Public relations executive Carl Terzian thought he was doing his client a favor when he described for a Los Angeles newspaper just how he markets or promotes law firms.
The day after the article was published, the client law firm fired him.
That was seven years ago.
“They said they were embarrassed for everybody to know they were doing marketing and needed such outside help,” said Terzian, who has tutored more than 60 law firms in public relations and marketing during the past two decades.
“When I was practicing law 10 years ago,” said Loren A. Wittner, who now does public relations for lawyers out of the Chicago office of Daniel J. Edelman Inc., “I would have thrown me out of my office if I were doing then what I am now.”
But law firms no longer shun what Terzian and Wittner can do for them.
Whether they call it public relations, publicity, marketing, communications, marketing communications, client relations, or client, practice or business development, its use is growing slowly but steadily as the staid profession of law becomes the competitive business of law.
A poll of 600 lawyers for the American Bar Assn. last year showed that 17% used public relations, up from 14% in 1985. The number who had used public relations at times was 23%, up from 20%, and another 23% said they plan to use it.
Four years ago, 25 people in the then-new field of in-house marketing for law firms decided to organize a trade group to share information about pay and responsibilities. When the bylaws for the National Assn. of Law Firm Marketing Administrators were adopted two years ago, 55 in-house experts approved them.
Today, the organization has 350 members and plans a November conference in San Francisco with the ABA’s Economics of Law Practice Section to teach law firms how to promote themselves to prospective clients.
“Three years ago, the ABA section was uncomfortable even talking about it. Now they’re co-sponsoring this international conference,” said Merrilyn Astin Tarlton, the trade group president who is business development director for Denver’s 40-lawyer firm Holland & Hart.
“The section’s motto is ‘better, cheaper, faster,’ ” said Warren Tomlinson, chairman of the ABA section and a Holland & Hart partner. “I really believe this conference will benefit lawyers. . . . We must try to get off our . . . pedestal and realize we are in a service business.”
Discussing why so many various terms are used to describe the new field, Tarlton said: “Law firms look for a euphemism because they are concerned about what the competition and clients are thinking. They interpret having to do ‘marketing’ as meaning you are in trouble.
“They think of all these terms as synonymous. ‘Public relations’ is softer. Lawyers see ‘public relations’ as doing something for your community and ‘marketing’ as selling yourself.”
What the public relations firms and in-house marketers can do for law firms is improve the firms’ image with targeted prospective clients and the general public. The assistance can include:
Writing and distributing news releases about a new partner or a case victory.
Designing, writing or editing, and printing a brochure for a law firm’s centennial anniversary.
Placing and perhaps writing an article by a real estate lawyer in a magazine circulated to contractors and realtors.
Training a lawyer to give a speech, writing the speech and booking his appearances.
Handling the “soup to nuts” of an open house down to setting up chairs or training hosts to mingle.
Teaching an individual lawyer how to dress and designing his business cards and decorating his waiting room.
“I have been introduced as ‘the PR gal,’ ” said Karen Winston, who is client relations director for San Diego’s 80-lawyer Higgs, Fletcher & Mack. “But the lawyers come to realize my job is not just sales or publicity.”
“The basic idea is to make sure the consumers of legal services are aware of what the firm can do,” said Mimi Barker, director of communications for New York’s 360-lawyer Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy.
Just why public relations has slowly shifted from what lawyers considered an “ungentlemanly” activity to one that most firms are considering is related to major changes in the legal profession during the past decade.
The “watershed,” according to Robert Denney, a Philadelphia-based marketing consultant to more than 200 law firms nationwide, was a 1977 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court permitting lawyers to advertise and, in Tarlton’s words, “opening the floodgates to competition.”
“Three-fourths of lawyers still will not advertise,” said Denney, “but that gave them the opportunity to consider other forms of marketing.”
Other factors, Denney said, are the burgeoning numbers of lawyers competing for clients (650,000 nationally in 1978 to 800,000 today, and a projected 1 million by the year 2000); corporations’ recent tendency to hire in-house lawyers to cut costs, and corporate and individual consumers’ increasing demands for higher service and lower costs.
Invasion From New York
Additionally, said Terzian, who founded his Carl Terzian Associates in Los Angeles 20 years ago, California’s own 114,000 lawyers have been “intimidated and scared” by the invasion of so many New York law firms into Los Angeles and by mergers or closings of several firms throughout the country.
Once a law firm commits itself to engaging in public relations or marketing, the next thorny decision is whether to hire a non-lawyer at a salary ranging from $28,000 to $100,000 a year to handle it in-house or to hire a public relations firm with price tags of $1,500 per press release or hourly billing rates of $200, akin to those of many lawyers.
“What you do, you do through attorneys, and that takes day-to-day, hour-to-hour contact with them. You have to be here,” said Byron G. Sabol, former head of the Los Angeles region for independent public relations firm Carl Byoir & Associates, who is now director of practice development for Los Angeles-based, 300-attorney Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker.
“You have to be here to absorb the culture of the law firm,” Sabol said. “If there is a beginning and an end to an assignment, such as an open house, an outside agency can help. But the total overall function of practice development has to be driven internally. That is crucial.”
The advantages of using an outside firm were touted by Greg LaBrache, vice president and director of media relations for the Western states for Hill & Knowlton, the world’s largest public relations firm, with 1,000 clients and 2,000 employees in 51 offices around the world. The firm represents, among other law firms, the world’s largest, Chicago-based Baker & McKenzie, which has 1,154 lawyers in 44 offices worldwide.
“If a senior partner decides on a certain course, as an outsider being paid $200 an hour, I can take a look at it and say, ‘That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard of,’ ” LaBrache said. “He knows I will talk turkey to him because my future is not dependent on his liking me. Someone in-house will be hesitant to do that.”
Wittner, the lawyer who heads Edelman’s Professional Services division, believes that the best approach is to use both.
“We can provide counseling and exposure and the shaping of an image for the law firm,” Wittner said. “But you need someone inside to get news out quickly. It’s a round-robin, mutual type of arrangement.”
Difficult to Measure
One firm that does that is the New York-based, 335-lawyer Stroock & Stroock & Lavan.
Margaret Wellner, the firm’s director of marketing communications, handles most research and communications needs for the national firm from her New York office.
But in addition, Stroock’s 41-lawyer Los Angeles office contracts with the Rogers & Associates public relations firm. In-house special projects staffer Mary Shea sets up the firm’s seminars and produces an office newsletter.
“Our thought is that, first, the press community in Los Angeles is far distant from that in New York, so Rogers could give us insight to it,” said Michael Umansky, managing partner of the firm’s Century City office. “And secondly, (Wellner) has a full plate with what she has to do for the entire firm. Hiring Rogers was a matter of supplementing her talents.”
How successful the public relations efforts are in terms of new clients or an improved image or higher revenue is always difficult to measure, both in-house and outside experts say.
Terzian suggests a one-year program, in which he sometimes trains a law firm to take over its own public relations, urges patience and insists on personally meeting with top law partners monthly to monitor progress.
Concrete results are hard to demonstrate, said Bruce Beck, of Casey & Sayre Inc. public relations, who targets trade publications and organizations in trying to build a national image for Cox, Castle & Nicholson. His client is a mid-size Los Angeles firm with 75 lawyers specializing in real estate law.
Staid Firms Watch
“But they say people know who they are now,” he said. “If what we do is not reflected in the bottom line, then we are not doing our job.”
A handful of lawyers have made their own reputations without in-house or outside public relations advisers.
“I do not wish to ever hire a public relations person,” said highly publicized feminist attorney Gloria Allred of the 15-lawyer Los Angeles firm Allred, Maroko, Goldberg & Ribakoff.
“This is the practice of law, and I do not feel comfortable delegating the responsibility of speaking about my cases to anyone else other than my parties (clients) or associates.”
Allred, who is known for staging press conferences outside a department store, dry cleaners or restaurant that she is suing for sex discrimination, said she does nothing in the sense of public relations to generate good will or more clients. Her well-known publicity tactics about which other lawyers consult her, she said, are designed to accomplish change and to teach the public their rights.
“I feel that exposing the wrong is one way to right the wrong. If the light of day shines on the wrongdoer, he corrects his action more quickly than if it is just left to the lawsuit that takes five years to get to trial,” she said, explaining her press conferences at defendants’ business sites.
Staid, long-established mega-firms also eschew formal public relations help as unnecessary. But they nevertheless watch the new development carefully and dabble sparingly in its use.
If they need a little advice about a project or special help with a 100th-anniversary brochure, for example, they hire public relations assistance for a brief, one-shot assignment.
“We are not oblivious that we have to see to it that people are aware of our services,” said Robert S. Warren, chairman of the partners’ communications committee of California’s largest firm, Los Angeles-based Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher with 683 lawyers.