Opinion

What was behind Bircham Dyson Bell‘s decision to offer PR advice and why did it generate column inches of incredulous comment? From the firm’s point of view, it was a logical extension of the services that it was already providing for clients on an ad hoc basis, and it was most certainly not a risk. The fact is that law underpins many of the major national stories found in the print and broadcast media. Over the past week alone there have been numerous examples of this – from the suspected Shepherd’s Bush bomber being extradited from Italy, to Equitable Life abandoning its High Court claim against Ernst & Young. In such cases there are often three-way conversations between the firm, the client and a PR agency, which is not a particularly effective way of working, especially when responding to an urgent media enquiry.

Which leads on to the numerous benefits of having a law firm that offers communications advice to clients. First, it removes the middleman, enabling a direct dialogue to take place between the firm and the client, with communications specialists on hand. Consequently, and most importantly, it allows the communications professionals to have access to confidential information that lawyers would be reticent to divulge to a third party agency. This alone ensures that the communications professionals have a complete knowledge of what is going on, which is invaluable when dealing with the ever-creative media.

While clients expect lawyers to be experts on the law, they are not expected to be expert media advisers. Their experience in dealing with journalists’ enquiries is usually gained on the job, as and when they are contacted. It probably accounts for a tiny fraction of their time. However, having an experienced communications adviser on hand not only frees up the lawyer’s time to spend on legal matters, but it also ensures that the enquiry is dealt with by an experienced individual who will look at the bigger picture.

There is also a financial gain to be had by the firm. The communications professional is just as much a fee-earner as any lawyer they may work with, but in this case they are bringing in added revenue to the firm for a non-legal service (the five-year Merseytravel account to provide communications and public affairs advice is worth a six-figure sum). It is a perfect example of a business maximising its income from the resources that it possesses in-house, while also providing an added-value service to the client. One only has to look at The Lawyer 100 to see that competition is great within the industry and that clients are finding it more difficult to differentiate one firm from another. Birchams’ investment has been a success, and the firm is able to offer clients a level of service that larger City firms are unable to compete with – not bad for what has traditionally been viewed as a sleepy law firm.

One could argue that this represents the long overdue professionalisation of public relations. Many PR agencies are adequate at best in dealing with bread and butter media enquiries, but when it comes to added-value services to businesses, many fail dismally. As a former journalist I have often been amazed at the lack of understanding that many agencies display about the media. Clients demand a high level of professionalism and no fluffy PR can expect to make it in the legal world. It would not surprise me if what today is regarded as traditional PR becomes no more than an extension of the advertising sector, with nice words and images to accompany product and service launches.

Franc le Duc, communications consultant, Bircham Dyson Bell