News Analysis: Uneasy partnership of law and PR

As Clifford Chance stages a pitch for external PR support, Thomas Williams asks why PROs are not making more of the legal sector and investigates the climate in which law firms and their communicators operate.

Clifford Chance's decision to recruit an external PR adviser is the culmination of a two-year shake-up of its communications. The law company appointed former AWG head of corporate affairs Jeff Wagland to strengthen its PR function after allegations that tough targets had put New York-based associates under pressure to overcharge their clients. Wagland admits that the episode concentrated the minds of senior partners.

'That particular issue brought home how an organisation with our global footprint needs to manage its relationship with the media,' he says.

But the move to pitch for PR advice is also symptomatic of a growing realisation among law firms that they cannot ignore the media and increasingly need professional help.

'The legal press have become much more sophisticated over the last few years and both the Financial Times and The Times now have legal sections,' says Allen & Overy (A&O) head of PR Iain Rodger. 'The challenge is to explain to partners that PR does not stand for "press release".'

Difficult relationships

Despite this, however, the number of law firm accounts that PR agencies hold remains limited, and some of the legal companies that have chosen to get serious about PR instead of treating it as marketing's poor relation have preferred to keep press relations in-house.

Clifford Chance is fairly unusual among 'magic circle' firms - those that bill the most because they have the greatest concentration of banking and financial institutional clients - as it will be one of only two in five to have a retained PR agency (see box).

Wagland will not discuss Clifford Chance's pitch, but believes that PR firms have been more 'successful in the product work' they have done with law firms than in maintaining the kind of long-term relationship needed on a retainer.

Rodger is more direct in his explanation of A&O's no-agency policy, saying that he does not 'tend to hear ringing endorsements from other law firms about their experiences of working with PR firms'.

But the failure to build a successful relationship with law firms may in many ways have been inevitable. The partnership structure of law firms can mean that there is no single corporate message for an agency to sell or, worse still, no single point of contact.

This may also be compounded by the fact that partners and lawyers justifiably see themselves as experts in their field and therefore feel that they do not need any advice or an intermediary to communicate with the press.

To some extent, this is the attitude espoused by Slaughter and May, which, while it uses the Hogarth Partnership for strategic PR advice and networking, does not have its own PR department.

'The press tell us that they prefer to speak with the expert who actually worked on the transaction. We don't want journalists to feel that we are shielding ourselves from the press,' says Slaughter and May partner David Frank.

That said, some legal PR practitioners detect a shift, with an increasing amount of law firms adopting a board structure to improve the communication of their message and to make it easier for agencies to deal with them.

'You often get extremely knowledgeable and arrogant people disagreeing with your advice,' says Sandra Hewett, founder of legal PR firm Sandra Hewett Media Relations. 'But increasingly you can refer back to the firm's strategy at board level.'

Yet while PR and law firms are beginning to overcome the cultural differences that have hindered a growth of business in this area, the sector is probably unattractive to some PR agencies because of the lower fees that they can expect to receive.

While some legal PROs say that fees for work on special projects compare favourably with what they might expect to get from a large corporate, others complain that a PR firm cannot expect to receive more than £10,000 a month on retainer from most medium-sized law firms.

Media scrutiny

The other big issue that spoils the relationship between law firms and their PR companies goes back to a culture in law firms that seems unlikely to change. Legal companies such as accounting firms are coming under more press scrutiny in the wake of the Enron affair, but the highly sensitive nature of the areas in which they work, and the legal profession's dogmatic adherence to the principle of client confidentiality, are a real headache for legal PROs.

'Law firms work on lots of client-sensitive issues, so you can't just promote the fact that they are working on a particular case or deal,' says Grandfield account director and professional services group head Kristina Blissett. 'You often have to wait until the very last minute and, by the time you have got their client's approval, whatever you are trying to tell the media about them may be slightly old news.'

But as the nature of law firms and their activities change and come under further media scrutiny, something will have to give in their hitherto standoffish attitude to PR. Clifford Chance's pitch for PR advice could well point the way to the future.

THE PR MACHINES OF THE 'MAGIC CIRCLE'

- ALLEN & OVERY

Head of PR: Iain Roger

PR team: ten - three PROs in London, one in New York, one in Asia and one for each corporate, banking and capital markets practice. Two PROs work a combined practice brief

Agency policy: no external PR advice, though may suggest clients use specialist legal PR firms during high-profile litigation cases

- CLIFFORD CHANCE

Head of PR: Jeff Wagland

PR team: ten - three in London, three in Frankfurt, two in Paris and two in the US

Agency policy: uses Golin Harris in Asia, currently staging pitch for UK support

- FRESHFIELDS BRUCKHAUS DERINGER

Head of PR: Anna Mitchell

PR team: six - three in London, one in Asia, one in Germany, one in France

Agency policy: hires on a project basis

- LINKLATERS

Global head of comms: Gita Bartlett

PR team: three - one in London, one in Germany, one in Sweden

Agency policy: retained Financial Dynamics in 2000 during a series of mergers with other law firms. No support at present

- SLAUGHTER AND MAY

PR team: no in-house PR department or head of PR Agency policy: Hogarth Partnership retained since 1994.

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