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
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
‘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
In his Bar Council role McLeod receives frequent requests to interview
these ‘personality’ lawyers from media as diverse as women’s magazines
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
‘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