To Get More Clients, Law Firms Should `Press` Their Case

03.15.02
By Elizabeth Lampert & Kate Casey Foley
Published in Washington Business Journal

It almost doesn`t matter whether 2002 turns out to be a boom or a bust. For law firms, competition and consolidation will mean ever-more serious marketing and business development challenges in any event.

Suddenly, media coverage is no longer a luxury.

Even in the global markets—in fact, especially in the global markets—lawyers are earnestly struggling to get quoted by newspapers, magazines and wire services. Media recognition is becoming a "need to have," not a "nice to have."

The power of the press to confer expertise on lawyers is a decisive factor in all markets, from Singapore to St. Louis.

However, most lawyers aren`t sure how to establish themselves as bona fide gurus in their field, and, quite frankly, they don`t completely understand or trust reporters.

"Lawyers too often focus on the ins and outs of a new law or rehash the back-and-forth volley of a case in the courtroom," says Deborah McMurray, a Texas-based strategic marketing consultant to the legal profession. "Take the 30,000-foot view and ask the questions, `What is my firm`s message and how can I tie it to what`s meaningful to a reader about this issue?` Lawyers, in their desire to be accurately quoted, frequently forget the firm strategy that is driving them to be in the media in the first place."

Public relations practitioners and legal professionals historically have shared an uneasy alliance. Because attorneys are concerned with nuances and how their utterances are reported, they have a healthy, but often crippling, awareness of the potentially negative consequences of an inadequately worded sound bite.

For media consultants, it`s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, lawyers are tough customers. On the other hand, the demand is palpable, for media training, targeted press placements or help in establishing credible relationships with reporters.

No to "No Comment"

"There are so many available sources that you typically only get one shot to build a relationship with a reporter," says Brian Colucci, communications manager at law firm Fenwick & West in Palo Alto, Calif. "We emphasize the importance of responding to reporters in a timely manner—even if you are not particularly eager to comment. We tell our lawyers that `no comment` is not an acceptable response and that if they want to be considered a viable source for information, they should, at the very least, acknowledge the call and point the reporter in the right direction or volunteer to go `on background.` "

Especially for litigation firms, "no comment" is no longer a responsible option. More cases are becoming part of the American consciousness and are creating a tangible frenzy. Above all, reporters are much more savvy. Many of them are now trained lawyers and far more aware of specific cases and of the profession itself. Yesterday`s excuse that legalspeak cannot translate to the general public no longer fits.

Law firms are learning to realistically weigh the benefits of press relations.

In a global market, recognition in the media is one step in establishing a significant presence in new cities, not just to attract clients, but to establish relations with other attorneys as well.

A lawyer at a major firm in, say, London is more likely to listen to overtures from a U.S. firm that Legal Business or Legal Week or the local trades think is important enough to quote.

Putting a new face on spin

Law firms are no longer as skeptical about the value of spin as they were as recently as the mid-1990s. Sizable marketing teams now work hand-in-glove with their firms` outside strategic advisers.

Again, we see the delayed but nonetheless powerful effect of the 24-year-old landmark Supreme Court decision in Bates that eased restrictions on attorney advertising. The floodgates opened, and PR as well as market research and branding are part of the deluge.

In this environment, major public events are inexorable cues to gear up the marketing machine.

Yesterday`s Y2K is today`s 9/11. Some of the marketing in these situations may be defensive, as major firms play monkey-see-monkey-get-quoted on the legal implications of epochal events. Other firms are more proactive, scouting out areas of media interest in advance of the competition.

Media attention can create a lasting perception of a firm in the marketplace, strengthen the morale within its walls, and allow leaders to emerge. Most of all, media attention can support sustained profits.

For law firms, the No. 1 priority is "attitude." They must abandon their hostility to the press even as they maintain a sober wariness, and a constant vigilance about what they can and cannot say.

And as part of that attitude they must welcome not just the business-development potential of a media relations program but also the opportunity to participate as they never have before in the constant back-and-forth of lively public discourse.

Elizabeth Lampert is executive vice president of Levick Strategic Communications, a Washington-based media consulting firm exclusively serving the legal profession. Kate Casey Foley is a senior account executive. E-mail: Elampert@ Levick.com, kcfoley@levick.com.

Deborah McMurray is a strategic marketing consultant to the legal industry. She can be reached at 214.351.9690 or mcmurray@contentpilot.net.

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