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Black Letter Communications Blog

Expert pr advice for the legal sector

Communication is key as purpose trumps pay in war for talent

According to a report published earlier this month by Black Letter Communications client, Obelisk Support, young lawyers are increasingly attracted to principles- and values-based businesses. Nearly three-quarters of the junior lawyers surveyed as part of the report –  World in Motion: why the legal profession cannot stand still – agreed or strongly agreed that they would not join an organisation whose values did not match with their own, even if they were offering more money.

Given the legal sector is reliant on recruiting and retaining talented lawyers to ensure its success, firms and in-house legal teams should sit up and take notice. This research is telling us that hiking salaries will not be enough when it comes to attracting the new generation of lawyers.

Employees and potential recruits want to know that employers are genuinely committed to ESG (environment, social and governance). Many will have their own values and ethics that they are not willing to compromise on, whether that’s a refusal to advise fossil fuel clients or a commitment to effecting positive change in society through their work as a lawyer.

For those working in legal communications, the pressure is on to ensure that their own firm effectively communicates its values to the market and demonstrates a genuine commitment to ESG.

Window dressing

Law firms have come a long way since the early days of what was then known as corporate social responsibility, when a couple of paragraphs on a website was deemed sufficient. Plenty, however, are still just paying lip service – almost all of the survey’s respondents agreed that some organisations are guilty of window dressing when it comes to tackling diversity and other ethical issues.

Legal PR’s have their work cut out – not only do they need to clearly articulate a firm’s values and ESG credentials, they also need to ensure that those claims can be backed up with evidence of action. As Dana Denis-Smith, CEO of Obelisk Support puts it, “businesses are in an era of ‘show, not tell’ and law firms are not immune from scrutiny. It is not enough to draft the policies and send out the press releases – they have to prove they mean something.”

For those tasked with managing a law firm’s reputation, that can often mean delving more deeply and sometimes being the one to ask difficult questions of law firm management. Can they back up their claims that they are reducing their environmental impact? What actions are they taking to improve diversity in the workforce and how representative is the partnership? How much pro bono do lawyers undertake? Are there clients the firm will draw the line at working for?

It can also mean pushing back when perhaps a firm believes they are doing something groundbreaking or are making good progress, but in fact making the story public could be counterproductive. The firm may have grown the percentage of female partners from a low base but if it is still well under 50%, is trumpeting it as a victory an own goal?

This can be easier for some firms that others. Those that work in human rights and civil liberties will have an easier job of convincing potential recruits of their commitment to balancing purpose with profit when compared a big city firm.

Avoiding a mismatch

Whatever is being projected to the outside world also needs to reflect the lived experience of the majority of employees at the firm, otherwise the inevitable mismatch will damage the firm’s reputation. Announcing generous parental leave entitlement, for example, will only be effective if parents feel that taking time out from work will not impact their career progression.

As well as PR efforts to demonstrate the firm’s commitment to ESG, internal communications has a central role to play in ensuring employees understand the underpinning values of the firm and are aware and engaged in the ESG initiatives it is undertaking.

Some argue that as today’s idealistic young lawyers grow into middle age, their priorities will change. Whether or not that happens, the need for significant cultural change in the legal sector is not going to go away. The junior lawyers, clients and society as a whole expect legal businesses to make progress on diversity, to be climate conscious, ethical and to put back into their communities. Legal PR professionals are central to effectively communicating the strides being taken in the right direction.

planet not profit