This month, the International Bar Association (IBA) has launched a new research project to examine the role of lawyers as ‘ethical gate-keepers’. As the IBA notes, the project is partly in response to criticism of the profession from multiple angles: for example, for continuing to provide legal services to businesses associated with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or for appearing to undermine the independence of legal advice by taking a stance on issues such as climate change.
The project comes at a critical juncture for the legal profession overall, as well as for individual law firms deciding on their stance and communications strategies. One Australian legal commentator has suggested that the legal world is indeed “about to enter a new era”; one where law firms have positions on a range of issues reflected in the clients they represent. If so, how should firms respond and communicate externally?
First, we need to understand what is driving this so-called ‘new era’. Awareness of climate change in the public consciousness is one factor, as is the accompanying rise of ESG concerns and cashflows. Public pressure, as embodied by mass civil disobedience and the presence last summer of Extinction Rebellion protestors outside City law firm Slaughter and May, is another. For the firms themselves, continuing to maintain their reputation to attract the best talent is clearly a leading incentive, as more socially conscious Gen-Z employees enter the workforce. The result of all these factors may therefore be a critical analysis of client portfolios and difficult conversations around taking a public stance.
The tensions this creates are alluded to in the IBA’s announcement, which mentions “undermining the core values of the legal profession”. Questions around client-lawyer confidentiality, the right to representation and the independence of legal advice are all at play here.
The right path to tread will vary law-firm to law-firm and be a balance of a range of factors. However, from a communications perspective, there are a few clear guiding principles that can help firms to navigate this complex arena without risking reputational damage.
Don’t deny the complexities
Say your firm has always worked with mining companies and in the energy sector but is now working primarily with renewables. The firm has decided that working with these businesses is the best way to bring about change and has put into place structures that ensure it does not work on new extraction projects. This is a complex change and one which will require careful communication. For example, if you have testimonials from oil companies on your website, putting out these new messages may ring hollow, and create suspicion. Instead, revise your mission statement clearly (and make that change public), be open about the process and ethical considerations which led you to this decision, and then evaluate all your communications channels, past and present, to make sure they reflect the firm’s evolution.
Prepare for the (reputational) worst
Horizon-scanning and critical evaluation of past work are necessary if your firm is planning to be more transparent. It may not come naturally to senior partners to speak on legal ethics or admit that past briefs would have been dealt with differently in today’s landscape. It is vital to scenario-plan for the potential backlash that comes with greater transparency, as well as provide media-training to the leadership who may be called on to speak externally.
Recent research from a global legal industry think-tank found that while nearly half of the world’s top 100 law firms have a formal ESG practice for advising clients, only 17% publish an ESG report that sets out their own commitments and actions. This disconnect could clearly prove damaging for individual firms’ reputations – although it will hopefully be addressed soon as the momentum gathers for more mandatory reporting.
Equip all employees with the message
Whatever stance your firm takes in the ‘new era’, employees are likely to be heavily impacted. If there is to be a change in strategy around ethics or the types of clients the firm is working with – and equally if the firm decides to take no action – these decisions need to be communicated internally first and foremost. Colleagues must be given the tools to explain this position to clients and their wider network. Ideally, employees from throughout the business should also be included in the creation of the guiding ESG strategy.
Use much-needed ESG knowledge as PR collateral
Supporting new business growth by creating informative content is nothing new. But in this ‘new era’ and given the need for sustainability and ESG expertise across all sectors, the imperative is even greater. Consider the digital PR strategy that will help potential clients to find you when they are seeking sector-specific information on topics such as climate disclosures or net-zero aligned contracts.
As this debate on the ‘new era’ evolves, engaging in the conversation may also help you stand out from competitors. For most people, the fundamental concepts of rule of law and access to justice are unfamiliar. They may see articles targeting lawyers and suggesting that they are enablers of actions that they disagree with, and come to conclusions of their own. Using your firm’s own communications channels to be transparent about the contradictions that exist, and the actions that lawyers are taking, can provide an avenue for differentiation in the market.
We can expect the implications of the trends touched upon above, and the findings of the IBA consultation, to occupy minds across the profession for the months and years to come. And while communications may not be front-of-mind, the firms that address their stance effectively and transparency, and utilise PR to their advantage, will undoubtedly be best equipped to succeed in this ‘new era’.
About the author: Sarah Woodhouse is Director at AMBITIOUS PR.