Law and disorder: Learning from the mistakes of law firms

During the PR industry's six-year boom, many firms looked at other professional service providers - such as lawyers, accountants, and management consultants - as models for improving their own service offerings. Now, with the fat times a slimming memory, PR firms are eyeing these same industries to see what mistakes they can avoid.

During the PR industry's six-year boom, many firms looked at other professional service providers – such as lawyers, accountants, and management consultants – as models for improving their own service offerings. Now, with the fat times a slimming memory, PR firms are eyeing these same industries to see what mistakes they can avoid.

In the past two months, four of the US' largest law firms have disbanded. Others have merged in attempts to survive. Still others have terminated the jobs of more than 11,000 lawyers, with a 1% decrease nationwide in the past year. Although law firms have generally been experiencing a slowdown in work and a reduction in headcount, some (including mine) remain robust. So what can managers and owners of PR agencies learn from law firms? Plenty. Here are four such lessons.

Have a clear vision of your firm's identity. Many law firms have failed by trying to be “all things to all people.” Robust law firms know who they are and where they want to go, and won't dilute their brand. There is no better time for PR firms to review their identity and mission statements to ensure strategic clarity and purpose.

Undertake a practice-area strategy review. Look hard at your firm's practice. Consider paring down peripheral or unprofitable specialties, redeploying assets to maximizing opportunities in the central practice areas.

Firms should consider focusing on practice areas that are likely to grow in an uncertain economy (such as “counter-cyclical” areas like bankruptcy, litigation support, and regulatory work). PR firms should also identify practice areas that are likely to be boosted by the new administration (energy, healthcare, and capital market reform) and invest – yes, invest – in talent accordingly.

Stay close to your clients. This is the time to maintain and even ramp up your outreach to clients. Client alerts, client satisfaction reports, and spending quality time with clients will reduce uncertainty and put you in good stead when times (and budgets) improve.

Stay close to your staff. Reassure all employees about the prudent steps management is taking to reduce 2009's uncertainty. While always vital, internal communication is critical in times of uncertainty. Silence isn't golden. It feeds people's anxieties about the firm's ability and commitment to slog it out through the cyclical trough.

This is the time for PR firms to maintain and even enhance the frequency of agency-wide town-hall meetings, apply cost-effective strategic planning to every management decision, beef up knowledge management, and focus on professional development.

Michael Lasky is a senior partner at the law firm of Davis & Gilbert LLP, where he heads the public relations practice group and co-chairs the litigation department. He can be reached at mlasky@dglaw.com. Lasky will be a regular PRWeek contributor. His columns will focus on legal issues and trends affecting the PR industry.

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