Put PR To Work as an Effective Part of Strategic Law Firm Business Development

May 20, 2024

In an article with the New York Law Journal, Kelsey Eidbo and Jaylen Pearson, alongside Penny Paul, Senior Manager of Marketing and Communications at national law firm Lowenstein Sandler, highlight the value of strategic public relations initiatives for ongoing business development and branding amidst a competitive legal market.

In this article, they discuss how to integrate priority attorneys, and internal marketing and business development staff into a strong, maintainable communications program.

As law firms look to set themselves apart in an increasingly competitive market, the important role that a strategic public relations program plays in business development can’t be overlooked. The very nature of law firms—often risk-averse, with a focus on partner-driven business development, billable hour structures and client-first interests—makes it easy to assume PR won’t be a good fit. On the other hand, a firm too eager for publicity can lose sight of strategy, securing coverage for only the sake of coverage, and losing any hope of demonstrable return on investment.

A successful PR program not only aligns with business development strategy but also has a real role in driving it. With the right conversations, processes and buy-in—and a clear understanding of common hurdles—a PR program can be a key pillar in business development success.

Start with the Why and the Who

It can be tempting to just start media outreach and see what sticks. Of course, the old saying “all press is good press” is simply not true. Even more importantly, not all press is impactful press, so securing a scattering of media hits across dozens of practice groups isn’t likely to build the profile you’re looking for.

Assuming time and resources to dedicate to PR aren’t unlimited, we recommend starting a program with a set group of practices or industries that are already business development priorities for the firm. The decision on whom to highlight may come from several factors, for example: to continue building on a legacy in a certain area or be positioned at the forefront of a new one with new initiatives.

PR can be used to highlight the strengths of one group while another has a down year; that group’s downtime can be used to dedicate more time to PR and raise its profile for future positioning when the business cycle shifts. Perhaps a practice group experienced a mass departure, and it’s critical to emphasize the continued depth of your bench. Major economic shifts or legislative changes can also present specific business development opportunities due to new client questions and demands.

Zoning in on who you are looking to promote and why will set the program off to the right start without spreading resources too thin. Securing buy-in from leadership to the business development team and the spokespeople themselves is a critical next step.

Overcoming the ‘I Don’t Need PR’ Voice

“I have enough business without PR.” “I don’t have time to do PR.” “I had a bad (or unproductive) experience with PR.”

These are all reasons we’ve heard and understand—why spend otherwise billable hours getting up to speed on a topic, speaking to a journalist or writing an article, especially when even a public relations team admits it’s not a one-to-one return on investment? A few reasons:

  • It’s not only about one attorney or even one practice group. It’s about the firm’s overall brand, demonstrating this law firm has its finger on the pulse of the market, showcasing differentiators through thought leadership and balancing negative coverage or weaknesses by highlighting positive news and strengths.
  • There are many options to fit a busy schedule. For some, giving a 20-minute interview on key topics is the fastest road to coverage and building a profile. Others prefer to fit a 1,000-word article with a long-term deadline into their schedule (often partnering with an associate to share the workload, which helps in mentoring and building their profile early in their career). Other options may include leveraging conference attendance, putting out quick thoughts on LinkedIn, or building a close relationship with a ghostwriter who can learn your voice.
  • Collaborating closely with PR, marketing and business development teams significantly lessens the risk of a “bad” experience and helps boost resulting coverage to get closer to a “productive” experience. They can clear conflicts early on, manage the record and conduct prep calls to help fine-tune messaging and anticipate and navigate sensitive questions.
  • Finally, it won’t likely be a process where one interview leads to a new client (but it does happen). Public relations is about building a profile, and putting that firepower behind the right business development priorities will build a profile that positions the firm in the right way.

Making News

Unfortunately, not every practice group or industry is created equal at any one time when it comes to newsworthiness or media interest, though that can and does shift rapidly with a quick change in the news cycle. Earned media interest results from a simple formula: timeliness, novelty, and the right spokesperson.

A litigation win may seem significant to a law firm, then receives little or no interest from the media. Why?

  • Did the win occur in the last 12 hours? If not, when was the latest development and is there a way to position the development in a forward-looking way?
  • What is novel about the win? Is there a significant award or verdict? Does it demonstrate—or go against—a trend? How does it fit within the current news cycle? Are there major names involved; better yet, does the litigation reveal something new or unexpected about them? Was a unique legal technique employed? Was there a shocking twist in the trial?
  • Who do audiences want to hear from? In most cases, the lead attorney is the right voice to tell the story of a litigation win. But in some cases, a human interest or business-focused element may make the story more compelling, especially to industry or general audience outlets. Even just including a pre-written quote from the client to accompany attorney comments can add depth and color to what really was at stake. If that’s not possible, make sure these elements of the story shine through in attorney interviews.

This formula goes beyond news generated by the firm: it also applies to speaking as a thought leader or subject matter expert, providing third-party commentary on issues important to clients. Why is this issue important now? What makes the story novel, or what makes the spokesperson’s insights or perspective novel? And, particularly with breaking news, what uniquely qualifies one attorney as a spokesperson compared to the next?

Spend time thinking about your target audiences and which publications are worth targeting. Top-tier business outlets like The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times may be the desired publication due to name and reach, but they aren’t always going to be the right target. Industry trade publications may have a smaller reach but focus on more concentrated audiences of target buyers. Due to their niche coverage area, they’re often interested in digging deeper into stories that have a larger impact on their specific industry and in ways that will truly showcase expertise.

It’s important to understand that the relationship with a reporter is a two-way street. Reporters are seeking new stories, expert sources and unique points of view. Possessing the experience and ability to explain these stories and perspectives credentials attorneys. However, for this transaction to take place, lawyers need to provide relevant information for the media that they can use. Understanding this symbiosis will greatly improve the likelihood that an idea will lead to an interview, and ultimately, a quote or story.

The Critical Role of PR in Business Development

Anyone, or anyone’s law firm website bio, can list their experience and publish their insights. However, when a well-known and trusted publication cites insights based on the source’s experience, that third-party credentialing goes even further than self or firm-generated collateral.

While some attorneys may see media as an unnecessary risk, we would argue that ignoring it can introduce risks of its own. Should a law firm be the subject of negative coverage, we don’t want that to be the first time it appears in the media. Pushing negative results down on Google will require more positive, organic coverage, which you should already have in the works rather than struggling to catch up after negative news has run.

Finding ways to partner PR with business development and marketing efforts can ensure that all priorities are aligned and that the work of one department is amplified by another. For instance, consider firm events an opportunity to engage media: invite key reporters into the room or take notes to inform content afterward and extend the life cycle of an event. Also, events can showcase related thought leadership through social media or handouts on the ground. These tactics can be further leveraged for media talking points and reporter introductions.

Final Thoughts

Public relations is a key tool that should not be overlooked in furthering business development and reputational goals. By spending a bit of time zeroing in on your goals, starting small, and strategically working with the right partners, the reward will far outweigh any risk. Small but consistent investments can pay off immediately, but in the long term, they can help build a strong profile that will play a key role in managing your reputation and ensuring your insights, experience, and point of view reach the right audiences time and time again.


Reprinted with permission from the May 15, 2024 edition of the “New York Law Journal” © 2024 ALM Global Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-256-2472 or asset-and-logo-licensing@alm.com.

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