For those working in public affairs a close relationship with lawyers is an increasingly essential part of the profession. The law and lawyers can play role a constructive role in a campaign and bring an understanding of the wider legal and regulatory environment which may otherwise be lacking. Similarly, public affairs practitioners can offer lawyers the benefit of their expertise by providing communication, policy and political advice surrounding legal processes or in crisis situations.
Of course, having worked for law firms for most of my career I may be slightly biased but the recent news that Weber Shandwick and 39 Essex Street, a leading barristers chambers, were offering clients joint advice shows that joined up public affairs and legal advice is being more widely recognised.
There is a lot of lazy thinking around about lawyers and law firms but here are five clear ways in which a joint approach can bring real dividends.
- Parliament – too often drafting amendments to legislation is attempted by those who look only at the Bill under consideration. There is often a law of unintended consequences and changes made to one piece of legislation can affect others. A lawyer will help you avoid this mistake.
- Media relations – especially in a crisis situation, there are things that should and should not be said. All too often what seems an action that seems entirely appropriate and sensible under the glare of the media spotlight may not be deliverable and may actually be unlawful.
- Regulation – the operations of most organisations are governed by regulation, some more than others. Whether you are a charity or in financial services, whilst the burden may vary, the need to be aware of what you can and can’t do remains. Again, this means that lawyers need to be engaged with as part of a public affairs programme. There are certain campaigns that the regulator may simply let you do. The consequences of a breach can be catastrophic both for the organisation and, sometimes, the individuals involved. There are often personal liabilities.
- Courts, tribunals etc – legal processes also need public affairs support. This is where the act of effective communication with a range of stakeholders can help to support the legal case. Helping stakeholders understand the process, procedure, timescales, likely outcomes etc can assist the legal case.
- Devising solutions – if public affairs is about anything, it is about devising workable solutions to the problems identified. This means being prepared to engage with all the experts, including lawyers. They know and understand the processes involved, often being able to see a solution without knowing how to go about achieving it.
All this does not mean that lawyers are always right. Their choice of language and the way in which they communicate issues is not always media friendly or acceptable to politicians or policy makers. The relationship between public affairs and lawyers has to be one of partnership and that needs a mutual respect and recognition of each others’ role.
It remains that case that the law plays a critical role which is too often ignored in public affairs and lobbying. This needs to change if the right advice is to be delivered and the full benefits of a campaign secured.