This episode was recorded May 29 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Gina and Lizzy will talk about how the outbreak has changed the industry. They will also focus on trends and best practices in the legal communications industry.
More About Lizzy McLellan
Lizzy McLellan is an editor for ALM who covers the business of law. She started as a reporter for the Legal Intelligencer in 2014, covering the Pennsylvania legal community based in Philadelphia. Lizzy is now part of the business of law team in ALM’s global newsroom. She also works with a team of editors who launched and continues to produce the Mid-Market Report, a weekly newsletter focused on mid-sized law firms.
What got you into covering the business of law? What made that interesting for you?
When I was a journalism student at the University of Maryland, I stumbled upon business journalism as an area of interest. I applied for every internship possible at the time. One internship I had and enjoyed was working at a business publication in Baltimore close to UMD. I am a Marylander at heart. I grew up in Maryland until I moved to Philly. I fell into it when I was an undergrad, and then I saw an opening at the Legal Intelligencer when I wanted to move to Philadelphia in 2014. The rest is history. While I kind of fell into it, it’s been such an interesting community to be a part of.
To me, the legal community and the way law firms work is such a human and people-centered business that I find it fascinating to follow day-to-day and see what people are doing, both on the innovation front, and through maintaining the integrity of a profession that people hold dear. It really just grew out of that and I’ve enjoyed it so far.
Gina Rubel: So now you’ve been there. You’ve pretty much worn every hat at the Legal Intelligencer along the way, and now you’re working on stories on the national front, and you’ve really learned the industry and it evolves constantly.
Lizzy McLellan: It does. And I feel like I’m definitely still learning. There’s so much more to learn, right? One of my editors told me a while ago, when I was reporting more on Pennsylvania only, to look at Pennsylvania and the law firms here as a microcosm of the rest of the legal industry because you’ve got some really big players, large firms that are expanding nationally and internationally. Then you’ve got midsize firms that are focusing on specific areas of law. Then you’ve also got these smaller boutiques or solo shops and everything in between. As I’ve gotten to know some of the other regions in the U.S. that we cover and, of course, globally too, I still feel like I have a lot to learn. But it’s been so interesting seeing some of those parallels between what we would consider our local community and this much bigger legal community everywhere else.
Gina Rubel: What’s interesting is as a third-generation Philadelphia attorney myself, Philadelphia really is a microcosm. And having gone through the law school experience, what a lot of people don’t understand is that you learn law as a big umbrella. When you go law school you’re learning theory and policy and constitutional law. You’re learning these topics. But when you actually practice, it’s a whole different ball game and there are so many areas of law. I find it fascinating with what you do because you have to not only understand the business of law, but you and your colleagues need to really get to know and understand all of these individual practices and the industries they serve. Much like what we have to do with public relations because we work with clients in all different arenas. So we’re always learning too and I think the lawyers are as well. Any lawyer who tells you they know everything about a practice area or industry – it’s constantly changing.
Lizzy McLellan: Right. We do so much more over the phone or Zoom these days. We try so hard to keep in touch with those firm leaders and practice group leaders to see what’s changing. It’s so true that we’ll talk to law firm leaders all the time who are telling us the same thing, that they are constantly trying to learn about whatever is new or whatever’s changing. Especially those who are at full-service firms and need to wrap their head around many, many different types of practices and different types of clients and industries. It definitely goes for us too. That is, every journalist in business journalism and legal journalism, and yet also in every other beat where I’ve had journalist friends, they all say the same thing – the best part about this job is that you get to learn something new you much every day. That definitely goes for the legal industry as well. A lot of my journalist friends also did end up going into PR and they say the same thing – they get to learn something new every day that they might not have known before.
Gina Rubel: That’s absolutely true. We’re constantly learning because you can’t advocate on behalf of something if you don’t understand it. So you really have to dig deep.
As a business of law team leader at American Lawyer Media (ALM), what are your goals? What are the types of things you want to hear about now as a result of COVID-19?
We’re always looking to provide the best intelligence to our readers. Our readers tend to be people in the legal community. We’re looking to dig in and see who’s doing innovative things, and who’s making meaningful change in one way or another. I mentioned the people side of a law firm earlier. We want to know how people relate to each other within their firms and how firms are going about finding the best people, as well as how more diverse viewpoints will help their business move forward. We try to get the “how” and “why.”
Anyone can tell you the “what,” but we are curious about HOW law firms, law companies, in-house departments, and different stakeholders are moving things forward. How are they addressing challenges and why are they doing it that way? What’s the motivating factor behind it? Whether it’s a story about law firm technology and innovation, or lateral moves, mergers, diversity or law firm marketing, those are all topics we’re looking to answer “how” and “why.”
How important is it that law firms provide the data to back up the “how” and the “why?”
We hear a lot of interesting pitches about what law firms are doing. Not necessarily just numbers, but the facts behind those initiatives and the results are where you have to tell the story and learn some lessons. I mentioned diversity as an example because it’s one area where that’s certainly the case.
How do Law.com publications interact? How do you coordinate stories and work together?
I’ve mentioned that I’m on the business of law team, and we have other teams within ALM that we refer to as “desks” that cover in-house litigation and other areas. The editors on those desks are always communicating with each other to make sure we’re covering but not overlapping. We also don’t want information to slip through the cracks that may fall between or overlap on all those areas.
That group of recruiters and editors is constantly collaborating with the people who lead our brands and our regional publications. We have this conversation daily and multiple times a day where we’re tracking this industry together as a group and deciding how we go about giving each of those topics the best coverage we can.
A lot of times, we’ll get the question: Who’s the best person to pitch this to? And, oftentimes there’s no one right answer. We do try to work as a team and make decisions of what works best for that day and that topic and story.
What would you say to the law firms that have offices in those cities where you may not have a publication and they may not fit in to the American Lawyer or the National Law Journal? How can they get your attention?
Our goal is to be covering the whole industry. To anyone who runs a law firm and thinks that they don’t have a place within an ALM publication, I would tell them no, you do. One publication within our company that is dear to me is the Mid-Market Report, which we launched in 2018. The idea was to serve a segment of the legal industry that is not big law. A lot of our regional publications have served the local firms in that group for a long time, such as The Legal Intelligencer, the New York Law Journal, the Daily Report, the Daily Business Review, and the Texas Lawyer. All of those publications around the country at ALM have been in touch with those firms for years.
There are also a lot of law firms outside of those regions, and we wanted to make sure that we’re telling their stories and providing them intelligence too. We’ve talked to mid-sized law firms in a lot of other areas. Some firms are looking to compete with big law but in a mid-size segment. We define mid-size as roughly 250 lawyers. We call it the mid-market reports, so it’s really about where these firms see themselves falling within the greater legal market.
I’d say to those midsize firms – coming full circle to your actual question – if you’re not sure, reach out because we want to hear what’s going on. We want to learn what you’re doing because the whole industry is going through change all the time. There’s not one part of it we want to leave out.
You defined midsize as 250 lawyers and smaller. How do you define small, large and mega firms?
I think it depends on the firm, what they know, and what their strategy is. If I’m using the word mega firm, I’m thinking at least a thousand people. There are some firms that may seem pretty small right now, but they have ambitions to be a mid-sized boutique or mid-sized regional firm. I wouldn’t put hard number boundaries on each of those categories. It’s based case by case on business strategy and clients.
Would a 30-person firm be a small firm or mid-size?
Generally, I’d say mid-size.
Gina Rubel: That’s important to hear because as a PR person, we need to know how you in the journalism realm see these firms and how they see themselves, and we bridge that gap.
Lizzy McLellan: I think that’s important to us too. A 30-person law firm in New York is going to have a much different feel than a 30-person law firm in Boise, Idaho. It all depends. It’s relative.
We know how important data is to ALM. How closely do you look at data analytics in the newsroom throughout the day and week to determine the impact of what you’re going to cover the next day?
We’re monitoring data analytics all the time. What we do is immediate. When we’re posting stories online, we can quickly see whether something is resonating. While we don’t make coverage decisions on data alone, sometimes we look at an issue, a potential story, or a decision and it’s obvious without having to do any other analysis that this is important and needs to be covered. It would be a disservice to our audience not to cover it, even if it’s a smaller part of our audience.
I think it comes into play when we’re tracking: What’s striking a nerve right now? What stories are people wanting to read about? And we’ve seen some examples that have been born out of data, or things like relationships between lawyers and staff at law firms. We’ve seen a lot of interest in how different groups of professionals within law firms relate to one another. How law firms are making use of different business strategies, how they’re making decisions on compensation, etc. It doesn’t drive all of our decision making, but it is something that we’re always watching to determine whether we should ask more questions. That helps us figure out what we should be asking next.
In consumer media, there’s a saying in the newsroom, “If it bleeds, it leads.” I’m sure you’ve heard that. Do you find the same to be true? If it’s a juicy story, whether it be #MeToo, a firm going under, or a firm lawsuit, do you find that those stories trend?
What we’ve seen is that people are looking to read, and they’re curious about what they can apply to their own business. #MeToo is a topic that everyone is watching in every industry and in general because it’s hard not to pay attention.
We do see stories of law firm struggles, financial struggles, or firms being at a crossroads where they’re forced to make a change strategically. Oftentimes, those stories get a lot of eyes. It’s not necessarily that we’re looking to tell it for that reason. It’s about going back to what we said before: The lessons learned. What can you learn from those stories where a large group is leaving a firm, or a firm has found itself forced to reckon with its business model because of financial struggles? That’s where I opened by saying that we are looking to serve this audience of the legal industry, and that’s what we’re looking to do there. It’s not about the shock value. It’s about what you can take away from this that’s helpful to you.
What changes in trends are you seeing in the business of law and how are they impacting the coverage of legal news?
There has been a focus on running law firms like a business. A few years ago, a client relations professional who wasn’t a practicing lawyer but worked within a law firm and directly communicated with clients was unusual. Now, it’s becoming a more common role.
We’re now seeing external forces that are causing law firms to make strategic changes and reevaluate the way they do things. It comes back to this idea that law firms are trying to run more like big businesses that they have client relationships with, and they are taking lessons from them. While the external forces here are certainly not positive ones in most regards, it will be interesting to see how firms adapt if they come up with new solutions out of this. We’re already seeing firms adopt business models or try out things that were unusual in the industry before all this happened. We can potentially see firms of all sizes step up and shine here.
Since the pandemic started, have you seen any forward thinking from a law firm where you can see they’re being strategic?
No specific firm comes to mind at the moment, but one thing we’ve seen is this idea that firms are going to get more open to the idea of working from anywhere. Some people seem eager to go back to the way things were before, but I’ve heard people saying, “We don’t necessarily need to make everyone come into the office.” Or, “Maybe we can hire some people in this other city where we don’t have an office because they have a great practice that fits well with ours.” We were seeing that before, but it wasn’t as resounding as it is now. Even some pretty traditional firms are realizing they don’t necessarily want to be fully virtual, but they can gain from being more flexible.
Gina Rubel: We need the States across the country to adopt the ABA model rules and changes. I think a lot of states and law firms have been confined by needing to have an address. A law firm in Philadelphia that has lawyers barred in New Jersey has to have a physical office in New Jersey. There’s going to have to be a lot of change in the industry. There are confines of the industry itself that makes the practice of law less nimble and agile that has to change, and it’s got to start with bar associations and rethinking business.
Lizzy McLellan: Yes, that is certainly the case. My colleagues that cover innovation, alternatives models, and ownership by non-lawyers certainly see an issue where we’ve seen those same rules, ethical guidelines, and regional differences come into play. I think there’s still people doing innovative things and finding ways to do them that can provide a roadmap for those who want to keep pushing forward.
In light of COVID-19, what are you seeing? What do you want to see? What do you not want to see anymore?
I’ll come back to the earlier note we made. If there’s a “how”, a “why,” and a “what’s next,” that definitely makes more of an interesting story. We’ve seen and covered a lot of different practice areas that have emerged like task forces. That’s not to say those aren’t interesting by any means, but what is interesting is if there’s something unique about that group like a particular focus that a group of lawyers or a firm is taking, a unique stance they’re taking in regard to how they’re handling work or dealing with clients, or an unusual way they’re handling how their business operates. That’s what we may be interested in.
Gina Rubel: You’re still okay getting the laterals though?
Lizzy McLellan: Yes. I think the lateral stories can tell us a lot about the “what,” “how” and “why.” Like we said before, it’s a people-centered business. People you’re bringing on can say a lot about what you’re hoping to do now.
Gina Rubel: Right now, we’ve been cautious with lateral stories, particularly with firms that have had furloughs and layoffs. We have to frame it around why that lateral is coming on now because it could send the wrong message about the firm itself to its employees. It’s important to find the right way to say something and show you hired that person for a reason.
Lizzy McLellan: Yes. Share the reason. There’s always a reason behind it, and I think anytime a firm leader is able to get on the phone with us and tell us about that reason, especially if it’s something that might be enlightening for our readers, that’s helpful. We want to know that reason.
A big question I always get with lawyers is, “Does the media really look at social media? Do they really look at Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook?” Do you look at those platforms to find resources to get a sense of who someone is and how they position their business?
I won’t speak for others, but I definitely do. I’m a millennial, so social media has always been there for me. I do think it says something. When we’re learning about someone, or we’re hoping to interview them for a story, or maybe we’re writing about their lateral, I’ll look at their LinkedIn page and try to get an idea of what they’ve done before. I want to see other law firms or businesses they’ve worked for and see what some of their accomplishments are. That’s not to take the place of asking questions and having a great conversation with them, but it’s helpful. If anyone’s ever fighting with you and thinking it’s a waste of time, I’d say it’s not.
Gina Rubel: We tell lawyers that GCs, their clients, and the media are looking at social platforms. You need to use social media to let them know who you are and make it easier for them to find you as a resource.
How do you want people to share news stories and ideas with you?
I won’t speak for others because I think it comes down to personal preference. But, if it’s a specific story idea about a person, practice group or firm, I personally love to get an email, so I can read through it and share it with a colleague if it’s not in my wheelhouse. I like something that I’m easily able to pass along, but I’m always up for chatting on the phone too. If you’re just looking to talk over some trends, or to see if a story or idea is unique, I may not always pick up on the first ring, but I’m happy to get on the phone for 15 to 20 minutes or longer and chat about what’s going on. Reporters, editors and journalists love talking with the community to see what’s up. I’m always up for that.
How do you feel about people asking you to embargo a story?
As a team, we have a unified take on embargoes. We’re always going to ask if other people are being pitched the story on embargo. If so, is it the same terms? Our standing rule is that if a story breaks, or if we’re hearing that it’s getting around and is likely to break soon, that changes things in terms of the embargo agreement.
It’s about the conversation. It’s about the agreement. You know how you hear people talk about how being on the record or off the record is a two-way agreement? It’s the same thing with an embargo – it’s a two-way street. It’s probably not the best idea to send out an email with no warning ahead of time that says this is embargoed, and then all the information is there. But definitely give a call. We’re not closed off to them by any means. It’s something that we want to make sure is fair and that we’re able to have that talk.
Also, an embargo is not a guarantee of coverage. On the PR side, I can understand why you wouldn’t want to share all the details and then let me decide if we’re going to embargo. However, from our end of things, if we’re being told, “I might have a story for you. Do you want to hear it on embargo?” I might need a little more than that to decide whether we’re actually going to write about it.
Gina Rubel: On the PR side, oftentimes we have been told, “You can share this with your contacted X publication if they will agree to embargo it, but you can’t tell them who it is until we know they would agree to that.” A good example is during COVID-19 where there’s been furloughs, and we know you’re going to report about it. We don’t want it to leak from a staff member or an attorney. We want to give you the information, but we want to respect them and give it to them first. It’s respecting the internal audience over the external audience while still providing full disclosure.
Lizzy McLellan: And we’re understanding of that, which is why having that conversation is important.
It’s been a pleasure and I’m sure our audience has enjoyed going on record with you. If someone did want to share a story idea with you how can they reach you?
My email is email@example.com. Email me any time. I’m also happy to take a call, and I think my number is there on the end of any story I write. It’s easy to find, and I’m happy to chat anytime.
We’ve been talking with Lizzy McLellan, the business of law editor at ALM media.
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