Working the Media Machine

A journalist telephoning the marketing departments of certain larger law firms could be forgiven for thinking they had accidentally got through to the Kremlin in the 1970s. In some quarters, calls from the media are met with a mixture of fear and suspicion, followed by a fair dose of interrogation.

While some lawyers have become so media-friendly that they have, effectively, become the media – such as Stephens Innocent's Mark Stephens, who now hosts his own radio show – others have tried the opposite tack. Slaughter and May has adopted a policy of discretion, while Herbert Smith attempted a technique of discouraging all press contact a few years ago.

Most firms fall somewhere between, and while they may recognise the need to do something about media relations, few get it right.

Charles Swan, head of advertising at London firm The Simkins Partnership, recognises that a changing culture means firms must drop the fantasy of an ultra-discreet image and start living in the real world if they want to keep up with increasing competition. He says that when clients read about their lawyer it gives them that warm feeling of having hired the right man for the job. “Ten years ago we used to think this was something that should be avoided, as it was unprofessional,” says Swan. “But the world has changed, and people expect to see references to their lawyers in the trade press – they like to think their lawyers are experts who are being consulted.”

While most lawyers argue that coverage in the legal press does little to bring in clients, they recognise its importance in terms of their image within the profession. They do, however, argue that certain publications seem to exist purely to exploit lawyers' egomania.

Swan asserts that trade press coverage is leading to more and better quality clients for the firm. Lovell White Durrant's head of business Michael Belford, who recently hired Citigate to handle Lovells' PR, predicts that firms which shy away from the press will ultimately damage themselves. “That's not what their clients would want, and it's not the way to operate in this day and age,” he claims.

While many firms prefer to keep all promotional activities in-house, some go for the external route, usually combining it with a fairly sophisticated in-house operation. A good example of this approach is national firm Eversheds, where Simon Slater, director of UK and international business development, works alongside PR firm Fishburn Hedges.

Many law firms are still unsophisticated in dealing with the media, believes Slater, who concedes that in the past even Eversheds has been guilty of overplaying media activity, largely due to the firm's massive size and geographical spread. He says: “Clearly, regarding the development of the legal profession, we're increasingly open, but equally we want to be seen to be making intelligent comment rather than bombarding the media with sound bites.”

John Hartle, head of marketing at Field Fisher Waterhouse, remembers how, when he started, several partners at the firm were in danger of being seen by the media as “rent-a-quotes”. Determined to stop partners speaking to the press in an unfocused way, he established a quality not quantity ethos. “There are some law firms which will issue a press release on anything, but I make sure that doesn't happen here,” he says. “It affects the firm's brand if you are being associated with minor matters.”

Paul Bowden, head of Freshfields' environment practice, also warns against too much slack talk. “There's a legitimate interest among clients and the public in learning how legal areas are developing and how lawyers are meeting client demands, but you can get yourself in a situation, particularly in litigation, where you can say too much to the press. The real danger is where client confidentiality, which is part of the package we sell to clients, is undermined, and that in the long term is not going to do the profession as a whole any good,” he says.

According to Sandra Hewett, of Sandra Hewett Media Relations, environmental law is one area where law firms are slowly beginning to see the possibilities of using the press for what she calls “campaigning”.

“A couple of firms have caught on to it, on the plaintiff side,” she says. “But it's not manipulative, it's very hard to get the national press interested and, once they are, these things tend to run away with themselves.”

Lawyers have only been able to advertise for a relatively short time – some 13 years – and so corporate communications is still in its infancy. At the moment there are very few PR consultancies working with law firms because, as Slater says, “law firms do not know what they want the agencies to do, and very few know how to get good value from them”. The fact that law firms are new to PR and often suspicious of media relations can have other effects. One PR source admits that law firms are probably the most unpopular and difficult clients to work with.

At the Bar, many chambers have flirted with the idea of talking to a PR company, and some have even engaged one, but they have generally ended up giving it the elbow. Robert Ralphs, joint senior clerk at One Essex Court, thinks this situation has arisen because, by their nature, “barristers would rather slit their wrists than get involved in promotional activities”.

Although One Essex Court is not frightened of promoting itself – most notably by employing two clerks who are adept at handling the media, and by sponsoring The Times Law Awards – Ralphs points out that the best PR the chambers can undertake is to “answer the 2,000 calls that come in here every day in a friendly way, and to give the clients the results that they want”.

Sue Stapely, of Fishburn Hedges, agrees that brand building is fast becoming key to law firms' survival. “All the research shows that one of the major factors affecting lawyers' clients is the familiarity and comfort factor, and the only way you can get this sort of brand awareness is to do some sophisticated marketing,” she says.

Commercial survival is uppermost in the minds of most lawyers and, the PR companies argue, is exactly why they should think seriously about media relations. Slater says: “Lawyers should stop being so arrogant and recognise the opportunities for having an interesting dialogue, not only with journalists but through them with a wider audience.”