It’s hard to reconcile the face of legal PR today with how it all began. The relaxation of rules allowing lawyers to advertise in the ‘80s and the ongoing deregulation that allowed the profession’s development also paved the way for significant changes in PR and communications for the legal industry.
When I started my career in legal PR over 20 years ago, in-house legal PR practitioners were rare. Only a handful of law firms had in-house PRs, PR managers or directors. Today, walk into any Top 100 law firm and you will find an internal PR function.
In many top-tier law firms, the PR function will be made up of senior legal professionals who have a seat at the Management table, alongside key boardroom decision-makers.
How has all this happened?
Laws on legal sector advertising were relaxed in 1986 which meant that, for the first time, law firms were able to gain greater visibility in the marketplace. Naturally, the ability to promote themselves has meant law firms thinking more and more about PR.
Legal PR is a branch of consumer and corporate PR in that it touches on every area of professional and business life. Given the types of issues the wider sector to which it belongs deals with daily, legal PR could be viewed as a niche and specialist area of PR. But it is one that reaches into a vast array of different news outlets and publications.
The evolution of law firm communications opened the door further to PR in 2007, when a suite of new legislation was brought about by the Legal Services Act. Deregulation, especially law firms’ new ability to float on the stock market and the possibility for the emergence of alternative business structures, has led to increased competition across the board. Gone are the days of the law firm as, first and foremost, a law firm; all law firms are businesses now.
Since long before 2007, legal services have had to evolve with the times. Just as the commercial world has been scrambling to keep up with the increasing inter-connectedness of economies in the era of globalisation and the acceleration of a new arena of possibilities wrought by new technologies, law firms have had to race to keep abreast with the changes in legislation these paradigmatic shifts have caused.
Law firms have become increasingly international in their outlook, as reflected by their global clients, by the many cross-jurisdiction mergers as well as global alliances that have been formed in recent years.
And over the last 10 years, the nature of this race has fundamentally changed. It’s not just that competition has risen. Now, with alternative business structures, competitors come in many shapes and sizes.
Notably, the Big Four’s presence continues to press on the perimeter of the legal sector, ramping up the pace at which law firms invest in innovation, incubators and legal tech solutions.
So what does all this mean for legal PR?
Essentially, law firms are becoming more brand conscious and investing more in profile raising activities to grow their reputations and gain attention among the audiences that matter to them.
Law firms’ cultures are having to change as expectations of younger generations and clients change. Millennials have held to account the cultures of law firms, prompting new, widespread reviews of behavioural ethics, especially in terms of diversity and inclusion. All types of organisations have had to ensure all other organisations they work with match their values, to avoid reputational damage.
To understand their brands, law firms have had to revisit the indivisible fundamentals of what makes their profiles and reputations what they are: their people, their clients and client service and their expertise. And by extension, their financial strengths, CSR policies, lateral hires, and rankings.
And so the legal PR’s role still fundamentally revolves around media relations — getting your firm into the Financial Times, The Times, The Telegraph, targeting legal journalists on key titles, making opportunities out of personal finance and weekend media — but it’s increasingly bringing into the mix content as a tool for raising the online presences of firms.
The PR world has expanded beyond media relations. Indeed, PRs now use digital, social media and content to secure opportunities for publication and broadcast as well as amplify key messages. And legal PRs are investing more and more time in thought leadership, for example large-scale reports on areas affecting law firm clients, to cement their lawyers as experts.
To use this expanded set of media well, the legal PR must have a certain combination of skills and qualities, including a keen interest in current affairs, an awareness of the issues affecting all types of commercial organisation and a readiness to translate today’s issues into opportunities for legal commentary that are mutually beneficial for lawyers who want to promote their expertise and journalists who want to add clarity to stories.
Legal PRs must also be fully synchronised with the debates and trends in the legal sector and the macro level of the political process, which ultimately affects the laws with which we must comply in business and personal life. Then the opportunities really begin to make themselves known. Not just in newspapers, trade and legal publications, but also via national TV and radio.
And, ultimately, as reputation comes up the agenda of law firms, the PR’s role is not just about gaining positive news coverage: law firms have brand identities which they must live and breathe, and when things go wrong, the legal PR must be there to work on mitigating impact to their firm’s reputation.
The legal PR must be the firm’s first point of contact in a crisis: they must be able to work closely with the firm’s management and key spokespeople within the form to orchestrate a careful, timely and effective response to issues and crises as they emerge.
It is within the context of these developments, then, that the role of the legal PR has become as nuanced, and as challenging, as it has. But just as this new practice’s inherent peculiarities make it what it is, they also define its necessity.
The PRCA Legal PR Guide equips you with the essential knowledge for you to become a better PR in an ever-changing industry – from how to create effective thought leadership to how to measure success, and from how to work with legal journalists to how to manage a crisis.
Its contributors include directors of business development and senior marketing and communications specialists at leading UK law firms, legal editors at national newspapers and partners.
The advice and insights within the pages that follow are steeped in hands-on experience at the top of our industry, conveniently collected so that you can make the most of the opportunities (and confront the challenges) that lie ahead.