Many lawyers, at both large law firms and small, engage outside public relations firms to help with any number of business objectives: to call attention to themselves in general, to attract lateral partners and associates, to look good in front of competitors and colleagues, and, perhaps most importantly, as one element of business development.
Larger firms usually have their own inside public relations director. But even there, outside public relations firms or communications firms are sometimes used to help send messages, deal with volume, and handle special situations — new practice groups, a big litigation victory or a big deal, a merger or acquisition. Most of all, whether inside or outside, your PR person can help you develop lasting relationships with outside audiences, especially, but not limited to, the press.
Used well, your outside public relations firm can pay for itself with the additional attention it can draw.
Several specialty PR firms and professionals around the country have been working exclusively or almost exclusively with lawyers for decades. They know your business. And yet, lots can go wrong, too. In brief, I’d like to share how to use your PR firm — and how to avoid common mistakes that can easily be averted.
Make a Big Deal About the RIGHT Thing
It’s very nice that your church named you Woman of the Year, that you were one of 10,000 SuperLawyers in your state (and 200 in your practice area), or that your firm won the all-county softball trophy. Announcing it may not be a good use of your public relations firm’s time or your money. For one thing, that’s news you can easily share yourself; you don’t need their expertise. There are templates online for a basic press release. If you don’t overdo the release with detail, you can do it yourself in 10 minutes.
Where your PR firm can really help you is by calling attention appropriately to truly exceptional matters or by talking to the media about complex, controversial or even critical (read: crisis) matters. A new partner joining you from a rival might be such a situation; a big win in court or a deal room certainly is.
Find News Where There Doesn’t Seem to Be Any
Free story idea: A partner has a strong view about the legal issues pertaining to some newish tech industry, like fintech or self-driven cars. Soothsayers are predicting outcome “X” when the first issue arrives in your court, but your lawyer thinks they have it wrong. That’s a great opportunity to connect with the press, expose a reporter to this alternate view and then, presumably, capitalize on the interest and entrepreneurship of readers who think your lawyer’s argument “nails it.”
And another: Run-of-the-mill honors and activities are one thing, but a lawyer who truly excels at some difficult field of endeavor outside the firm may be a story your public relations firm can sell to great advantage. Look for the tennis champion, the virtuoso violinist, the LGBT rights activist, or the septuagenarian conquering the Appalachian Trail; that’s a story that can take wing, and you’ll be surprised at how it might translate into business. I have seen it firsthand, many times over.
Let your PR firm guide you as to when you should and should not be in touch with the major general, legal or business journalists in your city or town. But suffice it to say that not every itch for attention should be scratched.
“Hey, Look at Me!”
As I’ve suggested, vanity is one reason lawyers engage PR firms. It’s not the best reason, though. If you’ve hired a firm to hype you up, absent real achievement, that relationship isn’t going to last long. They’re not going to succeed, and you’re not going to like their work for you.
Reporters are busy people — possibly busier than you are. One I know well writes some 15 to 20 stories a week. If they get the sense you’re wasting their time, they’re not only going to ignore you this time, they may stop answering your calls or emails at all.
Let yourself be guided by professionals who know what is and is not likely to be perceived as a real story. Which leads me to …
Take “No” for an Answer
You’re an expert at employment law (or corporate or complex litigation or immigration or animal rights). You hired a PR person or firm because they’re the experts at shaping a message and approaching the press. Allow them, even encourage them, to tell you when you’re about to step in it. That “SuperLawyer” press release may make you look silly. If your PR rep says he’d rather not send it and asks when you next expect to have a substantive matter far better for approaching the press, he’s not lazy. He has your interests in mind, and coincidentally his own. Good PR professionals want reporters to see them as only contacting them with worthwhile material. As a client, you benefit from that mutual respect between PR pro and journalist.
So, accept their guidance with a grimace if you must, or with a smile, if you know what’s good for you.
The relationship between lawyers and their PR agents has been tried in many different ways, with a wide range of results. But it isn’t hard to find top lawyers who credit a new client (or five or 10) to the excellent story their PR counsel placed about their last big deal. You can be the next lawyer in line to be that “lucky” — if you play your PR cards well.
Find the right people, and let them do their thing.