Law: The new rule for lawyers: sell, sell, sell

Once, the best lawyers were heard but not seen. Now firms understand that they must show themselves and their achievements to the world. Robert Verkaik gazes at the legal stars.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A recent press notice entitled "Top City lawyer tells Spice Girls management to bog off" is proof positive that the legal profession no longer regards publicity as an occupational hazard. This particular headline appeared astride a notice from the law firm Hammond Suddards of Leeds and London, following the release of an unofficial video documentary of the Spice Girls which had attracted complaints from the group's management that it breached copyright. Hammonds, advising the video's producers, ended the announcement with: "They (the Spice Girls' management) threatened to act, but we told them to bog off and they have bogged off."

That makes a stark contrast to the adage that lawyers should be heard but not seen.

Last month saw the publication of the first real evidence to show how seriously senior partners are now treating the business of marketing.

A survey of the leading advisers to business revealed the average law firm spends more on marketing than any other business adviser - pounds 3,000 per fee-earner compared with pounds l,700 for accountants.

Kevin Wheeler, a marketing consultant and a former marketing director with the City law firm Nabarro Nathanson, who commissioned the research and wrote the report, says: "There isn't a law firm in the country which doesn't produce an armful of newsletters and brochures which they send to clients and anyone else who might be interested."

No longer the shrinking violets of the professions, today some solicitors and barristers are almost as famous as their famous clients.

Mark Stephens, of the media law firm Stephens Innocent, has been associated with a number of high-profile cases, including Paula Yates's divorce from Bob Geldof and the Taylor sisters who successfully argued that excessive media coverage had made their convictions unsafe. Indeed Mr Stephens represents, perhaps more than anyone else, the emergence of the cult of the lawyer.

"The large City law firms tend to promote a brand, but for niche practices that's almost impossible," he says. Instead, the smaller firm's image has become synonymous with the personality of an individual lawyer. Examples include Lord Mishcon, Lord Goodman and Peter Carter-Ruck. Helena Kennedy, George Carman, Michael Mansfield and, of course, Cherie Booth are examples of barristers who now bring their own publicity to a case.

Mr Stephens says: "Lawyers have to some extent been thrust into the media spotlight against their better judgement. Sometimes clients are unable to comment and can't advocate their own causes." He argues that as the media becomes "more and more intrusive" lawyers are obliged to speak out on a client's behalf.

Solicitors telephone him on a weekly basis to ask his advice on how to handle the press. "These days you have to be prepared to deal with the media fall out," he says.

Conversely, less well known firms are happy to make what they can out of an association with a famous case or well known brand.

The way Hammond Suddards latched on to the marketing potential of the Spice Girls shows just how far some have come. Richard Griffiths, PR executive at Hammond Suddards, says: "Even though we are not actually acting for them [the Spice Girls] I suppose you can still say there was the association there to make the story newsworthy." He says to be able to ride on the back of the phenomenal publicity surrounding a band like the Spice Girls is a "perfect" marketing opportunity. "Law firms are perceived as rather staid so something as media orientated as the Spice Girls is superb for a law firm."

But Mr Wheeler suspects that a large number of lawyers are still very wary of speaking to the media. "Historically they have been quite reserved in speaking to the press." That, he says, is because of the importance lawyers attach to client confidentiality.

There is no doubt that one or two firms still view it as bad form for a lawyer to get his name into print or face on television. "You'll find it very difficult to get any information out of Slaughter and May when they don't even have a marketing team," Mr Wheeler says.

Slaughter and May is not alone. The Wheeler survey found that 19 per cent of law firms had still not implemented a marketing plan. Mr Wheeler says many lawyers are reluctant even to approach a client for permission to use them in a press release. "To suggest to your client that you would like to use them in a piece of publicity is too much for some lawyers. Sometimes it's sacrosanct to even reveal who their clients are. But usually the clients are more than happy."

While the survey also showed that law firms employed more marketing personnel than other business advisers, the survey found that they employed fewer PR specialists.

But those firms which did employ experienced media relations officers, added Mr Wheeler, appeared much more confident in dealing with the press.

"If you have got a good PR person it makes it easier to encourage the lawyer to come forward to make comment to the press," Mr Wheeler says.

He points out that some of the "up-and-coming" medium-sized firms are now no longer backwards in coming forwards. "They recognise there is more to be gained for them by being proactive than it is for the well established firms like Freshfields."

A high profile news story, like the Spice Girls, not only promotes the law firm externally but is a huge boost to staff morale. Mr Wheeler says: `The story gets photocopied and passed around and people think, good for us.'

Hammonds has a dedicated PR member of staff in each of its five offices.

An opportunistic approach to news is only a small part of the way the firm markets itself. Apart from the usual round of corporate hospitality, surveys and seminars, the Leeds Rugby Union team has the Hammonds logo splashed across its shirts.

Of course there are occasions when lawyers wish nobody recognised their brand name. Recent examples include the avalanche of publicity surrounding the pounds 600m Canary Wharf law suit against Clifford Chance, soon to come to a head, and the involvement of Travers Smith Braithwaite in the aborted hostile takeover of the Co-operative Wholesale Society.

"Damage limitation is the skill I want first from my media relations person," Mr Wheeler says. "What I can't afford is for bad stories to run away from me and create a negative impression of my organisation."

Nevertheless, when law firms do find themselves with their backs against the wall they do not always have the confidence in their own PR. The Wheeler survey showed that nearly 70 per cent of law firms used PR agencies.

"You will be surprised just how many senior partners, when push comes to shove, don't trust their own marketing teams," Mr Wheeler says. That can be an expensive waste of in-house resources. According to Mr Wheeler, marketing directors in the top ten law firms can earn up to pounds 150,000 while those in medium sized firms can expect at least pounds 60,000 to pounds 80,000.