Recent breaking news about the potential union of Dallas’ Winstead and Atlanta-based Troutman Sanders is another example of how the media can quickly become a factor in private law firm mergers.
Leaders from Winstead and Troutman declined to confirm last week’s story from The Texas Lawbook about their reported plans for a national megafirm. If they combine, the new firm would include nearly 850 attorneys and annual revenues of more than $700 million.
The news traveled fast through the Texas legal community and the media’s response was swift, with national legal and business publications issuing their own reports. Now, the discussions presumably are continuing. One anonymous source told Lawbook that a potential deal could be months away.
While it remains to be seen whether the media interest will impact any eventual union between Winstead and Troutman, the way the news became public provides key insights for other law firms that may be considering a merger.
Set Up a Media Chain of Command
One of the first things law firms should consider before entering merger discussions or approaching any other newsworthy event is exactly who will be responsible for talking to the press. This media chain of command should be in place for whenever an announcement is ready or if the news leaks before then.
Some firms may decide to rely on their managing partner, but others may call on a member of their in-house communications team or an outside media consultant. Either way, both sides should establish real consequences if a firm employee talks to anyone outside the involved parties.
It’s also worth considering who will be impacted if the news breaks early. Will your clients, attorneys, and staff be surprised, disappointed, or angry if they read about a potential merger before they hear it from the firm?
Defining and limiting who can speak on the firm’s behalf is one of the best ways to make sure the news isn’t announced until you’re ready. It also helps ensure that your message is consistent. If you have multiple people trying to communicate the same thing, there will be inevitable discrepancies that can create the impression that the firm is disorganized or, even worse, untruthful.
Failing to properly plan and enforce a media chain of command has resulted in many unwanted headaches for attorneys and firms involved in merger discussions.
Because there’s no real public controversy, it’s possible that everyone at Winstead and Troutman are fine with the coverage of their potential. Experience tells me, however, it’s more likely that firm leaders have spent a lot of time since last week addressing the Lawbook story when they would rather have been representing clients or moving forward with merger discussions.
Notify Likely Media Sources
Your firm’s response to media inquiries about a possible merger or any other matter should be handled much like a fire drill. Those at the firm who know about the merger should know their role and be prepared for “fire-drill mode” as soon as the time is right.
Putting those involved on notice that the media may be calling is the first step. This could be as simple as an email that might read:
“The firm’s discussions with Firm A may conclude this week, and we expect to announce the news as soon as an agreement is reached. These talks are confidential and only those firm members who have been specifically identified may talk with the press or anyone else about this matter. If you receive a call or other communication from any news outlet looking for comment, please direct them to our managing partner without providing any further comment. Please follow up by alerting our managing partner that you received the inquiry.”
It is crucial for every team member to adhere to this plan. Much like a fire drill, the results can be horrible if even one person goes rouge. Reporters are resourceful and may try talking to firm employees at every level, which is what happened with the “multiple lawyers” in the Winstead/Troutman story.
While there is no guaranteed way to prevent unwanted and/or damaging interactions with the press, the chances of that happening are lessened greatly if you put everyone on notice that the firm has a policy for dealing with the media and that leakers won’t be tolerated.
Inform Important Audiences
Once the news breaks, the main goal should be to identify and respond to the firm’s most important audiences, including the media.
If clients are the first concern, the method you use to contact them should be considered. For some clients, a simple email will do. For others, there may be a reason to pick up the phone or stop by their office for an in-person conversation. The key is making sure the firm’s position is shared in a clear and thoughtful way, and that no important clients are inadvertently omitted in your outreach.
If a reporter gets early word about merger discussions or other firm news, keeping a clear head and knowing how to handle the situation will help you deliver the best response. Resist the temptation to lecture the reporter or question their sources. Instead, ask them about any deadlines and tell them you plan to follow up as soon as possible.
Saying and proving that you want to help and that you care about their deadlines is the best way to establish a good working relationship with any reporter.
Handling Media Requests
If the firm is subject to multiple media requests in a short amount of time, it may be physically impossible to call or respond to everyone who wants a comment. That’s when it’s time to start managing media expectations.
If the reporter has a very short deadline, you may know immediately that you won’t have a response in time. In that instance, let the reporter know and ask them if they will include any response you can provide after they publish their initial story.
This is an important step since you’ll be able to get the firm’s eventual reply in front of all the people who didn’t read the first story when it was impossible to issue a comment.
A very important task during this process is keeping a complete tally of anyone who contacts the firm so no one is left wondering where the firm stands. This includes clients, vendors, reporters, and any other people important to the firm.
For media calls, make sure to collect:
- The reporter’s name
- Where they work
- Their deadline
- How they can be reached
Using this information, you can assemble a “must call” list and those that can be ignored or contacted later. If there are some outlets you do not want to talk to or simply don’t have time to call, then it may be in the firm’s best interests to provide a written statement that is consistent with what your spokesperson is saying in interviews.
Follow Up the Right Way
Once the firm has responded to your important audiences and the media calls have stopped, there is great value in looking back to see what worked well and what didn’t. This is free information based on what happened in the real world, which makes it more valuable than you might first imagine.
If your message was well conveyed and received by your clients and others, be sure to highlight exactly what was successful so you can repeat it the next time. Obviously, it is similarly important to note any shortcomings in your messaging or delivery. Knowing what works and what doesn’t is a no-brainer.
My advice is to put a plan in place and make sure everyone follows it. Doing so is the only way to truly influence the opinions of clients, employees, or anyone else. Whether you’re responding to a report of a firm merger or announcing one, knowing what you want to do before anonymous sources can make a difference.
Bruce Vincent is a writer and editor who previously covered law firm mergers as a reporter. He helps clients in all aspects of media coverage, from news releases to press conferences to crisis communications. Contact Bruce at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on preparing and responding to the media.