ANALYSIS: MEDIA HANDLING; Keeping the law on the right side of the media

The increasing attention being paid to high profile court cases means that as well as knowing how to handle proceedings, lawyers are also having to learn to handle the media

The increasing attention being paid to high profile court cases means

that as well as knowing how to handle proceedings, lawyers are also

having to learn to handle the media

The Law Society’s new director of communications Barbara Calahane is a

brave woman.

Not only is she joining an organisation described by her predecessor Sue

Stapely as ‘a war zone’ following its internal bust-ups but she will be

representing an industry with a severe image problem.

In the popularity stakes, solicitors rank just above estate agents

according to The Law Society’s 1995 survey Client Perceptions, even

though 90 per cent of clients also said they were satisfied with the

service they received from their lawyer.

Part of the blame for this gap in public perception may lie with the

industry’s uneasy relationship with the media.

According to The Law Society’s media relations officer, David McNeill,

legal cases have always attracted press attention as they offer the

vital ingredients of drama, conflict and resolution.

But, he says, ambiguities over contempt of court regulations and the

proliferation of new media has meant law-related topics are being

covered more often, in more depth.

Most solicitors, says McNeill, are ill-equipped to cope with the

increased pressure, especially from the tabloid press.

The Law Society’s press office regularly receives calls from worried

solicitors who have, say, the News of the World in their waiting room.

As McNeill says, they are unable to judge that their client’s story may

attract media interest and often can do nothing but react with a ‘no

comment’ when it does.

In an effort to remedy the situation The Law Society has invited Max

Clifford to give a talk at next month’s conference of Local Law Society

PR Officers on how to identify human interest stories.

Jon McLeod, an account director at Westminster Strategy and chief press

officer for The Bar Council feels this failure to prepare for tabloid

interest arises from the ‘cultural gap’ between the law profession and

the public.

‘Professional lawyers read the Guardian or the Times,’ he says. ‘They

have less of an instinctive feeling for the type of story which

interests the tabloids.’

There are, however, a handful of skilled operators who deal with the

media direct, pro-actively using it to promote their client’s case, and

sometimes themselves.

In his Bar Council role McLeod receives frequent requests to interview

these ‘personality’ lawyers from media as diverse as women’s magazines

to Kilroy.

The Princess of Wales’ divorce lawyer Anthony Julius, nicknamed ‘the

Genius’ by the press, regularly shares the newspaper columns with his


On the downside, Frederick West’s former solicitor Howard Ogden appeared

in all the major newspapers when he was suspended for a year due to

‘unbecoming conduct’ in the case.

This is a business where solicitors can make or break their reputation

with one high profile case. But is self or client promotion compatible

with the justice system? Lord Chief Justice Taylor, who resigned in May,

spoke out against the use of the media to exploit criminal and other

civil law cases.

Solicitors are subject to a host of rules when talking to the media,

from contempt of court to the publicity code, which focuses mainly on

advertising but includes rules about publicity.

However, this does not mean a defendant has to stay silent from arrest

to trial.

‘It can be argued that it is the solicitors duty to ensure a balanced

point of view is put forward,’ says McNeill.

Stapely, author of Media Relations for Lawyers, agrees: ‘There is a

debate at the moment over whether it is at all appropriate for

solicitors to advocate clients to the media.’

‘The former Lord Chief Justice wished all solicitors to be gagged in the

same way that barristers are, but at present, provided they comply with

the court’s rules solicitors are free to talk to the media about their

clients’ cases,’ says Stapely.

Nick Pollard of law firm Kingsley Napley who represented Nick Leeson’s

wife Lisa, has written a guide on the subject entitled Law and the

Media, Pre-trial Publicity - a Practitioner’s Guide, which he presented

earlier this month at the Solicitors Annual Conference.

In it, he advises that ‘used carefully, the media can be very positive

to our clients, our firms and ourselves as individual practitioners’.

Pollard points out that PR has always been used by lawyers working on

City take-overs but says possessing media relations skills ‘is

increasingly becoming part of an all round service’.

Stapely agrees that lawyers who can handle the media are now in hot


‘Paula Yates chose Mark Stephens - who is not a specialist divorce

solicitor - because he is a skilled operator in media relations,’ says


‘Clients are not just seeking legal skills but also lawyers who have

media skills and can put a favourable spin on the case, if it is

reported,’ she adds.

However, Pollard warns that trying to manipulate the media to

communicate a positive message on behalf of a client is still something

best left to the professionals, so if unsure seek PR advice.

He ends: ‘We mustn’t get over confident and think we can do a public

relations job.’

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