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BigLaw: Three Law Firm Approaches to Public Relations -- and Why Only One Works

By Marin Feldman | Monday, February 15, 2010


Originally published on February 8, 2010 in our free BigLaw newsletter.

Like so many other things in life, it's not the size of your public relations department that matters — it's how you use it. In the past two years, the PR departments of many law firms have been on overdrive, performing layoff damage control, spinning reduced compensation, and attempting to generate some good press in this era of bad news. The way a firm responds to press inquiries is often just as important (and telling) as the response itself. Let's explore three popular law firm approaches to dealing with the media. As you'll see, one is more successful than the other two.

The Ostrich

If a firm takes the Ostrich approach, it sticks its head in the sand, ignores the request for comment, and hopes the story blows over. Unfortunately, by the time media outlets request firm comment, they've typically verified the story and will publish it regardless.

Last February, Latham & Watkins pulled an Ostrich when Above the Law, a legal gossip site, contacted the firm for comment on rumored layoffs of 440 employees. Latham ignored the request. In its coverage, Above the Law discussed how Latham partners openly acknowledged the impending layoffs and blocked off conference rooms under the managing partner's name several days in advance of the cut.

Latham conducted the layoffs two days later, by which time firm personnel had already spent 48 hours terrorized and confused. By staying silent, Latham lost an opportunity to explain the cuts the moment the information leaked and to correct factual inaccuracies in the Above the Law article. Latham's Ostrich was so notorious that getting "Lathamed" became an Internet meme.

The Doublespeak

If a firm responds to a media request with the Doublespeak approach, it may deny accurate information, couch its public statements in cagey language, or deliberately convey different messages to firm personnel and the media.

When Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft laid off associates last year, a firm spokesperson called them "unrestricted sabbaticals."

While "sabbatical" conjures pleasant images of academic sojourns to Oxford in springtime, its use as a euphemism insulted and angered the sabbatical recipients who had to choose between leaving with three months' severance or leaving and taking a reduced salary with the possibility of rejoining the firm in a year. Generally, employees appreciate jargon-free statements that convey the facts, not dress them up to "hide the ball."

In another Doublespeak maneuver, WilmerHale told Above the Law last June that it had not conducted layoffs, and had no layoffs planned ... but had implemented a "career advancement program" that resulted in associate "departures."

One month later, the firm laid off associates and later poisoned morale by distributing an internal memo threatening to fire anyone who tipped off Above the Law about its activities. When Above the Law posted about the allegedly inflammatory memo, the WilmerHale spokesperson called it "a general reminder" and did not address the layoff back-story. Now, "WilmerHale layoffs" autopopulates the Google search field when users search the phrase "WilmerHale."

The Straight ShooteR

Straight Shooter law firms respond to press inquiries promptly and provide clear, detailed information. They recognize that firm personnel obtain information from both the firm and the blawgosphere, and deliver consistent internal and external communications soon after stories leak. The Straight Shooter approach best serves all concerned, especially the firm.

Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe switched from lockstep to merit-based compensation last July with a pitch-perfect press release. It explained the firm's rationale, gave pay calculation specifics, and set a timeframe for the switch. Orrick's informative approach empowered employees and ultimately made the lukewarm news more palatable.

Thankfully, more and more firms are embracing the Straight Shooter approach, realizing (if a little late) that good PR will set them free.

[Disclosure: Marin writes a weekly column for Above the Law.]

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Topics: BiglawWorld | Law Firm Marketing/Publications/Web Sites | Law Office Management
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