What Does Your Law Firm Stand For?
Roughly Two-Thirds of Your Clients Want to Know
In case you haven’t noticed, we are living in an increasingly divisive society. Everything is up for debate, and we are expected to pick a side in those debates. From our political views and opinions on social issues, to the best “one hit wonders” of all time, to those impassioned “hoagie” versus “hero” versus “sub” conversations, our culture today demands that we take stands, choose sides and avoid equivocating.
Based on a recent survey from one of the largest communications firms in the world, lawyers and law firms should strongly consider, too, taking stands and making public pronouncements about the political or social issues they care about.
A few weeks ago, the Edelman communications firm released its 2018 Edelman Earned Brand Study. The survey looks at the nature of brands’ relationships with consumers. This year (the fourth year of the survey), the survey found that 64 percent of consumers around the world will “choose, switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on where it stands on the political or social issues they care about.” In the United States, Edelman found that 59 percent of consumers are these so-called “belief-driven buyers.”
This means that theoretically, almost two-thirds of prospective clients of lawyers and law firms want those lawyers and firms to take a stand on political or social issues.
This survey is good news for lawyers and their firms. Naturally, lawyers and law firms tend to take positions on political or social issues based on their legal practices. Many lawyers and firms—including some of you reading this column—already are doing so publicly. Some lawyers stand for protecting civil rights. Others stand for preventing the wrongfully accused from going to jail. Still others stand for protecting businesses and their hard-working employees from opportunistic plaintiffs like patent trolls out to make a quick buck through frivolous court filings.
Communicating to the world about the political or social issues a lawyer or law firm cares about can be an effective public relations and marketing strategy. However, doing so is not without risk. Here are four considerations for lawyers and law firms contemplating being more vocal publicly about the political and social issues they care about.
Take a broad view of what a political or social issue is in order to avoid controversy.
Unfortunately, the first topics that come to mind when you and I think about political or social issues are often hot-button topics such as abortion, gun control, immigration, and the like. But the political or social issues that a lawyer or a law firm chooses to take a stand for need not be remotely controversial. Taking a broad view of what a political or social issue is can open the door to being able to publicly support a wide range of worthy causes, while staying away from topics that might rub would-be clients the wrong way. This is especially important for law firms and legal practices that attract clients from all walks of life, and thus have a more diverse audience to worry about offending. Law firms that support their local schools by sponsoring essay contests or giving scholarships to students in financial need are taking a stand on an important social issue—education—that is not controversial. Same thing with a law firm that sponsors clean-ups and rebuilds of local parks and playgrounds. A law firm that is creative with the political or social issues it publicly supports will be able to stand for something without alienating current and future clients.
Then again, consider “playing to your base.”
On the flip side, there are some lawyers and law firms that have niche practices with a clearly defined set of friends and foes. Immigration lawyers and their clients are unlikely to be raving fans of President Donald Trump or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Neither pro-employee labor attorneys nor their clients are likely to support anti-union legislation. And, I would imagine, law firms with vibrant firearms law practices and their clients will not take kindly to new federal gun control laws. In these instances, lawyers and their firms should consider emulating politicians by playing to their “base.” In each of these three examples, it is unlikely that any prospective client would be offended by a lawyer taking a stand on an issue that is near and dear to his or her legal practice. To the contrary, such a stand could strengthen the attraction and connection between would-be clients and the firm. And, based on the niche nature of these kinds of practices, the people most likely to be offended by a lawyer’s or firm’s public statements about a particular political or social issue are unlikely to be prospective clients of the firm anyway.
If a law firm does not have a base, it should at least choose a political or social issue with some connection to its people, firm, or practices.
If a law firm wants to publicly stand for something but prefers to avoid controversy or does not have a base to play to, it should consider choosing political or social issues that have some connection to the firm. The examples I gave above regarding essay contests or scholarships for certain students are “feel good” issues that can be adopted by any firms that wish to emphasize their support of local schools or their local communities. Same thing goes for clean-ups and rebuilds of local parks and playgrounds. However, if there is a disconnect between a law firm’s practice or background and the political or social issues it supports, would-be and current clients might question the intentions of the law firm and the authenticity of its support for those issues. Supporting a local refugee organization? That would be a logical connection for an immigration lawyer or practice, but less so for a corporate lawyer with no refugees in her family or within 50 miles of her home and office. However, supporting a local entrepreneurship or STEM (Science, technology, engineering, mathematics) program would be a natural fit for that corporate lawyer. For many lawyers, noncontroversial yet “on brand” political or social causes to support will practically leap off the page once those lawyers start thinking about the types of causes that relate to the substance of their legal practices, the location of their offices, or their own personal beliefs and circumstances.
There are a number of ways for lawyers and law firms to communicate publicly where they stand.
Different law firms of varying size and legal practices will choose to use different means to communicate that they are taking a stand. Some will communicate where they stand with a bullhorn. Others, with a whisper. For smaller law firms with niche practices, it will be more effective for them to go “all in” with their positions on relevant political and social issues. Those law firms might have explicit language prominently featured on the first page of their websites, their advertising, and in their newsletters to convey where they stand on certain issues. These lawyers and firms will be using a bullhorn because it is important for them to let their prospective clients and referral sources know from the get-go where they stand on certain issues. Other larger firms might have a different view of the world and not want be so “in your face” about the stands they take. Thus, they might relegate explanations of what they stand for to sections of their websites that address pro bono matters or charitable endeavors. Some other firms might consider that kind of information to be relevant only to their lawyers and not to their firm as a whole. For these firms, they may decide to include that information only in their lawyers’ online bios. These firms might prefer to communicate where they stand with a whisper because of the firm culture or their concern about offending some of their referral sources or prospective clients.
Edelman’s survey backs up what a lot of us have been experiencing first hand recently even if we didn’t realize it—we as consumers are drawn to businesses and organizations that stand for something we believe in.
Law firm clients are consumers, no matter their size, sophistication, or legal needs. Lawyers and law firms that have been taking stands on political or social issues and communicating those stands publicly should be emboldened by Edelman’s study. After all, almost two-thirds of those firms’ prospective clients will be drawn to (or repelled by) a law firm because of where that law firm stands on certain issues.
For lawyers who do not appear to stand for something in the eyes of referral sources and prospective clients, Edelman’s study suggests that it is time to start doing so—and getting the word out about it.
Wayne Pollock is the founder and managing attorney of Copo Strategies in Philadelphia, a national legal services and communications firm. Copo Strategies helps lawyers and law firms ethically, strategically, and proactively tell their clients’ stories to the media and the public, and those lawyers’ and firms’ own stories to the media, referral sources, and prospective clients. Contact him at 215-454-2180, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @waynepollock_cs on Twitter.
Reprinted with permission from the November 6, 2018, edition of The Legal Intelligencer © 2018 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-257-3382 or email@example.com.