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Communications

Should Your Law Firm Comment on Current Events? Start With a Framework

By Katherine Hollar Barnard

Between the divisive nature of 2024 politics and the volatility of social media, the issue of when and whether to comment on current events is a struggle for many lawyers and law firms. To be sure, lawyers are at the forefront of current events, from SCOTUS cases to legislation to candidates for public office. For them, legal commentary is part of the job.

commenting on current events

Where Commenting on Current Events Gets Trickier for Lawyers

Where it gets trickier: Lawyers who are not directly involved in the fray, and yet who are looked to for perspective as civic leaders, corporate citizens and employers. Indeed, 70% of consumers want to know what the brands they support are doing to address social and environmental issues, and 73% say their expectations around social responsibility are the same for small companies as for large companies.

Meanwhile, 80% of the Gen Z workforce — your next generation of associates and professional staff — say social advocacy is important for employers.

Staying silent — whether on social media, in the press or even around the office — is becoming less of a viable option, but to react reflexively to the issue of the day risks a variety of hazards, from angry clients to the horror of “going viral.”

While you cannot anticipate every possible headline, you can ensure that your commentary is strategic and consistent. First, you can learn to anticipate issues with a PESTLE analysis and then apply “pre-made decisions” to keep you focused.

The PESTLE Analysis and Framework

The PESTLE framework will help you determine topics that could be relevant and merit a comment — and which don’t — and start to outline prudent responses.

Participants may vary depending on your firm. Ensure, however, that you consider a variety of viewpoints, from public relations to legal ethics to diversity and inclusion to risk management. If your law firm has multiple locations, consider doing a PESTLE analysis on each, as the politics and dynamics will be very different.

Step by step, a PESTLE analysis means reviewing your context and anticipating issues through six lenses:

1. Political

It’s shaping up to be an incredibly contentious election year — to the point that a simple statement encouraging people to vote could be controversial. Look up and down the ballot and think through the ramifications. For example, a ballot question about public funding for a sports stadium could seem positive, yet hold negative consequences for certain landowners — some of which the firm might represent. Remember that your firm’s political donations are public record, as are those of your key partners. Additionally, take note: Is the firm officially involved with the election, such as with an election law practice, supplying election monitors, a lawyer from the firm running for office, representing PACs, or in other ways? It’s important that messaging and actions don’t contradict.

2. Economic

Consider macro issues, such as inflation and the will-we-won’t-we recession discussion. Does your practice touch bankruptcies, foreclosures or evictions? Do your clients? At larger firms, anticipate the annual associate salary headlines, as well as potential rate increase chatter; how would you explain your position internally or to a reporter?

3. Social

The list could be long — wage inequality, diversity and inclusion, #MeToo. A key here is to make sure messaging honors a variety of beliefs, as even a small firm is not a monolith, and your clients will have strong feelings as well.

4. Technological

While this is particularly relevant for IP practices, several tech issues have dominated the news of late. Firms may get questions about AI, whether they use it, and whether it has displaced associates or staff. Any responses given must be congruent with outside counsel guidelines and the expectations of the firm’s malpractice insurance. Another consideration: More than a quarter of law firms in 2022 experienced at least a minor data breach. Are you ready to navigate one?

Think through the legal and regulatory issues likely to surface in the next 12 months. That can include matters before the U.S. Supreme Court or state legislative issues; debates are ongoing in various chambers on gender-affirming care, reproductive rights and immigration. How will you handle what could be controversial work (or controversial clients), and how will you handle requests to be an expert source for headline cases?

6. Environmental

This is of particular importance for firms with environmental practices, but all firms should consider it. Are you posting on Earth Day but known to represent coal companies? Are you aware of your clients’ ESG policies and how you measure up? People pay attention to incongruity; already, 88% of Gen Zers don’t trust companies’ ESG claims.

Pre-Made Decisions for Commenting on Current Events

Once you know the types of issues that could come up relevant to your practice and your geography, set some parameters:

  • What issues will we actively comment on? These should be relevant to your firm, your practice and your community, issues that do not conflict with your clients or your track record, and issues on which you are a credible contributor to the discourse.
  • What types of issues will you not comment on? This list should always include those that put you in a conflict with an active client or otherwise run afoul of the Rules of Professional Conduct. This also can include issues that are not in your proverbial sphere of influence; for example, no one is expecting a lawyer in Kansas City to be commenting on elections in Florida.
  • What types of issues will we seek expert guidance on? Even the best PESTLE analysis can’t equip you to predict every type of event, nor is every opportunity to comment on current events cut and dried. Some high-stress, low-trust situations may require additional insight, whether from a professional responsibility lawyer, a PR professional, an employment lawyer — or all three.

Outlining these parameters in advance will keep you from communicating inconsistently — or worse, from making a public comment in the heat of the moment.

Read: “7 Key Tips for Communicating in a Client Business Crisis.”)

Formalize your framework and put it in writing.

In larger firms, share your framework on the intranet so it’s readily accessible. (And convenient to reference when someone asks why the firm didn’t post anything about the issue of the day.)

Again, you cannot anticipate every possible event or reaction to it. But by identifying key trends, drafting thoughtful ground rules, and engaging with purpose, you will not only avoid negative fallout but also build trust through authentic and thoughtful communication.

Image © iStockPhoto.com.

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Katherine Hollar Barnard Katherine Hollar Barnard

Katherine (Katie) Hollar Barnard is the managing partner of Firesign | Enlightened Legal Marketing, a marketing communications agency that focuses on law firms and legal services providers. A former Big Law CMO, she advises law firms and legal service providers on brand identity, marketing communications and more. Follow Katie on LinkedIn.

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