The laws of legal PR

It was only 30 years ago, 1977, when the Supreme Court case, Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, first allowed the nation's law firms to advertise.

It was only 30 years ago, 1977, when the Supreme Court case, Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, first allowed the nation's law firms to advertise.

"Advertising, the traditional mechanism in a free-market economy for a supplier to inform a potential purchaser of the availability and terms of exchange, may well benefit the administration of justice," reads the court decision.

Today, law firm advertising is widespread. And with an industry full of legal professionals willing to share what they know, law firms are also actively using PR to inform potential purchasers of the depth and breadth of their attorneys' expertise.

The legal industry generates big money, with The American Lawyer's May issue reporting that 11 firms exceeded $1 billion in revenues for 2006. A slew of others climbed over $400 million for the year. While law firms are willing to put money in their PR budgets, their investment won't be on the level with a large PR firm's prominent corporate clients. As such, many of the top PR firms don't do much work with law firms.

"It takes a certain kind of personality to get used to the pace of working with lawyers and to understand the issues in order to make you an effective advocate," says John Hellerman, co-founder and co-principal at Hellerman Baretz, a PR agency that does the majority of their work with law firms. "Law firms haven't become a commodified service. Other companies can create branding or marketing campaigns that focus on the service. Day-to-day PR [for the legal field] is driven by practitioners; marketing their results and positioning them as thought leaders."

While law firms are willing invest a certain amount of those hefty revenues in their PR efforts, these budgets don't match the money being spent by a larger firm's big corporate clients.

"They can't get services for what they're willing to pay," says Hellerman. An often-heard grievance is that larger PR agencies charge junior-level staff members to work with law firm clients.

"The senior partners we deal with in a firm want to know that their consultants are on a peer-level with them," Hellerman continues. "But I also think they have tremendous respect for a [lower-level] practitioner that can generate the results they desire or expect."

And law firm clients are tracking that progress closely, putting pressure on the PR agencies they've hired to prove that the job is getting done.

"You're measured much more when you work for a law firm than when you work for a corporation," says Gene Grabowski, SVP at Levick Strategic Communications, a firm that has represented many of the nation's top law firms over the past 12 years. "[For] every bit of publicity, you have to have in the back of your head that it's at least, in part, business development. They're looking for a direct return on their marketing."

To that end, lawyers aim to appear on some of the industry's notable lists, including the AmLaw 100, the list of the top 100 law firms (in terms of gross revenues) in the country published by The American Lawyer, or win an award, such as the Litigation Department of the Year, also presented by that magazine. And, of course, they want to be quoted in articles. However, conflict issues affect what attorneys can say.

"We're definitely cautious," says Grabowski. "There are certain things that they can comment on and certain things they can't and you have to appreciate that."

Law firm PR strategy isn't all lists and quotes. Hellerman says that speaking engagements and seminars are important, as are small briefings that allow lawyers to address topics that would be off limits in mass media outlets.

For Levick, the Anna Nicole Smith case presented a mainstream opportunity for the private wealth attorneys they work with.

"We chose to pitch select entertainment and tax reporters with well-respected outlets and offer our attorneys to weigh in on the ‘estate debate,' and avoid media considered too ‘tabloid,'" writes Aimee Steel, VP at Levick, in an e-mail. "As a result, we saw placements in the Associated Press, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Orlando Sentinel, E Online, and, probably most notable, NBC Nightly News."

One of Hellerman Baretz's clients, Ford & Harrison, a labor and employment firm, works with M. Lee Smith, a company that publishes HR newsletters, to create a blog, That's What She Said.  The site tackles some of the labor and employment issues that turn up on the hit television show The Office.

"Our firm is serious and takes our clients seriously, but is a light-hearted firm," says Lynne Donaghy, director of marketing for Ford & Harrison. "We envisioned it was another way to get in front of our clients with the issues that they would be grappling with. It was a way to connect with clients and potential clients on a different level."

Donaghy says that, with 18 offices around the country, there's a push and pull to work PR angles on both a national and regional level. In addition, there's been a learning curve for the attorneys.

"It's never been difficult to get attorneys on board with a PR plan," Donaghy says. "You get one or two lawyers quoted and others see it and want the same treatment. It's just difficult to get them to provide us with information that's useful to publications and what a publication's readers would want to read about."

Even with the continued evolving sophistication of law firm PR and the demands of their attorney clients, the agency professionals that PRWeek spoke with were happy to be working on these accounts.

"When I can offer the top civil rights guy to a conference organizer, it's not like I have to sell that," says Hellerman. "We're really helping reporters and have experts [to] tell stories to the reader."

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