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Leveraging the Internal Communications Function for External Clients

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

By John D. Tuerck and Heather F. Merton, Edwards Wildman Palmer LLP

A few years ago, a large financial services company called one of its outside lawyers, a partner at a large, well-regarded law firm, with a problem. The company was concerned about its prospects in a dispute over two valuable patents. In anticipation of litigation, the company wanted to cast doubt on the validity of the disputed patents, but it did not want to be associated publicly with the effort.1

The lawyer brought the problem to the attention of his firm’s head of communications, who worked in the law firm’s in-house marketing department. During a meeting, the lawyer and the head of communications devised an approach in which the lawyer would ask an intellectual property expert to draft an article criticizing the disputed patents. The head of communications, in turn, would work to place the article with a reputable publication. Since the article would be associated with the IP expert, a third party unassociated with the dispute, the company could achieve its goal of questioning the strength of the patents while keeping its hands clean.

Subsequently, the communications team pitched the article successfully to an editor at a publication with a large readership of lawyers at law firms and in the legal departments of large companies. The IP expert drafted the article, which was then reviewed by the company and its lawyer. The article was published, and the client was delighted.

Large law firms with in-house marketing and communications functions have long recognized the value and importance of positive public relations. Favorable media coverage in reputable publications demonstrates expertise and distinguishes law firms in a highly competitive market for high-end legal services.2 It also boosts name recognition, an important component of the effort to recruit lateral partners and help firms expand the range of services they offer.

At the same time, large law firms have been slower to leverage the capabilities of their in-house communications function forexternalclients like the financial services company in the anecdote above. This represents a missed opportunity, as there are several benefits to offering communications services to external clients.

  • Communications can serve either as a value-add to the client or a separate revenue stream for the firm.
  • In a market where it is difficult for large law firms to distinguish themselves from the competition, the ability to tout a communications function is a valuable marketing tool.
  • The ability to offer a readily available communications function saves clients time and energy in finding their own outside assistance.
  • In-house communications teams ensure consistency between the client’s external messages and litigation strategy.
DRIVING REVENUE – NOT DRAINING IT

Administrative departments, including marketing and communications, at large law firms are acutely aware that they are cost centers. Furthermore, hard experience ― as we saw in the recent and persistent economic downturn ― imparted the lesson that when the client work dries up, cost centers are the first to sustain layoffs and hiring freezes. In an age when every expense is scrutinized, marketing and communications functions are under intense pressure to demonstrate value.

Savvy communications teams recognize this dynamic and partner with their lawyers to help drive revenue. One way to drive revenue indirectly is to leverage the PR function as a business development tool. Take social media. Twitter, in particular, has enabled lawyers to showcase their expertise on market-moving developments in real time. For example, when the Dodd-Frank Act was announced, lawyers at one firm tweeted their first impressions of the landmark legislation instantaneously instead of relying on the time-consuming process of drafting and distributing a client alert. One potential client became aware of the tweets and expressed his gratitude to the firm for the lawyers’ clear and succinct breakdown of the legislation’s key provisions. The lawyers immediately followed up and were able to sign the new business. The lawyers would have been unaware of this untapped opportunity if the communications team had not prepared and executed a social media strategy on the Congressional announcement.

PR professionals also can drive revenue directly by establishing an in-house communications arm and charging the law firm’s clients for their services ― or, at a minimum, offering the service as a value-add to the legal advice. A number of large law firms have adopted similar models by offering ancillary services such as lobbying, consulting or accounting. Offering communications services to clients likewise provides the opportunity to drive revenue and enhance the portfolio of client services. As we will discuss below, offering an in-house communications function also offers several direct benefits to clients.

A DISTINCTION WITH A DIFFERENCE

Competition in the legal industry, particularly among large law firms charging premium rates, is fierce. Law firms are always seeking new ways to stand out. Offering potential clients the resources of a savvy and knowledgeable communications team is akin to a venture capitalist proffering access to their connections.

A law firm’s communications team can assist clients in a variety of ways, from coordinating PR strategy for pending litigation to highlighting a success story in a firm blog. They can interview clients for Q&As on their origin, mission and long-term objectives, which can be used as media pitches or for internal newsletters. The communications team can coordinate with its in-house library staff to help a client research a competitor, industry news or issue. They can advise clients on potential pitfalls if they receive a press query and whether a media opportunity is worth the time and effort. In summary, the communications department serves as an extension of a law firm’s core legal services: counseling a client on how to operate most effectively.

Take, for example, a recent employment dispute involving two boutique distilleries. The dispute centered on an employee who had left one distillery for another. The defendant distillery had a compelling story to tell and wanted to exert public pressure on the plaintiff. The defendant distillery’s lawyer appreciated the value of media coverage and consulted with his in-house PR team for assistance. The PR team identified several prominent publications and blogs, crafting messages and contacting editors to tell the defendant’s story. The litigation soon settled, and the client was pleased.

Law firms can also distinguish themselves by offering communications services to their pro bono clients. As is often the case with smaller and startup companies, many pro bono organizations cannot afford to dedicate the time, resources and effort to a marketing and communications function. Once again, the communications team can serve as an extension of the services which their lawyer is already providing. They will often help a firm’s a pro bono client by drafting and distributing press releases and coordinating interviews. The team can also work closely with the pro bono client and lawyers to draft a bylined article and secure the placement in a targeted media publication.

In 2011, one large law firm was involved in the same pro bono project as one of its paying clients. The focus of the project was teaching children in inner city schools important business and professional skills by producing a business plan for a professional sports franchise. The law firm’s communications department was brought on board to interview the pro bono organization handling the project and pitch reporters on the story. Two local reporters were interested, and they interviewed representatives from both the pro bono project and the paying client. The ensuing publicity reflected very favorably on the pro bono organization and the law firm’s paying client.

A CONVENIENT TRUTH

Large corporations often have their own in-house marketing teams, or outside public relations agencies on retainer, to handle their media or crisis-communications needs. Startups and mid-size companies, however, often lack such resources. For those companies, the sudden need for public relations advice, or crisis counsel arising from the prospect of messy litigation, adds an unwelcome dimension to expensive, high-stakes litigation.

In an all-too typical scenario, a company recognizes a need for communications counsel and scrambles to locate outside PR assistance. The company quickly learns, however, that identifying and vetting a reputable agency or consultant under a tight deadline is challenging. Sifting through proposals, interviewing agencies, obtaining testimonials ― often after a crisis or litigation has started, with reporters imposing impossibly short deadlines ― is stressful and frustrating. Agencies often attempt to upsell their potential clients with add-on services such as communications audits and writing collateral materials, increasing the hassle for the company’s dedicated liaison. In addition, it takes time for the agency staff to ramp up and become acquainted with the underlying issue.

A law firm offering a capable, at-the-ready communications team neatly bypasses this time-consuming process. The company’s lawyers, already acquainted with the players and how the company wants to position itself externally, can quickly bring the communications team up to speed on any issues or concerns. The in-house communications team is in a position whereby they can advise on all aspects of a media strategy, ranging from which publications to target and to how to fine-tune corporate messaging to ensure that a reporter is receptive to a pitch.

In addition, a communications team at a law firm has access to media tools and resources that a startup cannot afford. For example, one entrepreneurial client wished to send out a targeted release to a niche trade audience. It would have taken hours of research to identify the relevant publications and even longer to track down the contact information for specific reporters. However, the law firm communications team was able to generate the list in under an hour, complete with background information on the publications and individual journalists. The company was grateful for this assistance and told their lawyer how responsive the law firm’s communications team was to their needs.

Another startup client needed to issue a news release over the wire to satisfy public disclosure requirements. The client called on a Friday afternoon, panicking because they didn’t have a wire account and had no idea how a release was “sent on a wire.” The lawyer called the firm’s in-house media relations department for guidance. The department had an account with a major wire service and issued the release with a few simple clicks. Problem solved.

ALIGNING PR AND LITIGATION STRATEGIES

No PR problem or crisis is pleasant, but some are more unpleasant than others. The daily news is filled with stories about a flight attendant becoming irate at a passenger or a fast-food employee taking an impromptu bath in the dishwashing area. Such stories require immediate action, and PR firms specializing in crises have wide latitude in pursuing a remedy.

When litigation becomes a factor, however, the complexity increases immeasurably. The parties can be severely constrained in what they can or can’t say. They must be confident that any public posture will not harm their prospects in the legal dispute. They have to reconcile the tension between today’s media, which work at light speed, with the careful, deliberate approach of lawyers.

In-house communications teams at large law firms, unlike outside PR counsel brought in at the last minute, are ideally situated to align the communications strategy with the legal strategy. In-house teams are familiar with the dynamics of working closely with lawyers. For their part, lawyers feel more comfortable discussing litigation strategy with in-house employees, as opposed to outside agencies with whom they have no relationship.

Take, for example, the anecdote at the beginning of this article ― the financial services company in the patent dispute. From its perch in the law firm, the communications team was familiar with the type of dispute in which the client was involved. The team knew where and how to pitch the article. The team also was prepared for the difficulty of shepherding the article through the intensive editing process by the lawyers while meeting the publication’s deadline. It would have been an entirely different scenario with an outside PR firm.

CLIENTS: THE BEST ADVOCATES FOR THE VALUE OF COMMUNICATIONS

The communications function is a valuable resource for lawyers and their clients. At a minimum, it serves as a compelling value-add to the client. In some instances, it can provide a separate revenue stream for the firm. Bringing the communications function to bear for the benefit of its clients distinguishes a law firm from the competition. And it saves time and energy for clients, who benefit from having a media strategy in perfect alignment with their litigation strategy.

Even so, some lawyers will be skeptical. Every large law firm has lawyers who dismiss the value of raising their profile or maintain that social media is a passing fad. No matter how many compelling data points to the contrary, some lawyers persist in believing that marketing and communications have no value. This stance softens, however, when a client gratefully thanks her lawyer for helping keep her company out of an inflammatory article, or for helping place a pointed article in a key publication. No lawyer can disclaim the value of a happy client.

John D. Tuerck is the director of communications of Edwards Wildman Palmer LLP. Heather F. Merton is the firm’s senior communications specialist.  

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