Whether you agree or disagree with the Trump Administration’s policies, one fact is indisputable: It has fueled pro bono activity in Big Law like never before. Today’s political climate has placed a national spotlight on the need for pro bono legal services and appealed to attorneys’ moral motivations, prompting a strong showing from Big Law. According to the American Lawyer’s 2018 Pro Bono Scorecard, the Am Law 200 turned in 5.4 million hours of pro bono work last year, an increase of 100,000 hours from the previous year even though fewer firms provided information on their pro bono work.
Firms that have secured pro bono victories on behalf of their clients have an incredible opportunity to convey how the work reflects the firm’s values and capabilities. But it is often not until that victory has been achieved that the firm gives thought to if and how they can promote the work.
By taking a thoughtful and strategic approach to promoting pro bono work, law firms can ensure they are telling their story to the right audiences while avoiding any perception that they are in it for the publicity.
Let’s be clear: With the client’s approval, there’s nothing wrong, unethical or inauthentic about promoting pro bono wins. They often involve stories crucial to the public’s understanding of important issues. That said, there are numerous additional benefits that come from promoting a pro bono win, including:
• Business development and retention: Companies want to work with outside counsel that share their values. General counsel and chief legal officers have made it clear that law firms’ demonstrated commitment to equity, including through diversity and inclusion initiatives and pro bono services, factors into their hiring decisions. Highlighting pro bono efforts should be an essential part of any firm’s business strategy.
• Recruitment: Associate surveys have shown that commitment to pro bono can factor into associates’ decisions between law firms and can make or break the associate experience. These responses are indicative of a larger millennial trend: According to a recent study by Deloitte, over 80 percent of millennials said that companies should also be measured by how much good they contribute to society. In addition to nurturing millennials’ desires to give back, pro bono work provides young lawyers with hands-on training and helps them develop critical legal skills.
• Showcasing the firm’s values: Law firms have garnered national attention this year for their pro bono representation of clients that have been directly impacted by the presidential administration’s policies and actions on issues ranging from immigration to LGBTQ rights. When promoted strategically, these wins can make a strong statement about the firm’s values and its views on particular issues. However, it is equally important for firms with clients on both sides of the aisle to consider all of their audiences when taking a political stance.
• Highlighting a unique legal strategy: Pro bono cases often require attorneys to flex different muscles than their regular caseloads, and as a result can present opportunities for attorneys to develop innovative approaches. Promoting a win that utilized a unique legal strategy demonstrates the firm’s ability to creatively tackle challenging legal issues, which is a message that resonates with all key audiences.
Now turn your attention to the approach. It will likely differ from how you promote other big wins, so keep in mind a few considerations to maximize impact and most effectively leverage your victories.
Recognize That You Are Not the Story
An understandable concern is that promoting the firm’s role in a pro bono case win could detract from the client’s own story. Instead of trying to shift the narrative away from your client, recognize and accept that the firm is not the focal point of the story and incorporate this understanding into your PR strategy.
Craft a narrative around your client that addresses who the client is, what challenges or adversities they have faced, what issues were at stake in the case and why the win is significant. You can weave your firm into this narrative as a secondary story that addresses why the legal challenge was successful and use this opportunity to position the firm as an imperative aid that helped propel the client toward success. With this approach, the firm can promote its supporting role in a story that still focuses on the client.
Adjust Your Expectations—And Your Target Audiences
The firm probably has a list of publications to inform media about major wins, and it may fall back on that same list for a pro bono win. After all, it reaches your target audiences, whether they are general counsel or industry decision makers, and the journalists may know your name. For pro bono wins, however, the firm is going to need to think differently.
If a unique legal strategy was at play, the work makes for a truly interesting business of law story, or the win has a measurable impact on the firm’s target industries, there may be some overlap in the targets. Otherwise, remember the firm is not the story, and consider who will care about the client’s outcome—maybe their local daily newspaper or a bigger, consumer-facing outlet. For these outlets, plan to give as many details as possible about the client’s story and why it will be of interest to their readers or viewers. As the law firm involved, you can add depth to the story, but you will likely not be the focus.
To maximize awareness of your work, use social media and email distribution to get the story directly in front of your legal and business audiences, and align yourself with the cause and the victory, even if the firm isn’t the focal point of the story.
Think About the Big Picture
While pro bono wins may be different from your firm’s standard caseload, whenever you’re determining a PR strategy it’s important to ask yourself one fundamental question: What do you want people to think about when they hear your firm’s name?
If the goal is to build the firm’s reputation as a ceaseless advocate for clients, for example, perhaps the firm could consider producing a series of Q&As with pro bono clients and distribute to prospects or pitch to a publication as a bylined article series. If the firm wishes to highlight an immersive training program that provides associates with hands-on trial experience, testimonials from associates on their pro bono work could be included in recruiting materials. If the firm wants to be perceived as the go-to firm for high-stakes immigration cases or perhaps as a firm that unapologetically takes on tough cases that align with its principles, case studies demonstrating high-risk/high-reward pro bono challenges would support those narratives.
Think about the broader themes or messages your law firm is trying to communicate about its values, culture, strengths and differentiators.
Leveraging pro bono successes can play a major role in shaping those narratives.
Ada Oni-Eseleh is a senior account executive in the New York office of communications firm Infinite Global and Kelsey Eidbo is a client supervisor in the firm’s San Francisco office.