7 Tips To Help Lawyers Become Legal Correspondents To The Media
When you think of legal media correspondents, who do you think of? Names that quickly come to mind for me are NBC’s Savannah Guthrie and Dan Abrams, NPR’s Nina Totenberg, MSNBC’s Ari Melber, and Ann Coulter. Then there are lots of famous criminal defense and civil rights lawyers who have made their mark on the media like Gloria Allred, Johnnie Cochran, Mark Geragos, and Leslie Abramson. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, it demonstrates that there are names of lawyers who come to mind quickly and are memorable because of their exploits in the media.
Have you ever wondered how to become a legal media correspondent?
When it comes to evaluating, dissecting and discussing legal matters in the court of public opinion, lawyers and law school professors are almost always the best source. But how do you get invited to the table? There are an infinite number of legal issues that the media deals with daily. Think of some of the recent issues we’ve seen play out in the media:
There is no area of life or business that is devoid of lawsuits, media scrutiny or public interest.
- Become an “expert.”
All lawyers go to law school and graduate as generalists: we understand how to evaluate a matter and apply legal theory, logic, the rules of evidence and law to address the issues. We know how to take a position and defend it – and it doesn’t matter the type of legal matter. However, in order to be considered and “expert” in an area, or at least for the media to see you as having something to contribute, you need to have made an impact in your area of practice or industry. This can mean working on high-profile matters or precedent-setting cases, it could mean working in the same arena for more than 10 years, and it can mean creating a niche by happenstance because you had the opportunity to handle an emerging area of the law.
In 2018, a former prosecutor in the Bill Cosby case reached out to my public relations agency to seek representation before Cosby’s sentencing hearing. Cosby, often referred to as “America’s Dad” in pop culture, was convicted of three counts of aggravated indecent assault. It shocked the nation, and the conviction had a massive effect on the Philadelphia region where Cosby was revered as a hometown hero. Stewart Ryan, now a personal injury lawyer with Laffey, Bucci & Kent in Philadelphia, was a crucial part of the prosecution team in the conviction of Bill Cosby on charges of sexual assault. Stewart was the only assistant district attorney to remain with the Montgomery County prosecutor’s office from the time of Cosby’s arrest through his conviction. Stewart successfully prosecuted this historic case and was later commended by Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele for “his legal acumen, courtroom skills, commitment to seeking justice for all sexual assault victims, and outstanding leadership.”
Stewart had previously been barred from speaking to the media but could speak publicly after the sentencing hearing. His aim was to become a thought leader on sexual assault cases to support his civil law practice. Because Stewart had a story to tell, the expertise to back it up, and the timing was right, he secured significant media placements. Following the sentencing hearing, Stewart Ryan was interviewed by the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Legal Intelligencer, and the ABC and NBC affiliates in Philadelphia. Furia Rubel also arranged an appearance on “Good Morning America” the following day where Stewart appeared on a panel with Gloria Allred, to discuss the sentencing with the show’s anchor, George Stephanopoulos.
- Establish and cultivate relationships.
“The best way to become a source is to cultivate relationships with journalists by tying your legal expertise to real world events and pitching it as a story. Once a producer sees you are articulate and available, you can quickly become a go-to person on issues within your area of practice and beyond,” said Cherri Gregg, Esq., Community Affairs reporter, KYW Newsradio and VP-Broadcast, Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists.
Kenneth M. Rothweiler, Esq., a personal injury attorney and legal analyst to FOX29 in Philadelphia said, “Becoming a trusted media source is like any other relationship that needs to be cultivated. It is important to help the producers to identify important legal topics, trends and stories and then be able to deliver information of value and relevance to the outlet’s audience. I have found that legal analysis requires me to analyze the facts, law, evidence, situation and jury pool as opposed to injecting my own opinion into commentary.”
- Understand and respect deadlines.
The easiest way to lose the respect of reporters is to miss deadlines, fail to respond to their queries, and be unreachable when you’ve positioned yourself as a media source. If a producer or journalist reaches out to you for background information or to discuss a pending matter, respond immediately. Stories run online and off, 24/7/365.
- Never say, “no comment.”
A lawyer should never say “no comment.” When a lawyer says this, it is perceived as an attempt to hide something or avoid telling the truth. If something is confidential, then tell the interviewer you cannot divulge confidential information. If you don’t know the answer, say so. But please, never say, “no comment.”
- Be witty and relatable; speak in plain English.
Speak in plain English and avoid legal jargon to ensure that your message is clearly understood by your audience. While doing so, be witty and relatable. While almost all issues that lawyers are asked to comment on are serious, a bit of wit will go a long way.
- Speak in sound bites.
Practice your topic in sound bites. Television is a great medium for short, quick sound bites that the viewers can remember. Television reporters are looking for short, to-the-point statements. You will rarely see a person talking for more than nine to 10 seconds during a television story. Sound bites aren’t only for television. They are important to get your point across in print, online, on radio and on the short (and oftentimes edited) videos that make their way onto social media.
Contrary to my earlier advice, Danny Cevallos, Esq., a criminal defense attorney and frequent media correspondent with CNN said, “Reporters don’t care so much about a lawyer’s pedigree or the cases won or lost. They need quotes.” He said, “As lawyers, we often have a lot to say but reporters aren’t looking for a law review article. Speak in sound bites and don’t marry yourself to your ideas as if they are some holy nugget.”
- Be trustworthy and prepared.
Heather Hansen, Esq., an insurance defense litigator and legal media correspondent, said there is a difference between being trusted and being popular. “Unfortunately, in today’s saturated media environment, the public doesn’t trust many members of the media. In order to gain the public’s trust, the legal correspondent needs to be prepared. The legal questions we are asked to cover span many jurisdictions and legal areas. Legal analysts must know as much as possible about every case and not be afraid to say, ‘I don’t know,’ when the situation warrants. In my opinion, the winning combination for trust is preparation and lack of ego.”
To become a trusted legal media correspondent means being a great attorney in the first place. It also means that you need to be available and articulate clearly, provide legal analysis, have an entertaining personality, be quick-witted, and remember that the story is not about you. Your appearance as a legal commentator is about the subject and the information delivered to the viewing, listening and reading audience.