Law firms are increasingly using PR to help build reputation, enhance thought leadership, and attract prospects for new business.
In August 2008, Minneapolis-based law firm Faegre & Benson distributed a press release announcing the formation of its new food, agriculture, and biofuels group (FAB). After the announcement, the firm arranged media interviews during AgNite, a September agricultural gala that it co-sponsored during the Republican National Convention, to demonstrate the practice group's expertise.
“[FAB practice leaders] were able to start talking about the hot issues of the day, which at the time was commodity prices,” says Kathleen Leach, director of marketing for Faegre & Benson. “The articles that came out after AgNite set us up in a positive leadership light.”
More than 30 years ago, the Supreme Court case Bates v. State Bar of Arizona permitted lawyers to advertise their services. More recently, law firms have been using PR to accomplish a host of goals.
For many firms and their practitioners, taking a thought leadership position in specialty practice areas is chief among them. In addition, competition among firms, the media's need for expert commentary, and the chance to use media to reach a favorable conclusion to a case (or prevent bad publicity as the case is tried) has made PR more of a focus.
For the new FAB group, media outreach focuses on trade press in the agricultural and biofuel space, such as Feedstuffs and Pork Exec; regional business outlets; and other outlets covering farming issues.
“The people who can influence a decision... when it comes to [legal] representation are a tight group of leaders, and these are the things that they're reading,” Leach says.
The firm is also considering a move into social media to help establish its thought leadership position.
“We've been talking about social media, blogging, and Twitter,” she says. “If that's where our clients are... we've got to be part of the discussion. While I'm somewhat apprehensive... we [have to] go there.”
For guidance, Leach is turning to LaBreche, its PR firm for more than a year. Beth LaBreche, CEO of the firm, says the legal profession is perfectly positioned to use social media. But firms have to be cautious about not giving away their advice for free.
“That's their intellectual property,” she says. “Look at content that law firms already create... We're starting to create more traffic on information they've already produced for public consumption.”
A new approach
Last year, Perkins Coie identified its intellectual property (IP) and hotels and leisure groups as areas where the firm could differentiate itself. According to Lori Anger, client relations manager at Perkins Coie, the firm has taken a more proactive approach to brand itself in these two areas.
“[For the hotels and leisure group], we worked with heads of the practice to help get them out there – speaking at conferences... and helping them to become thought leaders at the forefront of that industry,” Anger says. The firm used the same tactics for its IP practice, she adds.
The hospitality industry has declined with the rest of the economy in recent months. Yet, PR has allowed the firm to be nimble enough to continue work with this industry by altering the message.
“We started at the height of opportunity and as the economy has gone down, we've shifted focus from talking about expertise of how to do deals and more into how to unwind them, bankruptcies, [etc],” says John Hellerman, partner and cofounder of Hellerman Baretz Communications, which has worked with Perkins Coie for more than a year.
PR is used not just on behalf of the firms themselves, but also in service to the cases they're litigating. Litigation communications can serve a vital role in achieving favorable outcomes for law firms and their clients.
“I have had a number of cases where... the story has appeared in the press or is going to appear in the press,” says Tom Hoopes, attorney with LibbyHoopes, a Boston-based law firm. “As a lawyer... you want to influence the press because you know [it] may impact the decision maker and the press may also impact the brand of the client.”
The firm has worked on about a dozen major cases with Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications. Joseph Baerlein, president of the agency, says that in cases in which he's worked with Hoopes, there were “daily meetings” to discuss communications strategy.
“Lawyers who [understand the importance of communications] are looking for advice on how to frame their position before it's public,” Baerlein says.
“With the advent of the Internet, [the media] is all pervasive,” Hoopes adds. “It can surround the case and impact it in all kinds of different ways.”
Just the facts
Media coverage can also surround an issue that is connected to a law firm, making PR a critical part of the effort to correct misperceptions.
Ogier is an offshore corporate and finance law firm and financial service provider with a presence in offshore jurisdictions like the Cayman Islands. Many believe that opening an offshore bank account and doing business in such locations is simple and unregulated. With criticism of doing business offshore coming from all sides, correcting that belief in this economic environment has gained importance.
“[We used to think], ‘We'll worry about our clients and not worry about what the rest of the world thinks,'” says Denise Gower, senior manager of business development and marketing at Ogier. “We can't live in that kind of environment [now], which is why PR is so important.”
Ogier and Makovsky & Co. are working to explain offshore legal services to various audiences.
“We [are] re-educating the general media about what offshore legal services are... about,” says Michael Goodwin, VP of financial and professional services at Makovsky. “We have to capitalize most on their expertise and intellectual capital.”
Going forward, as Faegre & Benson's Leach explains, law firms will have to venture increasingly into the digital space. While the thought does give many pause, there are still possible benefits for the legal industry.
“Social networking is going to have a... powerful effect on how lawyers become credentialed,” Hellerman says. “The lawyers and the marketers are becoming more savvy.”
Adds Perkins Coie's Anger: “It seems to me that because the news can be shared so easily, it's like being validated over and over again.”
How law firms use PR
Law firms are using PR to create awareness about a law firm, its practitioners, and expertise in a specialty practice area
Legal practitioners are enlisting PR pros to help present a case in the media, which can have an impact on the outcome in the courtroom
Law firms that work in controversial areas can use PR to help correct misperceptions in the media about a topic
The title in the print version of this story appears as "Courting attention."