For a pundit often claimed to be dismissive of the PR community, the subject of this leader may surprise. The reputation was never that accurate – I’ve always said skilled comms professionals are an asset to major law firms – but let’s put that to one side for now. The topic is something I’ve been noticing for some time: the slow decline of the PR professional as consigliere to law firm leaders. While the breed was never plentiful, it wasn’t that long ago that there was a sizeable group of battle-hardened comms hands that had judgement, integrity, long contact lists and who were effective as support and sources of information to managing partners. Plenty had worked outside the legal industry – indeed, they were usually more adept if they had in their junior years – but they had built strong knowledge of the dynamics of the profession and the realities of working for partnerships. They could make things happen and tell partners what they didn’t want to hear.
At their best they were a useful bridge to the outside world and there to help the firm push the message outwards, ever outwards, be that to clients, potential clients, or the wider industry. The best were also facilitators, focused on hooking up management and a Praetorian guard of headline-friendly partners with the better, relevant journalists and helping relationships flourish.
Talk to comms professionals these days and it is clear that huge and increasing levels of time are now spent on law firms talking to themselves.
Yet this breed of contact-focused PRs has fallen out of favour as the industry’s communications efforts move ever inwards. Talk to comms professionals these days and it is clear that huge and increasing levels of time are now spent on law firms talking to themselves. Partly, that appears to be thanks to the ubiquity of email, intranets and messaging platforms – it simply wasn’t possible for institutions to spend that much time talking to their own staff previously. But it goes further. The veterans have similar gripes – most of the effort now is soaked up on internal comms, office politics and bureaucracy. External efforts are often outsourced to expensive outside agencies, with vague deliverables and even vaguer results.
If this sounds like special pleading, the vast bulk of our contact base always has been partners and general counsel and none of the changes I describe have been a hindrance to maintaining that. But this blunting of law firms’ communications edge has come at a cost to the profession in the very moment in which it is braced for structural change. And many report that this inward gaze has taken hold across the wider comms discipline, even in what is without irony called business development. The sum result has been a noticeable decline in the industry’s ability to use strong, memorable language with the wider world.
Perhaps the ultimate significance of this shift is as symptom of diseases that have for some time afflicted City firms: the loss of influence of leadership teams to more assertive partnerships and the rise of managerialism in place of strong, central stewardship. If you don’t have a robust C-suite, managing partners are less inclined to hire the kind of hard-nosed comms professionals that help them get stuff done. Something to think about when you’re sweating over that next crucial internal email.