PR challenge: Working with Big Law

Why work with the touchy clients in the legal profession? Joshua Peck offers a few reasons.

Legal clients can be a handful, but there are benefits to working with them. (Photo credit: Getty Images).
Legal clients can be a handful, but there are benefits to working with them. (Photo credit: Getty Images).

Imagine your client is a world-class beverage company about to announce the release of an exciting new cherry-lime flavor bomb that will take over the soda universe when it launches. Your executives are primed to talk about it to the media, right?

Now, you're at an academic medical center and your surgeons are on the cusp of delivering a new technology in organ transplants to the first eager patient. Your doctors are ready to talk up the discovery, right?

Or now you're the spokesperson for a major international law firm. A federal judge is about to issue her decision in a bet-the-farm case. A favorable result will not only save your high-tech client from destruction, but give it a distinct advantage over its main rival in the space.

But your lawyers may well insist you abstain from bragging, because the judge won't like it; the opposition may use what you say on appeal; or a shareholder may take exception to "his lawyers" showboating.

Says the managing partner to his trusty PR sidekick: "We'll take a statement under consideration." The headlines hit, with no sign of the lawyers who won the case. Another day of invisibility.

Major corporate law firms hired their first public relations professionals as early as the 1970s, but didn't do much with them for at least a decade. As in other industries that were unsophisticated about the media, law firms tended to be in reactive mode; they almost never engaged proactively with the media until the 1990s, when the late Howard Rubenstein in New York, and the late Jay Jaffe in Washington, among others, began to represent corporate law firms. Even then, many were reluctant to fully "play ball."

Now, law firms routinely use in-house and outside professionals. They often pay in-house staff better than other industries and interact regularly and eagerly with the specialized press—ALM (American Lawyer Media), Law360, individual city legal papers, the legal reporters at American City Business Journals, Bloomberg and Reuters—and, when the story is big enough, with The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The New Yorker. Most of the large PR firms have at least a few legal clients, and there are a dozen or so boutiques around the country that do little else.

The challenges are substantial not only with lawyer clients who can't or won't talk, but the sense among some media that the "real" stories are elsewhere. The Wall Street Journal used to have an unofficial policy to avoid mentioning law firms, even where a lawyer was quoted; that's softened, but the mindset is still out there.
So, why work with these touchy clients at Big Law? Well, the money can be good; seasoned, senior PR pros at the most profitable firms earn upward of $200,000 a year. And the work, if you like that sort of thing, is interesting. Every industry and business issue crosses the threshold of a major law firm. For PR people with wide interests and continuing curiosity, the law is ever-changing and intellectually stimulating.

Best of all, once the lawyers get to know you, you can achieve that golden standard of "trusted adviser." You'll help your firm or your clients with their worst reputational crises, get involved with firm clients' woes and successes and can often deal with the biggest business, social, and even political issues before the nation.

Not bad for a specialty that barely existed 30 years ago.

Joshua Peck is the owner of Joshua Peck Legal Communications and the founder of Law Firm Media Professionals.

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