A law firm employee goes on a murderous rampage at a health club. A corruption scandal erupts, in which at least one defendant has personal or business ties to a New Jersey law firm. An attorney and former House of Representatives leader whose position as chair of a controversial health care lobbying group results in his resignation from the law firm. Stealth layoffs leak out and get reported in the media and on influential legal blogs that raise questions about the economic health of the law firm. These are real and very recent examples of crisis situations that law firms have to be thinking about if they are serious about protecting their hard-earned reputations with clients, prospects, employees and the communities where they have offices.
Unfortunately, many firms still do not adequately prepare for the worst when it comes to their business, even though they are paid well for advising clients about potential crises in their business or personal lives.
There are three key timelines in a crisis that law firms need to be aware of: (1) Before Stuff Happens (BSH), (2) During a Crisis (DC) and (3) After the Crisis Begins to Subside (AC).
BEFORE STUFF HAPPENS
When a crisis hits, most law firms today know they have to react in some way. But most still don't adequately prepare for a crisis or take the necessary steps to defend their reputations in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. Some firms even stick their collective heads in the sand and hope the problem will just go away. People don't forget about a law firm's problems in an age of 24/7 news operations, the growth of influential law-related blogs, social media sites and Google search results.
The best place for a law firm to start to protect its reputation is during the BSH phase. Below are some guidelines for preparing for a law firm crisis:
• Create a crisis communications team.
Depending on the size of the firm, this should include the managing partner, chief operating officer, human resources director, facilities director or manager, chief marketing officer, and your top public relations/communications representative. If a firm has multiple offices, then the partners in charge of those offices should be included on the team. (Note: Smaller firms might not have staffers in HR/facilities/marketing, so instead they can add their office manager to the team. And if the firm uses an outside PR agency, their most senior person with crisis communications experience should be included.) Each member of the team should have multiple hard copies and electronic copies of the team's contact information, including personal e-mail addresses, home telephone numbers and personal cell phone numbers. At least one copy of this list must be kept outside the firm's offices.
• Hold at least two meetings of the crisis team each year to identify potential crisis situations.
Every firm has to be concerned with sudden events like workplace violence, fires, explosions, loss of data and health hazards. And every firm also faces vulnerabilities of its own, slower-moving but long-lasting situations that could explode into crises: e.g., abusive partners, malpractice lawsuits, disgruntled associates, investigation of firm's behavior by court administration or public officials, layoffs or allegations of discrimination/harassment. Drafting what-if scenarios and how to respond is always the first step to crisis communications preparedness.
• Begin writing template press statements that can give your firm a head start if a crisis situation develops.
Then it's much easier to pull them off the shelf and fill in the particulars. For example: A small fire broke out early today on the fourth floor of the law firm Smith and Smith on Main Street and was extinguished quickly by the Smallville Fire Department. There was one minor injury to an employee who was treated at General Hospital and later released. Managing partner Joe Smith expressed his deep gratitude for the superb response by the Fire Department, police and EMS first responders. Smith said his firm is cooperating fully with the Fire Department's investigation into the cause of the fire and will have more information at a press conference later this afternoon at a time and place to be determined.
• Identify one primary spokesperson for the firm and one backup.
You don't want the managing partner speaking about small crisis situations, but you must have the managing partner speak and be visible when it's a major disaster and high-profile media story. Be sure to include your spokesperson(s) in your key contact list, making sure to have their home, cell and vacation home telephone numbers.
• Draft a short but detailed crisis communications plan that instructs employees about what they should do.
For example, the HR department might be responsible for keeping track of the whereabouts of employees in a disaster; the IT department would secure all client and firm data and have their offsite backup systems ready to go and might have a separate Web site built for communication if the server goes down or is destroyed; the PR/communications team would be charged with setting up a "war room" offsite, fully equipped to disseminate information to the media and others in the crisis and would be positioned to monitor and respond to what is being said about the firm in the first few hours/days of a crisis.
• Identify clients, colleagues and vendors who would publicly attest to the firm's caring culture and commitment to legal ethics.
These are people who can communicate with the media and others which will increase the firm's credibility and help defend its reputation when it is most needed.
DURING A CRISIS
The most important thing to remember as soon as a crisis hits is that actions speak louder than words. If, for example, there's an explosion or fire in which there are serious injuries, a managing partner cannot e-mail in a prepared statement from his vacation in Hawaii. He or she must quickly return home, take immediate concrete actions that ensure the well-being of employees and show the kind of leadership that reassures clients about their pending matters. It is critically important during this stage that managing partners and other spokespersons connect what they say with what they do. Reporters and bloggers will be watching every step you take and will be on the lookout for anything that does not seem consistent. Some crisis situations require one or more news briefings. Others require a carefully worded press statement. Look to your in-house public relations professionals or outside PR agency for guidance.
AFTER THE CRISIS
The first few hours of a major crisis and the first few days and months after smaller crisis situations are critically important to the firm's long-term reputation. Remember that the media and otherss will be observing how you responded to the situation to ensure that they can continue to do business with the firm.
This is a time to go back to the media and tell your comeback story: how you rebuilt your offices after the fire; how you implemented a new policy that takes a harder line against harassment or discrimination, or how you have a new pro bono program that is making a difference in the community.
This is also a time to continually monitor what is being said about the firm online, and a good time to work on search engine results. That means if there has been an inordinate amount of negative media coverage as a result of the crisis, it's a good time to ramp up your proactive public relations efforts to push down the bad news. Examples would include a litigation victory you can talk about, the closing of a major transaction, new partner(s) arriving or a new mentoring program for associates.
Preparing for a crisis in advance is no different than purchasing a malpractice insurance policy. It should be standard operating procedure for every company -- large or small -- and regardless of industry. Stuff happens -- even in law firms -- so it is best to be prepared and put your best foot forward.
Rich Klein is president of LawFirmsPR in New York.