The reality is that law firm marketing and business development departments have undergone a marked evolution. The function and personnel of these departments has shifted from jack-of-all-trades administrative assistants, de facto assuming marketing and communication functions, to highly specialized professionals expected to deliver a quantifiable ROI.

Through the course of this shift, increasing segmentation has occurred with generalists joining firms fresh out of college and gravitating toward their natural niche — such as competitive intelligence, proposal writing or communications. This is not unlike the vast legion of lawyers who enter the practice of law slotted into one practice group only to shift into a different one that is a better fit, and in turn, thrive.

The post-Great Recession economy has brought into sharp relief the delicate cost structure balance. Increasingly, firms have looked for levers to pull to contain costs and have kept on doing so despite a modest economic recovery. This has meant that legal marketing and business development teams have been under greater pressure than ever to justify their salaries and positions.

The Role of Public Relations

The ability to see the world through a communications and media-centric filter is distinct and an important facet to a firm’s marketing communications strategy.

In terms of both cost and effective internal resource allocation, there is no "one-size-fits-all" strategy when it comes to whether it is better to have an in-house PR team or outsource this function to a professional services-focused agency.

Communications tools have evolved at a rapid clip, presenting firms myriad opportunities to create and leverage high-quality content. Strategic PR initiatives — including byline articles, routine press releases and providing expert commentary — create real value for a firm in terms of brand recognition, attorney engagement and recruiting efforts.

While not a direct one-to-one correlation, PR is frequently a major contributor to business development. In terms of client retention, the PR deliverable of high media visibility and market awareness affirms client loyalty by validating their purchase and relationship.

Reasons to Hire an In-House PR Professional

Firm size is often the biggest factor when it comes to hiring an in-house PR professional. For large, multioffice firms, the creation and support of an internal communications team is a worthwhile cost when amortized across the firm’s many attorneys.

Having an in-house PR professional provides numerous benefits to a firm including:

• Access: An in-house communications pro will naturally be privy to information to which an agency does not have access. The firmwide email and intranet are valuable resources for accessing firm "news," monitoring trends in firm business and researching supporting materials on the nuggets of information one might pick up in the elevator, in the halls or around the proverbial watercooler. Congratulatory emails sent while basking in the glow of a big deal or large verdict can quickly trigger the PR function — and an in-house professional may be able to walk down the hall and stand in the attorney’s doorway to get a speedy approval to move an initiative ahead.

• Confidentiality: If your firm culture is such that sharing information on cases, deals or involvements is a closely guarded secret, it’s unlikely that the firm will take full advantage of an outside agency, fearing the loss of control over information flow. In these situations, it may prove more effective to support the marketing communications function with a firm-affiliated professional who shares the same email domain, document repository and cultural values.

• Familiarity: If your practice is highly focused or complex, it may be useful to have a dedicated marketing communications professional on the payroll. This gives the individual a chance to cost-effectively take a deep dive into the subject matter, following developments that may trigger external communications.

Reasons to Outsource PR

For many firms, employing an outside PR agency is the right choice. Doing so removes from the equation issues such as concern over career development for an in-house PR professional and effective utilization of their skills given a firm’s often highly cyclical workflow.

In addition to the aforementioned benefits, outsourcing the PR function can also provide the following advantages:

• More resources: The day your in-house communications professional is out sick will be the day that the long-awaited, multimillion-dollar verdict comes down. It’s just Murphy’s Law. An agency provides a team of marketing communications pros who are available to help the firm get its messages out on a "breaking news" timeline. Further, most agencies staff accounts with a mix of senior- and more junior-level communicators. This means, like at a law firm, your top biller is not making copies or pulling lists, but they are there — on a moment’s notice — to guide the strategy or tackle the firm’s tougher reputational challenges.

PR agencies — much like law firms themselves — are virtual warehouses of like-minded talent. When a firm is looking to highlight an attorney or an issue, the chances are very good that at least one member of the agency is extremely well-versed in it and has valuable pre-existing connections with members of the media.

• Fresh perspective: Law firms and the practice or industry groups that walk their halls can be somewhat isolated in protection of their clients and their own trade secrets — whether the details of their latest RFP response or their innovative thinking in crafting a high-impact diversity program. Attorneys routinely present their ideas as new and different, but without insight as to what other firms are up to, how does one know? Working with a strategic partner helps break through groupthink, providing unique analysis and a reality check as to what is truly new and noteworthy.

• Efficiency: The journalists covering the legal space know the PR folks who work with a number of different lawyers. An agency can be one-stop shopping if they need a couple of attorneys to parse out a topic from different perspectives. Further, if an editor has a content hole to fill, who better than an agency with access to the work of multiple firms and lawyers to help out in a pinch?

Agencies also generally have access to a number of PR tools, including media databases, wire services and media monitoring tools. The agency will generally share the associated and significant costs for these tools across multiple clients, providing all the access and benefits without the increase to overhead.

It is far too simplistic to break down a firm’s communications options into either in house or agency. For many firms, a blend of a seasoned, senior PR professional paired with an agency works well. Some national firms effectively employ a team of agencies across the country, each with a geographic province.

Finding a balance that works — with respect to function and cost — is crucial to effective sales. Effective PR keeps a firm top-of-mind in the marketplace, establishes professionals as "go-to" expert sources with journalists and complements all other marketing and business development activities.

Traci Stuart is the president and Michael Bond is a senior account executive at Blattel Communications, a San Francisco-based full-service public relations and marketing agency specializing in business-to-business communication. They can be reached at traci@blattel.com and michael@blattel.com, respectively, or via the agency’s website: www.blattel.com.