Battle of the brands by Ryanne Kersten, Bates Wells Braithwaite
This article was originally featured as a column in the May 2017 issue of LPM. To read the issue in full, download LPM.
Building your profile and reputation isn’t easy and takes years. Sure, you may have excellent lawyers, lots of good traits, score high in the legal directory rankings, and have big sexy names on your list of clients. But your place at the top can come crashing down if your reputation comes under attack. This can happen because of something you’ve done, failed to do, or said, something your client has done, or simply because someone has it in for you. Reputation is the most easily targeted business asset, and a bad reputation can cause tremendous damage.
Other than putting up with the occasional bad lawyer joke, law firms had it fairly easy. But now they’ve become increasingly prone to public scrutiny.
When your firm’s reputation is under attack, who will you turn to for an appropriate response? Your press officer, marketing department, management board, client relationship partner, media litigation lawyers, or an external communications adviser? The answer obviously depends on the issue, but there are a few things to say about the individual roles each of them could play.
Too often law firms respond to reputational issues as a matter of legal principle rather than one of perception, and lawyers get stuck in a discussion about who’s to blame. But clients or the public are rarely interested in whether you’re right or wrong from a legal point of view. What the public really wants to know is whether you’re a party they can sympathise with, whether you’re nice and genuine, rather than defensive or evasive. As such, lawyers may not be your best advisers while articulating your response – but knowing your legal position while you do makes perfect sense.
A response can sometimes be as simple as making an apology. Often lawyers see this as a form of defeat or an admission to being wrong, however this does not need to be so. It’s simply an acknowledgment that someone got hurt or offended. This may not be your fault, but neither would you wish people to feel this way – that’s really what you’re saying, and at least it makes you more likeable.
External advisers do bring an objective and calm voice and reassurance to the situation – which is helpful for the management board and keeps partners’ personal views in check. If you seek advice from external advisers, make sure they work well with your press officer and marketing department. Let them be your background advisers, but not your spokespeople if you can help it – it could create the impression that you let others do your dirty work and have something to hide.
The best tip I can give is to always be prepared and have your team ready with a good process in place. Managing reputation can be time sensitive, so you’ll need to be able to remain calm under pressure and be prepared to react within minutes. In a crisis, you may end up spending far more time managing your own people internally than the media and external factors which are affecting your firm. Your internal communications advisers often know your people and the firm well, so listen to them while communicating with your people. Make sure you form a united front – and keep your people close.