Gus Sellitto, Byfield MD, discusses the future of reputation management in the legal sector
When I consider the next big thing for the legal sector, I naturally look towards my own line of work – reputation management. Our 2017 survey of in-house PR teams in the legal industry in conjunction with Legal Business, revealed that 40% of respondents did not think that their organisations prioritised risk to reputation as seriously as other industries. To answer the question, the next big thing for reputation management in the legal sector is, well, exactly that!
Corporates in any industry seek guidance in communications to find a voice: they seek a voice that stays abreast of change in the industry and demonstrates how competitive they are; they seek the means to become relevant and respected and once they achieve that status, they want to maintain it.
Yet when comparing the legal industry to other industries, in my opinion, we are about ten years behind our corporate cousins in many of these areas. When we talk about the ‘next big thing’ in law, conversation typically turns to AI and the rise of an automated workforce, Brexit or further consolidation of the industry. These are all changes and innovations which may seem groundbreaking for the legal sector, but for other industries they have become the norm. The concept of reputation management is no different.
The Legal Services Act in 2007 might have been seen as a damp squib by some, but it did fundamentally change the business of law. Competition is fierce among legal services providers in a changed and evolving landscape that now includes traditional law firms and barrister sets as well as new entrants such as litigation funders, Legal Process Outsourcers and, of course, the looming spectre of the Big Four. We now work in an industry where Alternative Business Structures allow legal work to be challenged by companies who might once have been clients of law firms. Consequently, firms are becoming more discerning as growing numbers of GCs shop around between legal services providers that offer essentially the same service. The market has changed, and so has the ability of law firms to rest on their laurels and assume business will continue as normal.
In an increasingly saturated market, the ability to raise the organisation’s profile is king and a lack of action or reliance upon existing reputation leaves a business at serious risk. It is no coincidence that top-50 law firms employ a head of PR with significant experience. The industry has begun to recognise reputation management for what it is: a powerful tool to gain a competitive advantage.
But firms must also consider the reputational risks they might be exposed to. Just as brand value can grow, it can also fall. Reputation has become something we can put a price on. Following the emissions scandal in 2015, VW’s market share in 2016 fell to its lowest level since the financial crisis. It has since increased again only to show that reputation really can affect the bottom line. To compound this in our industry, legal services providers are finding that they are not responsible just for their own reputation, but for their client’s as well.
Without a strategy in place for a firm’s own reputation management, it is unlikely that they will be prepared to cope with the knock-on effect of a client’s reputational problems. Legal services providers will have to become more literate in seeing, managing and mitigating reputational risk and the means by which they do this will consequently become more sophisticated.
Be it technological progress, the proliferation of social media and faster news or even just a move towards a more Millennial-led workforce, the channels by which the legal industry communicates are going to have to adapt. For me personally, this has been never as apparent as this August. I noticed a significant departure from the usual status quo: in what is usually a quiet holiday period, our clients have been digesting news and wishing to react to it more than ever. It starts to dawn on law firms that even if their partners are on a sun-lounger, their reputation never is.
This article was originally published by Harbour Litigation Funding and is reproduced by kind permission.