I said recently that Starbucks would have been better off listening to their PR people than their lawyers when it came to deciding what tax to pay in the UK. It’s an easy point to make with hindsight, and not a surprising one for a PR person. But it got me wondering why we pay so much attention to what lawyers tell us, to the exclusion of nearly every other advisor and often our own better judgement. Especially when you compare the Starbuck’s case to the success Virgin Rail had in combining legal and PR approaches to force the Government to overturn its initial decision to award the West Coast Main Line rail franchise to FirstGroup.
It’s not that companies should start discounting the advice of their lawyers, just that they’d get better results by balancing this advice against the court of public opinion – particularly now that public opinion can be mobilised so quickly and effectively through social media.
Companies acting legally correctly but reputationally stupidly is nothing new. Employing child labour, paying below living wages, hiring and firing staff, chopping down rainforests can all be done legally by companies depending on where they’re operating. But they’re increasingly suicidal from a reputation perspective, and it’s a truism (but true) to say that increased connectivity is making it ever more dangerous to do so, balancing out the lawyer vs. PR advice scales.
There’s also something broader about the legal profession that seems at odds with modern life. Something that can get in the way of them providing best advice to personal clients too. Take the domestic property market in the UK. It’s virtually stagnant and buyers and sellers need all the help they can get in trying to make deals happen. Yet all too often the lawyers increase the friction (and risk sales falling through) by creating conflicts and arguments that don’t really exist. Yes buyers need protection and sellers need guarantees, but the tone of communication between conveyance lawyers all too often poisons the buyer/seller relationship and slows down or prevents deals being done.
Couples separate (the divorce rate in the UK is over 40%) and most people, especially where children are involved, try and keep things civil. But how often does the aggressive tone of legal letters scupper the chances of amicable separations that would save all parties stress, heartache and cost?
Democracies need the rule of law and effective legal systems need good lawyers. But you just wish sometimes they’d think a bit more about the way they communicate and the impact it has. If they did, they might advise corporate clients differently, balancing reputational issues against legal niceties, and offer better advice as a result. And if they communicated more humanly on behalf of individual clients in stressful situations (moving house, getting divorced, dealing with probate), clients who get to pore over all those lawyer-to-lawyer letters and agonise over every turn of phrase, then perhaps the stakes wouldn’t always get raised so high. For although the lawyers can argue aggressively with each other, put it all down to the game, and have a drink together afterwards, the impact such argumentative communication has on the non-legal participants can create lasting resentments and pain.
The best lawyers have always recognised the value of good communications. But the definition of good communications for a lawyer is changing. It’s no longer just about having persuasive court skills to win over juries. It’s about recognising the communications landscape today and the severe commercial impact bad publicity can have. And it’s about recognising that people often need helping towards negotiated agreement and that the tone of communications can be fundamental to achieving this.
Some of my best friends are lawyers.
Photo credit: Faye