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The very public face of the modern commercial law firm

The very public face of the modern commercial law firm

No longer can partners be concerned only with the practice of law, they must be fully aware of the media's ability to enhance or diminish a firm's commercial goals. Middletons' Jeremy Hyman writes_x000D_

NO longer can a law firm partner be concerned only with the practice of law. The successful partner has become a sophisticated business operator, fully aware of the media’s ability to enhance or diminish a firm’s commercial goals and objectives.

Competition among law firms is fierce and growth is hard won in a sophisticated and mature domestic legal market. While industry concentration is relatively low, according to IBISWorld, the six biggest firms account for around 13.1 per cent of industry revenue. In recent times, law firms of lesser size have been growing rapidly and the concept of a ‘full service, commercial law firm’ is no longer the preserve of the largest firms, rather a title many now boast.

The profile of the firm and its partnership is crucial in building brand awareness and resonance, both in reaching existing and potential clients. Media relations has fast become the weapon of choice in the business development arsenal of the modern day law firm and many have implemented sophisticated media strategies, employing professional public relations practitioners.

In the last 5 years, law firms have been moving towards internalising their public relations capability, preferring to centrally manage their external communications rather than engaging external providers to communicate on their behalf, who often find the complexities of the business challenging as an outsider. A new generation of senior management within law firms are increasingly interested in the external communications function and both the strategy and results are being tabled at board level.

While the benefits of engaging the media are often intangible as lawyers across the country scratch their heads as to how they might measure resulting new business, one can not escape the obvious value of issues and crisis management.

Memorable headlines scatter the media landscape regarding everything from alleged improper email use, document shredding, the cost and length of litigation, and mass redundancies putting lawyers into disrepute. However, the question that should be asked is how many never saw the light of day due to effective media relations capability and implemented strategy. The length and severity of these very public instances are often far less impacting due to the wise counsel of experienced law firm communications advisers and firms without such wise counsel are falling behind.

From embarking on a legal career, to rising through the ranks from a junior lawyer to partner, does one ever consider having to manage a team of four or possibly more? Or the management of non-legal support staff when entering the higher echelons of the commercial law firm? Business development is a career path in and of itself and, while help is at hand, this can be quite a discomforting notion for many of our country’s brightest lawyers.

In the United States, in-house public relations executives take the function to a much higher level, actively engaged in litigation cases on behalf of law firm clients to manage the media surrounding cases. A value-add service not offered thus far by Australian law firms.

The economic climate continues to degenerate and market forces bear down on an industry that has been used to almost two decades of economic growth fuelled by commercial transactional work involving mergers and acquisitions, buoyant debt and equity markets and a thriving banking and financial services sector. Suddenly commercial lawyers across the country are for the first time seriously paying attention to their business development function. The notion of building a media profile suddenly seems more attractive as time permits.

A move away from expensive sponsorships and large-scale advertising is being replaced by press releases, story pitches, awards and league table submissions. While litigation and insolvency prosper in the current economic climate, many are left to consider new and innovative service offerings in the hunt for new work and this requires a media profile to match.

Jeremy Hyman is the media and communications manager at Middletons.

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