Courtesy of Barclays, on Thursday 19th January in Manchester and Wednesday 22nd February in Liverpool, I’ll be speaking to lawyers about why I think strong and effective PR can support the HR function in its role, specifically when it comes to recruitment and retention. These events run monthly, each time with a different specialist in the legal sector. They are great – so drop me a line if you’d like to know more.
Having been an employment lawyer in a previous life, I’m comfortable in my knowledge of the needs, requirements, likes and dislikes of a typical HR manager. LexisNexis’ 2022 Bellwether Report found that the top challenge for small law firms last year was attracting and retaining good lawyers. With the rise of the consultancy model and freelance lawyers, there is a definite challenge for law firms who want to attract and retain talent at the career point between associate and partner. For individuals who can drive their own business, there’s a clear opportunity to make more money and avoid having to invest in a model with potentially limited opportunities, the requirement to share profits with poorly performing partners and the potential to end up in business with people you dislike.
But for now – back to PR. I know when I looked for lawyer jobs (a long time ago admittedly), one of the first things I’d do if I spotted a role I thought I might apply for was Google the firm and see what came up. This search would sometimes point me to a website, but just as often to press coverage – typically ‘good news’ announcements about new starters, new offices and CSR initiatives. I would sometimes see lawyers speaking in the press or on the news about their areas of expertise. At that time lawyers didn’t really use LinkedIn, so I definitely didn’t tend to go there. Twitter existed but again there weren’t that many lawyers on there (and I knew them all anyway). Facebook was a definite ‘no-no’.
Times have changed. What hasn’t though is candidates continuing to use Search to carry out desk research on firms. In addition to Google, they look at the firm’s social media channels and those of their potential colleagues and managers. They almost certainly also check out places like Roll on Friday and GlassDoor to see what current and former employees have to say and whether there have been any cringeworthy stories (we’ve all seen them). A more detailed search might take them into Chambers and Partners and Legal 500 territory, along with other kitemarks such as the Investor in People scheme and The Times Best Law Firms.
As a more junior lawyer I was drawn to the individuals and firms that had the media coverage, the kitemarks and other indicators of quality and success. My feeling was that I wanted to be in a firm that was proud of its achievements and which employed real experts who were trusted – by the media and recognised as industry experts.
Already you can see how having a good profile in the media, in legal directories and online could help your firm to attract new talent. If nothing else consider this – if a potential employee can’t find you online or isn’t impressed by what they see, what does this mean for potential clients doing the same research?
Be truthful and mislead at your peril
Before I continue, I need to include a disclaimer here: your PR and culture must be aligned and you must tell the truth. Repeat: your PR activity and culture must be aligned and you must tell the truth. Why? If you decide to start pushing out positive news stories that don’t align with either the client experience or the experience of your team, or yet worse you don’t tell the truth; you will create problems for now and the longer term. Why? To be successful, PR activity has to both reflect the truth and be truthful.
What I mean by this is that it must both reflect reality, i.e. the situation on the ground and it must go no further than the truth. The above might sound strange coming from a ‘spin doctor’ (please don’t ever call me a spin doctor, it’s almost as bad as ‘PR girl’) but in actual fact, there’s a lot of common sense to be applied when it comes to good PR practice.
It can be easy to think that PR is all about fluff and inflating the truth or spinning yarns but actually it’s not. Ethical PR and the type of work that we do (I’m chartered by the CIPR) is, yes, about influencing and encouraging people to, for example, join your firm or instruct you, but it can and should only emphasise or reflect the truth. If it lies or seeks to distort or inflate, then you start to stray into unethical practice. Everybody should avoid unethical practice, and law firms must be particularly careful to deal properly, fairly, ethically and truthfully in the messaging it uses to promote itself. In essence then, PR must reflect reality. If it doesn’t, and people find out that the truth is something else entirely, you do two things.
The first is that you make the person who believed your spin feel stupid. Nobody ever likes or wants to feel stupid, it is a truly horrible feeling. Accordingly, whoever has discovered your cover up will hate you for creating these feelings for them and will almost certainly go out of their way to tell everybody how terrible you are. Imagine this person is an employee, or worse a former employee, and you can imagine the damage being done to your firm’s brand.
Secondly you lose trust. Trust is so important for all businesses, but particularly law firms – you are trusted by people to handle divorce and other relationship challenges, you administer estates and draft wills. You manage redundances for people who own businesses, and settlement agreements for those being relieved of their jobs. You do so much more besides.
Lawyers have to be trustworthy because of the gravity of what we ask them to do. Again, if you lose the trust of your employees or former employees, they will tell everybody they know how awful you are. It is a bit of a running joke in Manchester that everybody knows everybody in the legal sector. Do you want your firm to be the one being gossiped about at every networking event in town?
The combined power of PR and HR
I spoke to Natalie Saunders, founder and managing director of human resources consultancy Morpho Advisory (and a former colleague during my lawyer days) about her experience and why she agrees that PR and culture must align. She says: “Culture and communication have the potential to form a powerful, mutually reinforcing symbiotic relationship. The stronger your organisational culture, the more you will want to shout about it – serving to attract talent as well as retain it.
“84% of respondents to a survey by HSBC (reported on in their Investment and Growth Strategies in Law Firms report 2022) identified the “war for talent” as an organisational challenge. At a time when the competition for good people in the legal sector is stiffer than ever before the way you differentiate yourself as a firm is crucial.
“Given that many firms offer the same, or a similar, portfolio of service lines, distinctiveness is hard to come by – and that’s where a great culture, exceptional people experience (read: not free fruit and yoga) and powerful PR rooted in reality and not aspiration, ambition or denial, come in.”
So what do we need to do?
I have very briefly talked above about some of the tools in the PR toolkit you can use to help with recruitment and retention. What’s important for every firm though is to work out a few simple things at the outset.
- Goals what are you trying to achieve? And by when? Goals should be your top level, perhaps 3 to 5 things that you want to have done within a sensible and not too long time period. 6 – 18 months tends to be realistic.
- Strategy at the top level – how are you going to deliver your goals? For example – we are going to appoint a specialist legal PR agency that understands our goals and can strategically support the delivery of two of them. Or our internal PR team will create and deliver a PR strategy that will help us to double our team.
- Key Messages the messages that you consistently apply within the strategy. Key messages really drill down into the ‘why’, keep you consistent and on track. You need no more than 3.
- Target Audiences who are you focussing your activity on? If potential employees – define them. If key current employees you deem a flight risk, again define them. If potential clients or retained clients you are worried about losing, I’ll say it again, define them. By define – I mean understand their key demographics – such as role, gender, location. From this, try and build out a profile or avatar to help you to understand how they behave, what is important to them, which social media channels they use, which media they read or engage with, if they read internal newsletters or prefer Slack or Whats app. The above are just things to think about and are not intended as an exhaustive guide to understanding and defining your target audiences Knowing your target audience in detail enables you to more easily put yourself in their shoes and start to understand the type of activity they will a) see and b) engage with. Limit your target audiences to a maximum of three. It is also completely fine and actually preferable if your target audience numbers are small, it makes it easier to be very focussed in your activity.
- Tactics should always be defined towards the end of the plan. Everybody likes to play with the latest trend or social media platform, but before you do – ensure that they are going to be effective and deliver against your goals by considering whether they are a good fit with your target audiences. Otherwise, you’ll have a lovely time playing, but don’t count on the time spent having a good return on the investment. There are no right or wrong tactics to use – but we tend to include elements of media relations, social media, content and awards in the majority of our campaigns. Legal directories also have their place for many firms and are a real growth area for boutiques and the regional heavyweights of the future.
Why aren’t you being more specific about what we should do?
Whilst it would be lovely to be able to draft a blog that could answer all of your problems in less than a thousand words, it remains the case that every law firm is different and each practice has its own challenges. For me to prescribe a generic prescription for how to attract new talent or indeed retain your flight risks would, quite simply, be wrong.
I don’t know what your goals, strategies or particular challenges are currently. I certainly don’t know who your target audiences are, or which areas you want to grow in the future. What I have hopefully be able to do though, is give you some things to think about. I hope that this will help you to either understand what you need to do internally to start to address any recruitment or retention challenges, or at the very least, provide you with food for thought if you are considering whether PR might be something to consider for your firm in 2022.
As ever – if you like what you’ve read, and you’d like to have a chat, you can book a 30 minute call with me.