Having examined the way banks promote themselves in the Brexit media coverage, we will now turn to an industry which works hand in glove with financial giants – law. UK’s affluent legal market is fueled by London’s role as a global financial hub, and bankers form the biggest client pool for lawyers: according to the representative body for solicitors in England and Wales, the Law Society, financial services providers supplied 44% of the value of deals on which Britain’s 50 largest law firms worked between 2009 and 2014.
Four of the world’s 10 largest law firms are headquartered in London and help Britain boast that it is the world’s most international legal market. There are two major reasons behind the UK lawyers’ popularity around the world: English common law is the most widespread legal framework (30% of the world’s population lives under English Common Law systems) and many international corporations, even those with no British ties, choose it as the governing law for commercial contracts, transactions and dispute resolution, especially arbitration – English law is used in 40% of all global corporate arbitrations.
The strong international flavor of the market is exemplified by the fact that 70% of last year’s cases in the Admiralty and Commercial Courts involved at least one party based outside of England and Wales. As a result, British law firms pocketed around £31.5bn in revenue in 2016 (the UK is second globally for legal services fee revenue) and the legal services’ trade surplus nearly doubled over the past decade.
This proven track record of success was highlighted by business lobby group TheCityUK as part of a dire warning about the flickering shadow of Brexit. According to them, Brexit poses a threat to English law’s dominance in international contracts and UK’s global attractiveness as a leading centre for resolution of disputes. Additional danger is that UK lawyers would not be able to represent clients before the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and advise on EU law, including many lucrative European merger and antitrust cases, which traditionally have been handled by London firms.
Other countries have sought to take advantage of the situation and market themselves as international legal hubs. Established dispute centres like New York and Paris strive to reinforce their capabilities, while Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong are not falling behind. Meanwhile, the launch of the new Netherlands Commercial Court, which will hear cases in English, is well under way.
In a similar vein, Belgium has announced its ambitions to set up an English-speaking International Business Court, and France has planned to open a special English-language court for commercial cases under English law. While announcing the project, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire did not hide that it was designed to lure international banking and investment from London to Paris.
To cap it all, the International Swaps and Derivatives Association is designing French and Irish law trade agreements as an alternative to the English law agreement that has regulated European transactions worth trillions of euros for decades.
The situation creates some marketing conundrums for UK law firms – as the uncertain business climate brought about by the Brexit vote persists, they should be able to present themselves as competent enough and in a position to advise their clients on a situation full of unknowns. This is where legal PR experts become more than essential.
As part of our research on how UK law firms handle their public relations in these circumstances, we interviewed several PR professionals working in the legal sector.
Clementine Hay, account director at Byfield Consultancy, tells us that “media relations and building strong relationships with influential journalists is crucial in communicating a positive message to law firms’ target audiences as well as the considerations for the potential challenges facing businesses and individuals”.
And according to Clo Davey, associate director at communications agency Farrer Kane, these uncertain times mean that lawyers can achieve an enhanced media profile by scenario-planning for journalists – despite the many variables in play, lawyers can position themselves as trusted advisers by demonstrating a firm grasp of the issues facing their clients and by proposing practical, deliverable solutions.
In agreement, Louise Beeson, a senior consultant at Bell Yard Communications, says that some firms convey a sense of expertise and focus on Brexit issues by putting together special Brexit teams, while others have dedicated Brexit sections on their websites, which include thought leadership articles, checklists and timetable countdowns which can be an important way to engage current and potential clients.
“A media presence in Brexit-related stories is also an important way to show lawyers understand the issues Brexit entails,” Beeson says. “The media remains super hungry for Brexit story ideas about every sector, readership segment and persuasion. Lawyers need to be able to talk about practical steps required now, as well as to predict future challenges and consequences.”
In this process, lawyers need to be seen not just as legal technicians and constitutional law experts, but also as business and life advisers – this will secure them a critical role in helping to shape the debate on what the UK government should think about while working on the deal with the EU, the Great Repeal Bill (also known as the European Union (Withdrawal) Act) and new legislation beyond.
This sentiment is also shared by Davey, who tells us that it is sometimes challenging to encourage lawyers to resist the urge to over-intellectualise their commentary – their valuable insights should not be obscured by technical jargon. She adds that most national newspapers have dedicated teams specifically covering Brexit issues, and recommends building relationships with these journalists by meeting them face-to-face and delivering insights and punchy quotes in a timely fashion, which will help ensure a lawyer stands out from competitors.
For Davey, “social media, particularly Twitter, is uniquely suited to the shifting sands of Brexit negotiations – lawyers adept at offering ‘real time’ commentary can quickly reach journalists, and more importantly, speak directly to clients about how Brexit might affect them.”
Beeson shares with us what she has seen to work well in terms of getting media traction: “client surveys on how prepared businesses are and acting as their pulse on post-Brexit fears, articles on what business are doing to prepare despite political uncertainty, trend stories on how expat individuals are feeling discriminated against already by employers and institutions like the NHS, and even creative profile-raising efforts like a Brexit crossword!”
Although some individual lawyers have joined remain and leave-related lobbying associations, most law firms have tried to stay politically neutral on Brexit, but this does not stop scare stories to be more prevalent at the moment than positive narratives.
Beeson has also seen journalists keenly interested in the comments of senior law firm partners on Brexit – for example, Clifford Chance, a member of the Magic Circle of leading British law firms, was reported by the Financial Times to be against Brexit given the potential damage to its City client base. Major firms such as Pinsent Masons, Hogan Lovells, Herbert Smith, Linklaters, DLA Piper, Eversheds and Kingsley Napley have been regularly quoted in the media on Brexit, commenting on employment law implications, the impact on the financial services sector, a future trade deal, people immigration considerations and others on what Brexit means for family law.
What invariably appeals to journalists according to Davey is the ability to get to grips with the wealth of complex information surrounding Brexit, and to then translate this into concise, authoritative opinion. She adds that “making this opinion heard in the cacophony of often heated debate is no mean feat, and law firms will have to work hard to earn their ‘share of voice’.”
To check which law firms managed to catch the media’s attention, we analysed the Brexit coverage since the day of the referendum.
The firms we found to dominate the media landscape have employed the strategies suggested by Beeson – specialised Brexit teams, Brexit sections on their websites, thought leadership articles, checklists and timetables. Hay has also noticed that some firms have produced white papers and more detailed opinion polls on the ramifications of Brexit as profile raising initiatives which can help position them as experts.
DLA Piper, for instance, has done sector-by-sector surveys on what clients might expect, and has issued guides on managing risks in long-term contracts. Their decision to launch a new office in Dublin was also well-documented. Meanwhile, Allen & Overy has published a specialised report, which also includes expert independent political commentary on the negotiations from Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform.
Pinsent Masons commissioned legal magazine The Lawyer and market research company YouGov to survey general counsel and board members of the UK’s largest listed and private companies and to compile a report on how prepared are large businesses for Brexit. Linklaters, on the other hand, has launched a report, “The Architecture for Regulating Finance after Brexit“, with the International Regulatory Strategy Group and has engaged experts such as The Rt. Hon. Lord Bruce of Bennachie of the EU Financial Affairs sub-committee and Dr Kay Swinburne, MEP and Vice-Chair of Economic & Monetary Affairs Committee, to provide commentary.
But Beeson has found that no particular law firm has made itself the go-to firm on Brexit – in her opinion, this is due to the fact that it is such a multi-faceted topic. She warns lawyers to tread a careful path not to overplay their hand with clients out of self-interest, because there is a perception that law firms stand to benefit from Brexit – at least in the short term – due to the demand it creates for Brexit-related advice.
Journalists are often on the hunt for sensible speculation, Davey says, but lawyers are typically reluctant to provide this: they are careful because they might be proven wrong at a later date. But she has also found that that fortune favours the brave: “while fanciful conjectures are to be avoided, intelligent guesswork and predictions will in most cases be well-received by the media”.
Hunger for Stories
PR experts have reached a difficult patch on Brexit communications, according to Beeson: following the referendum, there were many things to say about the big picture changes, and as time goes on, lawyers are lacking a lot of practical detail to react to, but this can create opportunities for those prepared to make bold and creative statements.
“The media will highlight the problems caused by political paralysis and/or calls for politicians to break through this deadlock and they remain hungry for stories showing how Brexit affects people and businesses, regardless of negotiations in cabinet and Brussels,” Beeson adds. “So if law firms are prepared to be a voice for their clients, then the opportunity for profile is good. If, on the other hand, law firms are reticent about criticizing the Government for fear of jeopardising future Brexit-related work, then the PR’s job on Brexit becomes all the harder.”
PR professionals should be able to deal with those multi-border dimensions post-Brexit, become familiar with jurisdictions which might see more work as a result (e.g. Dublin or Paris) and meet the main Brexit challenge – that investment decisions can be delayed or put off.
The situation legal PR specialists are facing with Brexit could give valuable lessons for corporate communications in any business climate full of unknowns. As Hay says, PR has always been a very adaptable profession, and when there is such an ongoing uncertainty, strategic PR becomes an ever more important tool for communications to target client base and referral networks.