For many, the tenth of April went by without event. But for a select few, it was a very special day that comes but once a year: International ‘Be Kind to Lawyers’ Day.
As a recovering barrister myself, I realise that lawyers are not always the most popular people in the room. I have been often greeted with the words “here comes the fun police”.
But like them or loathe them, lawyers form an intrinsic part of our businesses and industries. This often makes them some of the most useful people to deploy for media commentary, given their combination of technical expertise and the need to understand the macroeconomic and political contexts.
However, lawyers are not the most media friendly of people. Not because they are all irascible curmudgeons, but rather they are born cautious or simply don’t know any better.
Lawyers, whether in private practice or in-house, are used to charging for their advice. A partner once said to me, “there is a confidence instilled in being reassuringly expensive”. This often means the thought of writing a byline or giving commentary that might divulge chargeable information sits so at odds with them, it’s like telling water not to be wet. They shy away from media opportunities, or steer towards the bland and uncontroversial.
Lawyers cling to the billable hour for dear life. This is especially true of partners in US law firms, who can have to bill 2,200+ hours a year. Time away on non-billable work is often not seen as a priority. This means media opportunities declined, done in a hurry or sent way past the deadline.
Finally, and this does not apply to all lawyers by any means, but they like to be the smartest person in the room. And they usually are. This means that lawyers can speak in a very detailed, legalistic manner which makes editors and reporters recoil in horror. Partners aren’t used to hearing the word ‘no’, so getting them to rewrite their work is often a one-way ticket to unpopularity.
So, given that they hold a treasure trove of potential knowledge and expertise, how do you get the best from a lawyer as a media commentator?
A lawyer wouldn’t approach the bench unless they knew the facts of their case. Approach a media opportunity with in the same way and you’ll find lawyers much more willing to comment. Answers to legal questions are rarely black and white. Lawyers have to balance both statue and case law and a lot can depend on circumstances. Brief lawyers so they fully understand the opportunity, the audience, the context of what they’re saying, and how it is going to be used.
Explain the value of the opportunity. This is something PR’s often miss in general. If you can’t explain clearly to your spokesperson why they should be taking up a media opportunity, then you have to question whether it’s right in the first place. We all too often assume spokespeople understand the intrinsic value of media relations, but that’s not always the case. Give layers justification for the investment of their time.
Finally, set expectations. Let me let you into a secret: lawyers do it too. Very few good lawyers outside Hollywood meet their client for the first time and high five them exclaiming they have an ‘open and shut case’. Most lawyers will set out the terms of engagement, what success looks like and what is expected of them in turn. The same goes with media commentary. Set out up-front a publication’s audience and style. Provide previous examples from the publication. This will help prevent the lawyer from providing something entirely unsuitable.
So be kind – lawyers aren’t all that bad. Abraham Lincoln said “A lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade”. By being mindful of this means you’re likely to get the best out of them. Lawyers hate surprises, so just like representing a client in the courtroom, a little reassurance and a lot of homework goes a long way.