Law firm communications: a more useful future

Thursday, 12 December 2019 08:54 pm


From time to time, we ask people we work with to contribute articles to our newsletter. This issue we approached Liz Whitaker, a consultant in brand and reputation management to the professional services sector, to share some of her insights and expertise.  She focuses on law firms, but much of her advice applies across the board.




Law firm communications: riding the hard times


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Law firm communications: a more useful future

It's when times are hard that law firms - and others in the professional services sector - really need their communications director. Communications consultant Liz Whitaker reports.

Life is not very comfortable these days for most communications directors or managers working in the legal sector. There’s the challenge of communicating difficult news, such as redundancies and poor financial performance.  Managing partners facing declining profitability are cutting communications budgets. Questions are being asked about contribution, campaigns are things of the past and good news continues to be in short supply. One communications director recently described his firm to me as having ‘shut up shop’.

But if ever there was a time for communication to demonstrate its real value across the entire business, this is it. Great communications now will ensure a firm’s reputation and brand is intact when the economy inevitably picks up.

What are the priorities?  
Priority stakeholders right now are existing clients and employees. Your hard-earned clients are always on someone else’s target list and businesses are easily seduced by the offer of a competitor’s lower fees. Try working with the partners responsible for your top 20 clients to ensure your reputation with this group is so safe that they would never look elsewhere. Think about leading a programme of client service reviews. Check if communication to this group is as personal and tailored as it should be. 

Employees are looking for stability, morale and leadership. The firm’s stars are looking for some reassurance that their careers are still safe. Everyone is looking for the sense of community (often underestimated) the workplace can provide – and they want to play their part. Ensure there is a two-way internal communication system to capture that contribution. Consult with people and hold focus groups to canvas opinions and encourage internal networking. Listen and be a conduit for good ideas. Advise the senior and managing partners on how communications can shape and enhance their leadership.  I recommend the work of Dr Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at Weber Shandwick, if you want some examples of how reputation – and especially that of business leaders – contributes to financial success.

Measures for success 
This is the perfect opportunity to link communications with the standard measures that really matter to the business – such as client retention and satisfaction, percentage of client legal spend, and employee retention and attitudes. Sometimes this information is easily available, but needs to be presented in a more useful way. This can demonstrate some left-brain capability and may help to consolidate fruitful relationships with finance and HR.

You could also look at introducing measures for your own work. Find the link between output and outcome – and challenge some traditional activity that goes unchallenged in the good times. Establishing measures of success helps to demonstrate your value, and is a perfect excuse to reduce displacement activity still indulged in by partners everywhere. Those last minute seminars ‘because such-and-such a firm did one’, those random articles for national newspapers and obscure websites, the 5,000 word brochure that no-one will ever read. 

Business as usual
No matter how bad things are, it’s really important that the firm continues to demonstrate its confidence in the future by operating a basic communications infrastructure. There should still be the annual report, corporate responsibility activity, an up-to-date website, regular press releases and client briefings. Communications can do much to contribute to a sense of normality that will encourage people to perform at their very best – even when circumstances are difficult.

Visibility is key
Communications professionals should attend team meetings and see where they can provide a communications solution to a team issue (and there is always a communications solution!). Now is a good time to be holding training sessions for fee earners on effective communications – for all those skills they really need but never have time to develop when they’re busy – such as a writing workshop, presentation skills or how to network and work a room.  

Doing what comes naturally
Communications people, by their very nature, are often the only people in the business who link with all teams: legal, management and support. They’re also often the only people looking out and looking ahead. This is the moment to formalise that skill and add some value to the business. Issue useful economic or business facts and figures that keep your fee earners informed. Look at what you can learn from your firm’s client base. Explore how new developments in technology can improve your communications efficiency and save money. 
Yes, it’s tough for communications directors when budgets are being squeezed. But if you’ve survived this far, it’s an opportunity to really show your management team what you’re capable of.

Liz Whitaker has been working as a communications specialist in the professional services sector for over 20 years. Her most recent in-house role was as Director of Corporate Communications for Wragge & Co LLP.

Liz’s company, Condor Communications, delivers strategic internal and external communications advice to support brand and reputation management. Advice is delivered through direct consultancy, team workshops or training, one-to-one coaching or mentoring and e-learning.