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15 May 2020

Law firms will be judged on how they behaved during the pandemic

Practices that communicated well and contributed to the Covid-19 'battle' will reap future rewards, argues Kerry Jack

Kerry Jack: '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'

Crisis PR is not an area many law firms excel in, and their instinct is simply to batten down the hatches in the face of the storm.

But the coronavirus is a crisis like no other and this is a time for a different approach to communication. What makes it unique is that we are all in this together, going through the same pain and uncertainty. There is nothing wrong with reflecting that – indeed, I would suggest that it is a sensible approach during a period when businesses need to show their ‘human’ side.

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. 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. 

In the last week of April, we reviewed the websites of the top 200 UK law firms to see how well they were communicating. Of course, such an exercise does not reflect how they have been talking to clients privately, but the look of their public face is probably a good indicator.

Legal implications of pandemic

Unsurprisingly, the firms have been busy providing clients with plenty of advice on the legal implications of the Covid-19 crisis. We found that 159 of the 200 firms had dedicated sections on the legal implications of the pandemic, including 92 of the top 100. A quarter of the firms provided multi-media resources, such as webinars and podcasts, on top of articles.

Some were better than others – the best allowed users to easily find articles about a particular issue or sector; the worst just had a long list of articles in date order about a wide range of topics.

Disappointingly, 45 firms, including some of the biggest in the world, failed to mention at all the impact of the pandemic on the firm itself and how it was responding, while 41 of the firms that did made it hard to find – often it was a post from mid-March following the lockdown announcement that we only discovered by going back through the news section of the website.

Just 44 of the top 100 made this information easy to find, while 70 of the firms from 101-200 did. A few firms made prominent reference to it on their homepages – Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner and DWF, for example – while others included easily found links to it within their Covid-19 sections. A few have updated this information as the weeks have gone on.

In the main, firms provided brief and general information to reassure visitors that it was business as usual and staff were working from home. Just a handful went further than this – Hogan Lovells is a good example, with a detailed Q&A dealing with issues such as ensuring security and confidentiality of client data during remote working.

Two good innovations we found were a montage on the homepage of Scottish firm Digby Brown’s website of lawyers talking to each other by video to show that ‘We are very much open’, and a series of videos from Simmons & Simmons lawyers (and often their dogs) about adapting to working from home.

We were particularly interested to discover if firms would openly admit to having furloughed staff, given that stories in the legal press show that many have done so. But only Devonshires, DMH Stallard, Brethertons and Mayo Wynne Baxter were upfront about this on their websites.

Difficult personnel decisions

This is a tricky balance to strike. I perfectly understand that firms do not want spell out some of the difficult personnel decisions they’ve had to make, and in normal circumstances I wouldn’t recommend that they do. But, again, these are unique times and I believe firms may even benefit from being so open about the virus’s impact. Furloughing is not a sign of a business’s weakness when everyone is doing it.

One firm, Minster Law, published a promise that there will be no forced redundancies relating to the outbreak, while Veale Wasbrough Vizards said it has frozen recruitment.

I was disappointed that only 22 of the 200 firms talked about any pro bono or other corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities they were doing in response to the pandemic. 

In some cases, it was charitable giving – Kingsley Napley helpfully listed the charities it has supported, and Birketts gives the amount, £55,000 – while others are fund-raising, such as Devonshires. Simpson Millar is raising £50,000 to buy iPads so that Covid-19 patients in hospital can stay in touch with their families. A few firms highlighted efforts of individual staff members rather than any firm-wide campaign.

Some have done pro bono work, such as Withers advising on the set-up of the SalutetheNHS and masks4NHSHeroes charities, and Fieldfisher advising life sciences companies involved in the fight against Covid-19. But neither firm made this information easy to find.

Whether to shout about CSR is another tricky decision for some, but in normal times many firms are happy to do so – most large practices have dedicated sections on their websites – and this is a good chance to prove that it’s not just for show. 

During this crisis, a law firm is just another business. Almost everyone is struggling. But as we inch back from lockdown, the demand for legal services will return. Those that stood up, communicated well and contributed to the pandemic ‘battle’ will do well.

Kerry Jack is chief executive of Black Letter Communications

Further reading on the Covid-19 pandemic

After Covid-19, client tensions that pre-existed the pandemic will become intolerable — Law firms banking on a return to the old way of doing business once the immediate crisis is over are doomed, argues Rob Millard

Under lockdown socialising between international colleagues has increased — Colin Passmore outlines the measures Simmons & Simmons has been taking to promote staff wellbeing during the Covid-19 crisis

After Covid-19 lockdown will virtual arbitrations become the new normal? — Michela D'Avino and Bahaa Ezzelarab argue that remote arbitration hearings should be carefully considered as an option to avoid costly delays

A question of timing: the different responses of US and UK elite law firms to Covid-19 — Looming decisions over associate pay and bonuses are a factor in the timing of UK law firm Coronavirus measures

Above all, this crisis too will pass — Rob Millard foresees large law firm mergers and accelerated digitisation in the wake of Covid-19

'It is about being proactive and decisive' — Norton Rose Fulbright EMEA managing partner Peter Scott on the thinking behind the firm's flexible working scheme

'Now is the time for law firms to deliver on their stated values' — Consultant Tony Williams advises law firm leaders to avoid knee jerk decisions and go into communication overdrive during the Covid-19 crisis

'I have realised how powerful technology now is': an Italian lawyer's take on Covid-19 — The lockdown is forcing Italians to embrace digitisation - and that even includes its public officials, writes Gabriella Geatti

Coronavirus risk may be unprecedented, but the fundamental principles of crisis response still apply — Crisis PR specialist Bethaney Durkin advises law firms impacted by the coronavirus to act quickly while avoiding a kneejerk response

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