Lawyers who practice in small law firms are frequently in the media. The reason is simple: the cases we handle are interesting. When’s the last time your local TV station wanted to interview a Biglaw partner about a corporate transaction?
Stories of divorce, crime, ethics violations, catastrophic injuries caused by plane crashes, and whether the building collapse was caused by a construction defect are why Don Henley had a hit with “Dirty Laundry.” (I love the fact I was able to weave in a comment about Don Henley. Big fan.)
At some point, you may get a call from a local reporter because you either have a high-profile client, or the reporter knows you and there is a case in your practice area where your comments are requested.
Let’s begin with the obvious: lawyers like to talk. Lawyers like to talk when lots of people are listening. Lawyers like to get calls about cases. Lawyers like to get calls instead of the other lawyer getting calls. Media appearances are often considered free advertising. One of the best things about media appearances, paper or TV, is that most people don’t remember what you said, just that they saw you or your name. It goes like this: “I saw you in the paper.” “Oh yeah, what did you see?” “I don’t remember, I just remember seeing your name.” Thankfully, no one seems to remember you said something so ridiculous that it made you look borderline incompetent…
Let me first talk about media appearances (paper and TV) regarding your clients. I disagree with the notion that “no comment” is always the best advice when the media comes calling about your client. There’s no reason (other than a gag order) to refrain from saying something good about your client who’s getting pounded in the press. You’re the lawyer for heaven’s sake — say something. Say you look forward to addressing the allegations in court, say the truth will come out, say your client is a well-respected professional and you look forward to defending him. If the other side is out there lying about your client, tell the truth, even if you must in a general way in order to prevent something coming back to bite you in the ass. Pretend you care. Pretend it matters that everyone is trashing your client.
Know that you may be on the phone for 20 minutes and then see the story without a mention of you, or worse, your long rambling quote was cut to a sentence. It’s always “the editor” who does this. Speak in sound bites. Getting quoted “out of context,” meaning your original quote was shortened, is never fun to have to explain to your client or others.
Should you go on TV and give an hour-long interview about your case while it’s pending? Probably not, but again, say something if you can.
Now let’s talk about cases that don’t involve your client.
As you go through your career, chances are that your media appearances will have less to do with your own high-profile cases and more to do with cases being handled by other lawyers in your community or around the country.
Before you get excited about jumping in front of a camera or talking to a reporter on the phone consider some things:
1. Never talk about something about which you know nothing. I know CNN wants to interview you about a local criminal case, but you’re an estate planning lawyer that was a prosecutor for 10 minutes 15 years ago. Do us a favor and refer the interview to someone else. I know giving an opportunity like this to someone else is going to kill you, but do it.
2. Never agree to be interviewed by a reporter who has an angle. You can tell if this is the case if you ask prior to the interview what the issues are and as you are talking with the reporter you frequently hear, “But don’t you think…” That reporter isn’t interested in your opinion, they’re interested in you validating their opinion. Click.
3. Decline the opportunity to play backseat driver. Of course you would handle the case differently, you’re not sitting in the courtroom. You’re too smart to actually be there listening to the evidence. You didn’t get the case, but that doesn’t mean it’s your job to second guess everything the lawyer in the case is doing. We know, you are an awesome lawyer and know everything, the client was just too stupid not to call you, the perfect lawyer. Talk about why the lawyer may be doing this and the options, don’t sit there and create ratings by allowing the anchor to make it about the lawyer’s competence or strategy. Educate people.
4. No matter how much publicity you will get, never agree to talk in depth about a case in another state unless you know the law in that state. “How they do things” in your state is of no interest to anyone but you, and the more you say that, the more you look like you’re doing the interview just for attention.
5. Don’t make people dumber. I’ll say it again, educate people. Know the law and procedure, explain how things work, and be bold enough to dispel the public’s (wrong) perception about the process and the evidence.
6. Whether you get a phone call or are approached in person, unless you must, don’t give an interview unprepared — especially if it’s about your own case. Sometimes you’re walking out of court or somewhere else and are approached by the media for a comment. If you feel the need, say something quick, and then ask the media to meet you at your office later. Same goes for the paper. When they call, ask to call them back. Do some research, see if there’s a recent development you don’t know about, and then engage in the interview. When the paper calls, always ask for the reporter’s deadline so you don’t waste your time preparing for an interview only to realize the deadline is in 30 minutes.
7. Always return the call, even if you’re not going to say much. Reading that someone “didn’t return a call” or “was unavailable” is annoying.
8. Remember that reporters can often be a valuable part of the process. In a high-profile case, you may find that a friendly reporter is an essential source of information. You will also find that the reporter/lawyer relationship can be one of the most important ongoing relationships you have in your career.
Finally, and please don’t cry, media appearances don’t bring you clients. Current clients think it’s cool when they see their lawyers on TV, but other than that, all you will get from frequent media appearances is your friends and family saying that they “saw you on TV/in the paper.” That’s it.
Brian Tannebaum will never “get on board” at the advice of failed lawyers who were never a part of the past but claim to know “the future of law.” He represents clients, every day, in criminal and lawyer discipline cases without the assistance of an Apple device, and usually gets to work (in an office, not a coffee shop) by 9 a.m. No client has ever asked if he’s on Twitter. He can be reached at email@example.com.