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Black Letter Communications Blog

Expert pr advice for the legal sector

Building your law firm’s reputation through awards

An abridged version of this article appeared in May’s Counsel magazine.

The pandemic might have put paid to award ceremonies, but it hasn’t stopped the organisers from going ahead with online versions. Even the Golden Globes went ahead this year with TV and film stars dialing in from the comfort of their own homes, many in full designer outfits, some in pyjamas.

I was a little sceptical about online award ceremonies but having attended the Next 100 Year’s Inspirational Women in Law Awards towards the end of last year, I found myself enjoying the experience, listening to the stories and insights of some outstanding female lawyers, including Cherie Blair QC who won the Lifetime Achievement Award.

Of course, I would have preferred to be chatting to my fellow human beings face to face with a glass of wine in hand but with a bit of creativity such ceremonies make for a worthwhile replacement.

With the Covid-19 vaccine programme rolling ahead, there is just an outside chance that the legal profession will be able to come together again later this year to hand out well deserved gongs.

So as the prospect of celebrating in style begins to look like a real possibility, would be winners and nominees might be wondering how to put their best foot forward and create a winning entry.

But is it worth entering awards and if so, which ones? What are the benefits from a legal PR perspective and what makes for a winning entry?

Over the past 10 years, the legal PR team at Black Letter have worked with clients to secure a wide range of award wins for chambers, law firms, individuals and teams and these are questions we have been asked many times.

Is it worth it?

Catherine Calder, joint CEO of Serjeants’ Inn certainly thinks so. Serjeants’ Inn has been the recipient of 23 awards over the last three years: “Awards are a bit of fun.  And – provided you choose the right ones – they are good for business too.  We all want to work with the best, whether as a client or a member of the set or its staff team, and there’s something about an award-win which really cuts through as a shorthand for excellence.”

Catherine stresses: “It’s about the work behind the award.  We want to highlight how much our barristers put in to work with the solicitor to steer and support the client through crucial cases.”

Legal marketing specialist Eileen Donaghey agrees: There are huge benefits from winning an award or even being listed as a finalist. It can help bring the team together, give a sense of unity from an internal perspective as well as influencing how the team or chambers is viewed from the legal industry and adding an extra piece of endorsement for new clients.”

The client point is an important one. I remember when I had to instruct a lawyer for the first time and being comforted by the array of awards lining the reception desk when I walked in to their offices. Eileen agrees: “Clients like to know that the counsel they are using are award-winning. It can sometimes be a deciding factor and it certainly does add an extra edge over competitors.”

So, what is it that makes for a winning entry?

Plan for success. I’ve been approached on several occasions to draft an award entry with 48 hours to go before the deadline and have had to politely decline. Award-winning submissions take time to research and collate the right information.

It will depend on the award criteria and word length, but my advice is to leave at least 2-3 weeks to prepare your entry, and expect to produce a couple of drafts before the finished article is crafted.

Just doing your job isn’t enough. Awards judges are looking for some standout piece of work or initiative. Too many times judges are faced with award entries that while solid, amount to nothing more than doing the day job.

Interrogate the criteria. Once you are clear on which awards you want to focus on, look at the criteria and evaluate whether an individual or a practice area has a compelling story to tell. Have they worked on a landmark or high-profile case? Has one of your lawyers gone above and beyond what is expected of them, campaigning or taking on pro bono work in their spare time? Have chambers made a significant contribution to an industry initiative?

For the best chances of success, you really need to study the criteria. Treat it a bit like an exam question. Remember, it’s not what you want the judges to know, but what the judges have asked you to show them.

Before you submit the award, go back and reread the criteria and make sure you have answered everything the judges have asked for and that you have met all of the requirements.

Include proof points. State tangible examples of what the entrant or organisation has achieved. Perhaps your expertise led to winning a case that changed a specific area of law or triggered a change in government policy.  If so, explain how.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard a lawyer tell me their chambers or firm is innovative, but when pressed further they haven’t been able to demonstrate it. Award entries are not for telling a story about how great you are, they are for showing it and you can only do that with proof points. Think show and glow not sell and tell.

For example, say: X has represented families in seven Article 2 inquests over the past 18 months. He achieved six conclusions where either neglect and / or significant failures were identified, and a Prevention of Future Deaths Report was issued following all seven inquests.

Rather than: X has built up an innovative specialism in Article 2 inquests, representing many clients successfully.

Referees are all important. Third party referees who will vouch for an entrant’s good work are crucial. So, whether it’s a client, a referrer or another independent voice, including their viewpoint will make all the difference. And even though it might be time consuming, don’t just ask your referee for a testimonial, talk to them and write something for them to approve. People often get stumped if they’re asked to write something and tend to write the same glib thing, failing to convey the true impact a piece of work or an individual has had on them. However, by talking to someone you will often get a far richer picture.

Be brutal: Why say something in 100 words when 50 will do? Often, award entries have a word limit, but remember it’s not a target. Be concise and clear. Doing so will actually enable you to say more.

Also, avoid repetition. They’re just wasted words and means you’re missing out on a valuable opportunity to demonstrate why you should win the award.

Read the fine print. Award organisers will be clear about the format they want to receive the award submission in, what the word length is, whether they accept supporting criteria and in what form. Failing to adhere may mean your award doesn’t even make it as far as the judging panel. And don’t forget the deadline. Some award organisers might allow small deadline extensions by a few days, but why leave it to chance? See my earlier point about planning for success.

Proofread, proofread and proofread again. We all know that when we’ve worked on something for a while and seen various drafts, we can become immune to the content. Always get at least one other person to read your entry for typos and to ensure it conveys what you intended.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Be warned – awards can be lucrative and there are companies that claim to give out accolades on merit but will contact swathes of firms offering ‘winner’ status to whichever firm or individual is happy to pay for the privilege.  These are best avoided. These are not be confused with awards that sometimes will ask for a small registration fee or donation to a charity. The golden rule here is if you haven’t submitted an entry but are asked for payment in return for receiving an award, walk away!

Finally, make the most of the accolade. If you win or are nominated, make sure you make the most of it. That means including it on your email signature, website, in biographies and in marketing materials. Ensure you get the message out on social media and that the winning team or individual gets a write up in your internal and external communications. If there is a physical event – and here’s hoping that won’t be far off – use the opportunity to invite clients and referrers, treat colleagues or spend time with those who have contributed to your success.

Award entries are an important part of the legal PR mix. It’s a great way to build your brand reputation amongst clients, referrers, potential recruits and your own people. Good luck!