Guest blog: Are barristers missing a competitive edge?

18 May 2017

Benjamin Thiele-Long, barrister and Account Director at Infinite Global

Benjamin Thiele-Long 

For a long time now, media relations and marketing functions have been a permanent fixture in solicitors' firms through a combination of internal teams and expert external advisers. So why, given that both professions are fighting in an equally crowded space to maintain a steady flow of work, is this not the same for barristers' chambers?

As barristers, you are the go-to experts in your respective fields and that is why solicitors come to you. It is therefore baffling to see that barristers generally don't spend much time outside of court or at conferences talking more openly about legal developments, and demonstrating their depth and breadth of expertise.

Speaking from experience and as a former barrister myself, I think the issues is that many do not fully understand what the different forms of marketing, for both an individual barrister and set of chambers, can look like. I had always viewed marketing as being limited to networking with professional clients and speaking at CPD seminars. Whereas, in reality, these are just a tiny part of the potential business development opportunities that barristers, and sets of chambers, can take advantage of.

Media relations can come in many form and it's not just about showboating in front of a TV camera; it can be commentary to a newspaper journalist on cases or developments of note, written articles in publications that clients read or authoring thought-leadership reports on significant and developing legal issues. The key to approaching these opportunities is to think about how your knowledge can be transformed into accessible information in a way that would bring new audiences, and potential new clients, to listen to what you have to say.

One question I am often asked is how to understand - and, most importantly, measure - the value of investing time and money into media relations and thought-leadership. It is interesting to note that even small regional firms of solicitors devote, albeit modest, budgets towards media relations and marketing with specialist agencies that know their market, therefore receiving bespoke advice from people who know their subject as well as you know yours. A media placement won't necessarily translate into a direct piece of work, but it seems even small firms can see the potential that increased media exposure gives in enhancing their website's SEO (in turn generating more potential instructions and referrals) or in simply starting new conversations.

Trickier to answer is cost-versus-value question, especially when many chambers have limited resource, as to whether putting money towards marketing and PR is the right thing. But perhaps the decision isn't one that should be approached in a binary way: it's not about whether you should engage in marketing activity or not, but instead considering what are the different ways that it could be done? This in turn informs how you might go about choosing an agency or consultant to work with and what type of project you pursue as well as identifying which area of the set's practice needs the biggest boost and who the right members are to drive it forward.

What then is the best approach to getting a larger share of voice in a competitive market? Although by no means a definitive list, some of the overarching points to consider include:

  • Have some firm objectives. Just in the same way as preparing a cross-examination, it is not just about getting as much airtime as possible, but about getting the information you want and this requires planning: what do you want to be saying? Why? To whom? Focusing on questions such as these makes sure you don't just transmit information, but communicate and engage with the right people. 

  • Lead the way. Whether it is a new judgement or a change in legislation, make sure your content is relevant to today's reader. War stories and experience go a long way, but editors, clients and prospects alike want to hear about the important things that impact the legal industry today, so focus on making your content a 'must read'. 

  • Don't sell. Media commentary and article writing is in itself a marketing opportunity, putting sales spiel into article contents about how you're the best chambers for the job will put off any editor reviewing your content. Instead, make sure you focus on using these opportunities to demonstrate your experience and insight in a clear straightforward way. 

  • Teamwork. The bar can be a lonely place, but to make any communications campaign engaging to a broad audience, teamwork is key to making sure your PR and marketing efforts are communicated in the broadest and most sustained way possible. Media placements can be recycled and shared by clerks and fellow members of chambers to ensure maximum impact.

There is no one size fits all solution to communications and marketing, but that in short is the beauty of it - getting noticed in a crowded market requires standing out from the crowd, and those that don't, will simply get left behind. Media relations and marketing is just one of many tactics, but while the level of competition in the field gets higher, it seems vital that that chambers begin to think about getting some additional team mates. 

Benjamin Thiele-Long is an Account Director at international communications consultancy Infinite Global. He is also a qualified barrister with over 7 years' experience at the criminal bar.