Law firms and public relations – A valuable but complex relationship

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Law firms are one of the more complex clients for a public relations professional because of the potential legal pitfalls.

But a well planned strategy with a knowledgable public relations professional can have tremendous benefits for both law firms and their clients. Recent decisions have also protected the relationship.

There is no denying that today is a very public world, with news of an arrest or a pending civil litigation often spreading like wildfire across the phones, tablets, watches and computers of everyone in the community.

And it’s often those first few headlines, tweets or Facebook posts that create the public’s perception of the client. Perception, regardless of the facts, can have devastating consequences for a client’s reputation, not to mention their emotional and financial wellbeing.

And, like it or not, perceptions can often influence the decisions those important to the process. How the public relations process is handled in the early stages –  in a process commonly referred to as crisis management – could make all the difference.

Many law firms were averse to using a public relations professional in the past, in part due to concerns over violating attorney client privilege. Public relations professionals have to understand that privilege has to be upheld above all else. And a knowledgable public relations professional can take the right steps to protect it.

A California judge ruled last year in Stardock Systems v. Reiche that the privilege extended to communications between the attorney and the public relations professional when discussing legal strategy in the ongoing litigation.

A public relations expert had been hired by the defense attorney in the case to help create communications that offset negative public attacks in the media by the plaintiff’s client.

While the plaintiff’s attorney attempted to subpoena communications between the defense attorney and the public relations expert, the judge quashed the subpoena after ruling that communications were protected by attorney client privilege.

The key in the judge’s decision was that the public relations professional was hired by the law firm and not the client and that the defense attorney was included in all communications. The contract with the firm should also clearly state that the public relations professional has been hired to help with legal strategy.

While the case illustrates that relationship between the public relations professional and the legal industry may be complex, it’s also a valuable resource. More and more law firms both big and small are realizing the benefits and including a public relations professional on their team.

Many lawyers are experts in their areas of practice, often with years if not decades of experiencing and training and their chosen specialty. With the right media outreach and social media management, a firm can leverage tha experience and  expertise to become a leader in the field.

Firms often have a wealth of untapped public relations potential just sitting under the surface. Used correctly, it can be a tool that helps both the client and the firm. With the right strategy and the right professional in place, not only will the firm’s reputation grow, but so will its list of clients.

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