should all feel a sense of duty after we do our introspection, to look within and see the areas in which we’re able to influence. And that’s an honest discussion, and that takes some thinking, but it’s not unlike what we do in our careers on any other basis when we’re looking at how to be more profitable, you know, when we’re looking at how to advance our culture, I think that we can also have the same framework for looking at how do we make a dent in diversity, equity and inclusion issues.
Jamie Diaferia: Right. Well, and a lot of companies like mine and a lot of the law firms you counsel, all the firms that we service as outside consultants as well, are looking to get educated. And so maybe you can tell me a little bit about what you think that might look like for a firm like ours and candidly, we are bringing you in to help us with that because we value the perspective you bring. What does a program look like where we can get from point A to point B, which is what people are asking for internally, what we all want and what does that look like?
Michael Coston: You know, I think that there has to be an assessment of what the organization represents and what does it believe in and where are the values and the morals, right.
And after, and that’s that introspection that I spoke about earlier, and so I think that after that assessment is done, I think that there needs to be alignment internally with the leadership and with the stakeholders in who are we? Are we an organization that really believes and values diversity? Are we an organization that is fair and believes in equity for the people who really go out of the way to contribute to our success. And if all those things are true, I think that then we begin the process of wine coming, more aware of the issues that disrupt our ability to meet our goals. What issues do we have?
What are our obstacles internally and perhaps interpersonally that prevent us, or may prevent us from achieving this mission and building this alignment. And then, so once you uncover the issues, I think then you have to understand, well, what are the practices? What are the practices and the actions that help us advance our goals and that help us achieve what it is that we are designing collectively among our leadership to do.
And that’s when you strategize about ways to really make an impact. And so I think it’s the introspection. I think that it is the alignment. And then I think that it is the planning. And the execution of the planning that really moves organizations forward, but it’s really difficult to get to that execution phase.
If you haven’t done the introspection and you haven’t done the planning and you haven’t done the fixing. And so I know in the wake of the tragic death of George Floyd, that there is, or has been in some cases and sometimes not, but there has been a rush for people to make these external statements about the actions that they plan to take. And I hope, or all of those organizations inside the legal industry and outside legal industry, that those external actions are built on an internal framework and some heavy introspection so that these companies, law firms in these organizations are looking at how they’re addressing perhaps their issues and strategies that they have in place. And the alignment that they’re building internally to make good on these external promises.
Jamie Diaferia: Well, one of the good things that did come out of that was that that issue of authenticity and people did realize that you can’t just put out a statement. It doesn’t mean anything if it’s not backed by action. So in effect, the activity itself of putting out a statement has bred, or has fostered, the kind of education that is required and so I think in some ways there’s alignment in that regard. But it’s a broader question about communicating in general for a firm and so the law firms that we work with and that you work with how do you advise them on how to communicate going forward? Externally, clearly, most of these firms are not very diverse just by definition an Am Law 100 firm is generally not very diverse, and so they’ve been reluctant to go out there and talk to them about diversity. They hide from the issue and oftentimes I don’t think that’s a secret, but if you don’t have a very diverse firm the best thing you can do is just not talk about it. That was the old adage. That’s changed now, so what can they do if they’re not able to talk about the fact that they are or are not diverse, what can they be doing?
Michael Coston: You know, I think they could be doing the work to become more diverse. You know, I think that not everything is good talking point. And so I wouldn’t recommend that any law firm beat their chest about their diversity unless they’ve really made a concerted effort to fix it. I wouldn’t recommend that any firm publicize anything, that’s not real. I think that for the firms that can’t rave about being diverse, I think that they should be silent externally and perhaps communicate internally with their leaders and with their diversity equity and inclusion professionals. And if they don’t have them, I think that they should hire them. And I think that they should really focus on tackling their issues and overcoming the obstacles and eliminating the obstacles that prevent them from being diverse. If we’re looking at it from a recruiting perspective, maybe they should think about the ways that they’re going about attracting talent. They’re thinking of it from a professional advancement perspective. They should think about ways that they can better engage their diverse employees and lawyers now and how do you help build and develop them to become the next level of leaders. And so I’m not a fan of making announcements before the work is done. You know, we promote cases all the time and promoting wins is much easier than promoting losses. Before the promotional phase do the strategy, let’s do the work and let’s fix the issues so that we’re in a position to win.
Jamie Diaferia: Listen, the last few weeks have also been extremely illuminating and probably a little bit of kick in the gut to people who thought they were doing things well. Well intentioned companies that were theoretically well-intentioned and would characterize themselves as not racist and yet that’s clearly different than being actively anti-racist. What does that term mean to you? What does that look like for a company?
Michael Coston: I think an anti-racist organization, one doesn’t rest on the fact that they don’t see themselves as not being racist. I think that anti-racism means action. How do you look at systemic racism and put in procedures to try to address it or to fix it? How do you balance inequality? Right. If we know that certain groups of people are disadvantaged by nature of how certain systems are designed, what have we done to fix those iniquities and address the disadvantages? Clearly it’s absolutely not enough for someone to say, well, I’m not racist. I’m much more impressed and I think that the current climate calls for action, how do we eliminate racism? How do we promote a quality? What have we done as an organization? How have we looked at the systems that have not worked? How do we look at the systems that have segregated people and really cause people not to feel unleashed cause people not to feel valued, and as a result, hindered corporations and companies and law firms included from benefiting from the real power of diversity? And so I would say for the organizations that feel like they can do more, I think that they should do more. I think anti-racism means action. It is built on an established understanding that organizations or individuals can do more.
Jamie Diaferia: And Michael, for those of us who are old enough to have lived through different moments in time where these issues have cropped up and then it fizzled out, why is this different? What’s different now, what will be different both for say the legal industry, but also just corporate America in general?
Michael Coston: The legal industry is very responsive you know. We seen in the legal industry over the years where there was a call to action on fee flexibility or escaping the billable hour, when the law firms started to do a lot of work on coming up with effective proposals for alternative fee arrangements. I think that when there was a call in the legal industry for more value from a project management perspective and the law firms, there was a race to advance project management skills. And so I think now in this climate that we’re in, we’re seeing corporate America have a call to action for all companies and law firms included to really make a strategic effort and to really put its money and its action where its mouth is. They come up with programs that speak to some of the issues that we see at the corporate level and in society overall. And so I think that law firms, since we’ve been so responsive it’s is the client voice is so powerful in our industry. It’s encouraging. The more corporations that speak out and demand more firms to do more, I think the more we’re going to see law firms do. I think that a lot of the social justice issues that are taking place are very unique in that lawyers are well positioned to really make a dent, they’re really well positioned to obviously push the judicial system and so qualified immunity in issues like that, lawyers can tackle and they can test the courts, they can work for people’s rights. And so I think that lawyers or law firms a doubling down on their pro bono efforts in that regard, all those things are really encouraging. But I gotta tell you, you know, there’s that saying, this is a marathon and a race well, this is like much longer than a marathon. This is like the coldest cold war. So I think that it is important that we as professionals continue to have the tough discussions that the people who are focused on anti-racism activities and continue to call foul when we see things that are wrong. And I think that more so than anything, the leaders of organizations should be accountable for one valuing their people. And we can look at that from a moral framework, but valuing their people and then value business, and then to using their access and using their leverage to really advance not only their organization, but all of these huge social issues that are so important to so many of us. And so I do feel encouraged. I’m not so encouraged by the knee jerk reactions, but I am encouraged by the longterm plans and the leaning on the diversity equity and inclusion experts in our industry and other industries who are talented and informed and enlightened. And who has how much value add to organizations and business leaders right now.
Jamie Diaferia: The process feels right and that’s where it begins. And for the first time in my career anyway, confronting these issues, it feels like exactly what you said, people are listening for the first time they’re seeking the right council. And I’m hopeful that hopefully you are as well.
Michael Coston: Yeah, I am.
Jamie Diaferia: Michael. Thank you very much for joining us.
You’ve been listening to a special podcast from internet global. If you’d like to know more about how independent global can help support your firm with its communications needs, please visit our website at www.Infiniteglobal.com. Michael, thanks again for your time.
Michael Coston: Thank you. Thanks.