"It’s time that law firms position legal professionals as key executives on management and executive committees..."
Gina Rubel has spent the last 20 years of her legal career in legal marketing and public relations consulting. Before that, she was a judicial law clerk, settlement master, and litigator. Since 2002, she has built the agency, Furia Rubel Communications, which serves leading law firms across the country and companies in a myriad of countries around the globe.
Rubel acknowledges that the agency’s reach could not have been possible without the technology boom of the last two decades. She also sees tremendous changes coming to the legal industry. In this JD Supra exclusive, she shares her legal marketing predictions and insights– some of which may surprise you. And if her predictions are accurate, law firms have some big opportunities ahead.
What about legal marketing and public relations are you most passionate about and how do you see it affecting the future law firm?
One of the things most rewarding is helping law firms to strategize and see the big picture. I also enjoy risk management, crisis communications, incident response, and litigation communications. Everyday, law firm’s find themselves in the spotlight – being judged by the court of public opinion – which can positively or negatively affect a law firm’s client and talent retention and acquisition. Without great attorneys and legal professionals, and without exceptional clients, law firms simply won’t thrive.
The industry will be even more diverse and equitable...
In our support of law firms and their clients internationally, we build strategies around overall firm positioning and management, crisis avoidance, early incident response and intervention, and teamwork. We partner with clients, their general counsel, and leadership teams to develop strategies that support their communication objectives, whether it be to tell their story or keep the story out of the court of public opinion.
Given the cultural shifts taking place in today’s workforce and the role legal marketers play in talent acquisition and retention, I predict that a decade from now, a much higher percentage of lawyers will have career satisfaction because they won’t just settle for the best paying jobs. The industry will be even more diverse and equitable. Lawyers will prioritize better between compensation and flexibility.
Law firm culture and life-style choices will take precedence over career mobility. There will be greater access to professional development, marketing support, and client relationship support. And the predominant industry measure of success will be career satisfaction, not merely profits per partner.
As a co-chair of the Legal Marketing Association Advocacy Committee, what do you hope to accomplish?
While I am not authorized to speak on behalf of LMA, as the co-chair of the Advocacy Committee, I am most enthusiastic about advocating on behalf of our profession. The American Bar Association is over 140 years old – 144 to be exact. In contrast, LMA is only 37 years old. When LMA turns 40, the ABA will be planning for its 150th Anniversary.
...legal marketers will play a key role in the law firm ownership conversation
As a result of the adolescence of our industry, many lawyers don’t fully grasp what legal marketers do, why we do it, or the value we bring to the legal profession. Here is just a small list of the things legal marketers do in their law firms or as outside consultants, and yet most in-house legal marketers still don’t have a seat at the table:
- Advertising/Marketing/Branding/Graphic design/Website management
- Alumni relations/Community relations/Client relations/Internal communications
- Associate development/Partner development/Professional development
- Business and competitive intelligence research
- Business development/ RFPs/ Prepping attorneys for pitches, prospect, and client meetings
- Client feedback programs and surveys/Focus groups/Meeting with clients for feedback
- Crisis communications/Incident response/Risk management and mitigation
- CRM/ERM oversight
- Digital communications, content marketing (blogs, podcasts, articles, videos, etc.), social media, online reviews, and website management
- Directory listing/rankings (ALM, Chambers, The Legal 500, Super Lawyers, Best Lawyers, etc.)
- Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives
- ESG initiatives
- Events planning and management/Sponsorships/Webinars/Seminars/CLE support
- M&A evaluations
- Practice group/Industry group decisions
- Pricing and profitability analysis
- Pro bono management
- Professional development
- Public relations/Media relations/Media training/Trial publicity
- Strategic planning
- Talent recruitment/Associate and lateral identification and on-boarding
It’s time that law firms position legal professionals as key executives on the law firm management and executive committees. I hope to help the legal marketing profession to gain more widespread acceptance in law firms and for our leaders to have a real seat at the table. It will help law firms to make better decisions so they may continue to grow and thrive as the industry and those we serve continue to evolve at an extraordinary pace.
In fact, I also predict that legal marketers will play a key role in the law firm ownership conversation. The ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct Rule 5.4 bars law firm ownership or other investment or revenue-sharing opportunities with “non-lawyers.” *
Recently, states have begun to address law firm ownership and fee-sharing restrictions including Utah, Arizona, California, Massachusetts, and Georgia. I predict that in the not-too-distant future, law firms will look more like other companies where ownership will no longer be limited to individuals with a legal degree.
*It is time for the ABA Model Rules to stop using “non-lawyer” in its vocabulary. Most legal industry professionals find it derogatory and demeaning.
What do you believe will change about the legal marketing profession as a whole?
This is a loaded question as the industry continues to shift with the times. Had you asked me what has changed most in the last 20 years, I’d say the speed with which we communicate, the technologies we use to communicate, and the depth of insight legal marketers bring to the profession. As for what is to come next, communication will get faster, more complicated, and there will be more channels. Omnichannel strategy and practices already are necessary. We are seeing law firms pop up in the metaverse with cryptocurrency exchanges. It’s The Jetsons meets Star Wars. What we used to label science fiction is now our reality.
On top of that, law firms will create environmental, social and governance (ESG) departments that will function more like managerial and strategic entities than practice groups. These departments will be akin to corporate ESG initiatives. I believe even legal marketing, public relations, and business development will report ESG.
In addition to law firm reporting on DE&I, governance, and data privacy and controls in corporate RFPs, law firms will be held more accountable for their ESG investing and political candidate backing. They will have to report on their carbon footprints and how they are preserving natural resources and biodiversity. As ESG frameworks are standardized, the legal industry will implement an ESG Model Law Firm Standard like the American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Of course, with that comes the need for even more internal and external communications and state adoption of those standards.
What do you anticipate will be law firms’ greatest communication challenges in the coming months or years?
I anticipate that communication regarding rates, hour requirements and the management of crisis situations will be law firms' greatest communication challenges. Please let me explain.
Law firms have traditionally run with a myriad of silos and secrecy. Small firms often have partners who communicate among themselves and don’t share anything about their mission, vision, profitability or plans with the associates and staff. In these types of firms, there is a great deal of turnover among non-equity partners and professional staff.
Mid-size firms often are built through mergers and acquisitions of smaller firms, rainmakers and practice groups which tend to be managed in geographical or practice-specific silos. They often don’t adopt CRM or ERM solutions so off the bat, they are working at a disadvantage to their competitors. They have underfunded or understaffed marketing departments that the attorneys believe are only there to complete RFPs and update the website, and the various groups share resources such as human resources, accounting/billing, paralegals, and administrative support. In essence, these types of firms are hotels for lawyers – all of whom identify and market under the same brand.
...law firms must be more cognizant about how they communicate rates, billable hours and starting salary hikes
Then there are the larger mid-market, big and mega-size law firms. Many are so large that most partners and associates only know the people in their state and/or practice or industry group – however – these firms run more like corporations with access to every form of technology and professional development possible. They are transparent with their financials and goals and understand that innovation and the delivery of legal services are how a firm remains profitable – it is not simply about outcomes. However, many of these firms are still focused on rate increases and billable hours. According to February 2022 data from Wolters Kluwer’s ELM Solutions, the average rate billed by partners nationally in 2021 was $728 per hour, and for associates, it was $535 up from $715 and $515 in 2020.
With the current economic downturn which may result in a recession, law firms must be more cognizant about how they communicate rates, billable hours and starting salary hikes. With each, there are positive and negative perceptions from two of the most important audiences, existing and prospective clients and talent.
Communication regarding incidents and crisis situations has always been and will remain a communication challenge for law firms. While I can’t speak about specifics, during the last few years, we have helped support messaging and litigation communications related to everything from the war in Ukraine, the coronavirus pandemic, and voters’ rights in the United States, to systemic religious institution abuse allegations, criminal investigations of corporations, lawsuits against law firms and their partners for varying forms of alleged discrimination matters, ESG matters, and toxic tort litigation resulting in billions of dollars in settlements. There always will be a need for crisis and incident planning and response. This is exactly why law firms have launched practice areas to manage such high-profile and bet-the-company matters. How a firm handles its own or a client’s crisis can bare great rewards when managed strategically.
Now that 20 years of running a legal marketing agency are behind you, what’s next?
Legal marketing and public relations is fulfilling work and I have a wonderful team. We have more work to do as the legal comms landscape continues to evolve.
I want to continue to lead our team while also focusing on building a vision for the long term. In time, I’d like to open ownership of the business to employees – a goal towards which I am working. I will remain committed to strategic and succession planning that will shape the agency’s next 20 years and beyond while I continue to serve clients directly, when appropriate. It’s something I love, so while I will continue to work on the business, I find joy working in the business.
Connect with Gina Rubel on LinkedIn.