16 Jul 2021

'Never compromise your values' - 10 golden rules for reputation management

Law firm leaders are rarely thanked for their handling of a crisis, but doing it well can build credibility like little else, argues Michael Evans

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Law firms of all shapes and sizes face reputational issues from time to time. Sometimes these will never make it outside the firm or are just minor irritants. Occasionally they are bigger and threaten the reputation of the firm itself or - in extremis – pose a material business risk. 

The decisions law firm leaders make when dealing with reputational issues are hugely important. They also have a bearing on the reputation and legacy of the leaders themselves. These issues can be particularly daunting for those new to leadership roles, so every new law firm leader should ensure they understand the basics and have appropriate training.

With this in mind, here are ten things law firm leaders and aspiring leaders should do:

1) Attend to the small stuff

Crises come in different sizes. A personal problem for one of your partners which has gone public may border on irrelevant for the business as a whole, but might be absolutely devastating for the individual. Reach out and support them if it is appropriate. If you are new to a management role it is also important for you to take an interest in the smaller reputational issues because this is where you learn what your role is and how to play it well. 

2) Listen to your team but play an active part

It’s obvious that you should listen to the communications professionals you employ and in the event of a true crisis you should always engage an external PR agency to help. But do not outsource every aspect of handling issues. Ask your team questions and probe PR agency proposals. You need to be involved and to take ownership of the approach, not least because many of the communications about the issue will be made in your name.

3) Learn to live with good enough

By definition something has already gone wrong if you are facing a reputational issue. You are in the land of the imperfect and it is not usually within the gift of your team to make everything right. This is often about damage limitation and the art of the possible. Get comfortable with that.

You want to trust your partners. Of course you do... The reality however is that most firms of any size are leaky

4) Accept that leaks happen

You want to trust your partners. Of course you do. You would like to think they would not speak out of turn to the press or seek to cause problems. The reality however is that most firms of any size are leaky and the vast majority of time those leaks come from within the partnership. Often these are mischievous rather than malicious, but they can still play havoc with your internal and external communications about things like management elections, office moves and other firm business. Leaks can make good news feel like bad news, because you are not in complete control of the timing or the message. This can adversely affect internal and external perceptions about the firm, even if they are not crises as such. You should not be afraid to remind partners about media policies in such situations, but don’t obsess about the source of leaks. 

5) Never compromise your values or your integrity

Never lie, never bury your head in the sand and never compromise your own personal and professional values in leading the firm through a reputational crisis. Purpose-driven leadership requires that nothing is more important than your integrity. However, if you are too close to the reputational matter at hand to have objectivity, or if for any reason it is not appropriate for you to be involved, then hand it to others, step away and stay away.

6) If a client is unhappy, treat it as a crisis

If a big client is unhappy with something that one of your partners has put in the public domain then it is always a crisis, even if it does not affect the whole business. It doesn’t have to be all over the Financial Times; it can just as easily be in the local or trade press, or even be something unwisely published on your firm’s blog or on social media. It doesn’t matter where it appears; commenting inappropriately about a client’s problems will always get your firm into trouble. If this happens be prepared to get involved quickly and personally. Offer to apologise to the client directly and look very closely at what happened to ensure the mistake is not repeated.

Stonewalling a reporter when they have been passed accurate information from within the firm will never end well

7) Attend to your internal audience

Some of the hardest reputational issues involve matters that appear to conflict with a firm’s stated values. If it relates to conduct or diversity and inclusion matters, if mistakes were made, and if it’s all hitting the press, then you are going to have to be straight with your people. Apologise and tell them what you are going to do to ensure such a thing never happens again. This applies even if events that feel like ancient history have been dug up by the press.

8) Expect criticism, whatever you do

Like many aspects of leadership, dealing with major reputational issues is often a thankless task. There is little glory and it can be brutal. Some of your partners will always be of the view that a crisis is being mishandled by the firm's leadership. However, handling tough issues well can transform how they perceive you as a leader and will build your credibility like little else.

9) Stay engaged – especially with the legal press

Do not disengage from the media. Even if you don’t like the way they have covered some issues you have faced. Of course you do not have to disclose things you do not wish to and some firms are by nature more private than others. But be helpful when you can be and do not be critical of journalists who are simply doing their jobs. You will need some kind of relationship with them; either when something truly bad happens, or if management information is being leaked from within the partnership. Stonewalling a reporter when they have been passed accurate information from within the firm will never end well.

10) Check you have basic hygiene in place

Finally, if you are new to firm leadership then you will have a million things to do and learn. But do make sure these things are on your to-do list:

  • Get media trained – a refresher course if you have been trained previously
  • Read your firm’s media policy and check it is fit for purpose
  • Ensure you know what any live reputational issues are when you take up your new leadership role
  • Ensure your firm has a relationship with a good external PR agency it can call on quickly in a full-blown crisis.

 

Michael Evans is a freelance PR and reputation management professional with two decades of experience in senior roles at global law firms and as a journalist

 

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