Who’s up and who’s down? After the excitement (or frustrations) of the directories’ publication, law firm results season is the next opportunity to ask the question. I don’t need to tell you it’s a tricky market, and firms are rightly concerned about the way their results are reported – their own lawyers, staff and competitors are all looking to see who’s had a ‘wobble’.
These days, so many of the top-100 firms are LLPs, that journalists don’t need cloak-and-dagger tactics of old. (There was a time when five reporters would call different partners at the same firm simultaneously, in the hope one would confirm the figure before the word could go out to direct all calls to the press office.)
Still, it can be a haphazard experience – your firm might get picked on or missed. Junior folk make the call and write a story, with editors zoning in on the detail where something draws their attention.
They might, then, miss bad news buried in the figures – but you can’t rely on it. Or an investment phase will be mistaken for a fall in profits.
Here’s a few thoughts on how to treat the release of figures:
1. Don’t go suddenly shy: if you released your figures and were open and helpful last year (let’s say you were pleased with them, but they’re less outstanding this year), you have to do the same as 12 months back. If you don’t, it looks suspicious, and you’ll be looked at even more closely.
2. Have the right figures to hand: a correction looks inept (though if you need to correct, do it immediately you know you were wrong).
3. You can’t get away with ‘turnover’ figures only: actually on a ‘fast’ news day, you might, but the good journalists will ask for profit figures too. It’s suspicious not to have them.
4. Do you want to give an exclusive? There’s no universally ‘right’ answer here. There was a time when big firms shared out results ‘exclusives’ between the fiercely competitive weeklies – causing rage in whichever stable didn’t get them. Sometimes this was done to punish a magazine that had treated the last release harshly. With online reporting, the exclusive reliably lasts one hour tops, before the other has it too. Ask what an exclusive really gets you.
5. Have a story ready: very few firms are stock-exchange listed, even though the legal press report results as if they are. A bad year doesn’t wipe millions off your market cap – but there can be a reputational cost. So, if headline profits are ‘down’ because it’s a year of consolidation and investment, say so. If turnover is down, but profits are up, be clear that’s the strategy.
6. Sound helpful: remember a news editor is putting pressure on these people – reporters will remember if someone helped them when under pressure. Deliver what you say you will.
7. Free up senior people: have to hand people who can speak with authority about the firm’s position.
8. Don’t neglect internal comms: staff will believe external, independent sources. Don’t forget to get your story out to them through internal comms – hearing things from you first will improve trust, and help them read reports accurately.
9. No hostages to fortune: law firms work on the never-never, and it’s a volatile market. Avoid confident statements on ‘this time next year’ – they will be dug up and you’ll be asked about them.
10. It’s fine to be boring: this is a figures story – unless you’ve had a stunner of a year, you don’t need to be too interesting on this.
Results seasons are a delicate moment for reputations. If you’d like support and advice on how to handle this, I hope you’ll get in touch.