Published on 3rd June 2020
As we all know communications and brand reputation are vital components during a time of crisis, this week I have caught up with Kerry Jack, co-founder and CEO of Black Letter Communications about how law firms have been communicating during the pandemic.
As we all know the Covid-19 crisis is unlike anything we have experienced before but what are your observations on how law firms are dealing with the crisis? Also, as the founder of Black Letter Communications are there any changes that you are looking at implementing as a result of COVID?
"I’ll start with the second part of your question as that is more straightforward. The short answer is, very few. When legal journalist Neil Rose and I started the business nine years ago, much of our work, and indeed our success, was achieved from the comfort of our own homes. And since then, little has changed.
Of course, we’re not hermits and pre-COVID we would regularly see our clients and have weekly face-to-face team meetings at our serviced office space in Hatton Garden. But we switched to complete remote working a week before the official lockdown and the impact was minimal.
Post-COVID, it’s unlikely to change the way we work. Yet for law firms, I think it has been a revolution. I am hearing very positive noises about homeworking in the main; boards and partnerships are revaluating the amount of office space they have and so I expect to see some significant changes.
In terms of how law firms are handling the crisis, it’s a mixed bag. I share Keystone CEO, James Knight’s views that it is not ethically responsible for law firms to use the government’s furlough scheme just to protect profits.
We did some research on how law firms have been communicating during this crisis. At a time when many of us have been making mental lists of brands, we will and won’t use again based on how they have behaved during the pandemic, communication now is more important than ever. The way people choose the companies they want to give their business to will be judged in a new way and this will apply to law firms too. Those that stood up, communicated well and contributed to the pandemic ‘battle’ will do well.
Our research found that only 22 of the 200 firms had openly talked about any pro bono or other corporate social responsibility activities they were doing in response to the pandemic. It’s disappointing that, on the face of it, so few law firms have acted to help those in need. Many trumpet their CSR credentials but have been found wanting at a time of maximum need".
Over the past 9-10 weeks we have been hearing from inhouse professionals that fee earners engagement with marketing and communications has in some cases been higher than pre-COVID, what would be your advice to firms on why continuing to invest in external comms and marketing functions are important during a crisis period?
"That chimes with what we are experiencing. The marketing and BD teams in my client firms are busier than ever. Understandably so. Now is not the time for law firms to baton down the hatches, more than ever you need to find new and engaging ways to be in touch with existing and potential clients. Ask any marketing and communications professional, it’s a sustained discipline. It takes months and years to build and nurture prospects. Those firms that cut now, will find their competitors way ahead. It’s short-sighted".
Naturally, we anticipate some areas of law being busier than others post COVID, given your firms' expertise & client base where do you see the demand over the next 6-24 months?
"Well, we haven’t yet seen the fallout properly from Brexit so it’s a double whammy. Clearly, there’s going to be a significant amount of litigation across many areas. It will likely keep the courts busy, not least because there won’t be a precedent for much of what is being heard. So, for a novel legal issues geek like me, it's going to be very interesting".
Given the competitive nature of the legal environment reputational management and brand positioning will be even more important to win work, do you have any tips or focus areas that you believe will enhance a firms standing in this regard?
"It’s a good question. I hesitate to say the widely over-used phrase, ‘a new norm’, but I do think that the way many consumers and clients act will change forever and that means law firms will need to readjust. In many respects, the new future is already here.
As I said earlier, I think businesses will be judged by a new standard. For example, I am about to consult a lawyer on a personal matter and I purposefully only considered approaching those firms who had done something that showed me they’d looked after their staff and had contributed to the pandemic frontline. It was really important to me that my money went to an ethical business. So, with that I mind, I think firms need to give this far greater focus, there are far too many that pay lip service to it".
Having worked through the financial crisis in 08, how do you anticipate the legal sector coming through this period, for better or worse?
"The optimist in me says they will come through this for the better. In the main, law firms have always been pretty good at riding storms and creating new opportunities. Clearly, there’s a huge opportunity for law firms to look at the effectiveness of their operations and make changes accordingly. The smarter ones though will be going one step further and looking at COVID as an opportunity, not a threat".
If you could give one piece of advice to inhouse legal PR teams what would it be?
"I have a great deal of sympathy with in-house teams right now, I think they’re under immense amounts of pressure to do more with less. But if I had to offer just one piece of advice, it would be this: demonstrate the value of good communications. I know there are many law firms out there that still value a huge cuttings book in the reception room waiting area, but times have changed. It is up to in-house teams to educate fee-earners to understand the outcomes of PR and to look beyond the cuttings book!"