Twelve tips to help attorneys succeed the next time a news reporter calls for comment on a legal development.

A telephone call from the news media is a great opportunity for attorneys to bolster their reputation in the community. Unfortunately, many attorneys seem to think that a call from a reporter is ripe occasion to commit a blunder. In fact, offering a comment for a news article is a near-zero-risk opportunity to position the lawyer as an expert, to publicize the lawyer’s firm, and possibly to advance a client’s interest.
 
Having been on the other end of the telephone line for a few decades, I believe I have some useful information to impart.

You’re (Probably) Not Too Busy

 
Few lawyers are so busy they can't speak to a reporter. There is always time.
 
In fact, the busiest attorneys  — the ones at the largest firms with the most-demanding clients, the ones frequently writing and speaking at conferences — always make time to talk, if only for a few moments.
 
Effective interviews can be handled at the lawyer’s desk, during a commute, between meetings, while walking to lunch, whenever there’s a time window. No formality is required.

It’s Not About You

 
Fear is another reason why answering a reporter’s call feels like a visit to the dentist. Remember: it’s not about you. (Well, it might be about you. But probably not.) The overwhelming majority of news reporters are seeking comment/react on a legal development. These are pitches that every attorney can hit out of the park.
 
News media interviews are not depositions nor are they in any sense a cross-examination or pop quiz on an attorney’s legal knowledge. They are opportunities to add insight to a news story and to appear in that story as a respected expert.
 
The reporter believes that you have expertise that will improve the quality of the news story. Perhaps he or she has read your blog post, or heard you speak at a law-related event, or perused your law firm profile page, or noticed that you were listed as counsel in a judicial opinion. There are any number of reasons why your phone might ring. Bottom line: The reporter already believes you are an expert. Pick up the phone and be that expert.
 
Some attorneys believe that they have an ethical obligation to educate the public on legal matters and on the importance of the rule of law.
 
In Paragraph (6) of the Preamble to the ABA Rules of Professional Conduct, the drafters wrote:
 
As a member of a learned profession, a lawyer should cultivate knowledge of the law beyond its use for clients, employ that knowledge in reform of the law and work to strengthen legal education. In addition, a lawyer should further the public's understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.
 
That’s a good reason to pick up the phone.

Before the Interview

 
When a reporter’s call comes in, the first order of business should be to investigate the situation. Answering the call, or returning it, takes a few minutes. If the inquiry arrived via email, the most efficient course of action is to punch in the phone number and call the reporter. Ask:
 
  1. Who are you writing for?
  2. What is your reason for calling me?
  3. What information do you want? Are you seeking a comment on a recent legal development? Or are you doing research, expecting me to supply facts or unpack a complicated legal issue?
  4. How much time will the interview require?
  5. What is your deadline?
 
Now you can intelligently answer the question, “Do I want to do this interview?”

Reasons for Declining

 
Every attorney will have to decide whether participating in a news article is worth the trouble. Here are several reasons why an attorney would decline an interview request:
 
  • ethical concerns prevent participation in the interview
  • lack of authorization from relevant clients to participate in the interview
  • the client’s interests will not be advanced by participating in the interview
  • the law firm’s interests will not be advanced by participating in the interview
  • the interview is simply not worth the effort, given the time commitment required and any exigencies presented by the reporter’s deadline
 
A final reason to decline involves group dynamics. News reporters frequently contact attorneys who are participating in a drafting group or who are influencing policy through an industry association. Speaking to the news media about the group’s work can negatively affect an attorney’s ability to function effectively within the group. In these situations, a careful attorney will refer news media inquiries to the chair or seek the group’s permission to speak with news media.
 
When it comes to declining an interview request, honesty and brevity are always the best policies. Definitely better than silence. A simple “Thanks for thinking of me, but I’m going to decline this opportunity” will suffice. You don’t owe the reporter an excuse. But civility is universally appreciated, and you should leave the door open for participation in a future article.
 

Tips for Attorney Interviewees

 
Here are a dozen tips that I’ve always wanted to pass along to attorneys but, until now, haven’t had the opportunity to do so.
 
1. Commit to the interview. The reporter is likely scrambling to find experts willing to give their impressions for a news story that needs to be filed by 6 p.m. Let the reporter know that you will definitely be available at the agreed-upon time. If you waffle, you’re going to be forgotten because no reporter wants to have their story held hostage to somebody who might — or might not — come through with an interview.
 
2. Set ground rules. The attorney can be in complete control of the interview, provided that he or she has the presence of mind to assert control at the outset. The attorney should be able to dictate when the interview will take place, how long it will last, whether it will be recorded or not, and what topics are up for discussion. The only exceptions would be participation in news coverage from global media outlets like the New York Times or Washington Post where, unless you’re ready on their schedule, the train will leave the station without you.
 
3. Be prepared.  If the reporter is seeking reaction to a judicial decision or breaking policy development, it’s perfectly OK to say, “I haven’t see that yet. Could you send me a copy before we speak?”
 
4. Have something to say. Have in mind one or two big takeaways that you want to convey to the reporter. Imagine what you would like the headline of the article to be, then deliver that message to the reporter. Couching your remarks in phrases like “That’s the most interesting thing about this case” or “Businesses are going to react negatively to this ruling” can go a long way toward shaping the finished article.
 
5. Begin with the end in mind. Your remarks will occupy, at most, a few paragraphs in a much longer article. A five-minute interview can be just as effective as a 45-minute gabfest. You want to impart syrup not sap. There is no relationship between the amount of time you give the reporter and the amount of space you get in the finished article. None.
 
6. Be careful. If you are concerned that you might be misquoted, ask the reporter if another attorney from your office can participate in the call. This happens frequently, so no reporter will object to it. In fact, interviews with government officials are almost always conducted in the presence of a press officer, and recorded.
 
7. Don’t worry. You're going to do a good job. It's not necessary to ask for questions in advance, though you could if the topic is on the periphery of your expertise.
 
8. Be positive, part 1. The best attorney interviewees have a genuine enthusiasm for the law and the industry they serve. This makes for a great interview.

9. Be positive, part 2. Let's say you're asked to comment on a judicial opinion that does little to change the law. A comment along the lines of "There's nothing new in the court's opinion" will not be helpful, and likely won't appear in the article.

Instead, put a positive spin on the ruling. A comment such as "The court's opinion reinforces previous guidance that ..." will be appreciated and published. This sort of comment reflects well on you too. 
 
10. Be interesting. Not much can be done with a notebook full of blasé “one the one hand, this, but on the other hand, that” observations from an expert.
 
11. Be patient with the reporter. The knowledge level of the reporters you speak with will vary. Few are attorneys, and none are as immersed in the law as you. If a reporter is asking you to repeat answers or otherwise seems to be plowing the same patch of dirt, take that as a good sign. A reporter who does that is willing to risk your harsh opinion about their competence in order to ensure that he or she gets the interview down 100 percent correct. Be patient and work with that reporter.
 
The reporter is attempting to conduct a conversation with an expert, trying to extract an interesting observation or two, while typing or writing down the best results, on deadline, in a noisy room. Again, be patient.
 
12. Be available. The law can be complicated and nuanced. It’s easy for the reporter to come away from an interview with a misunderstanding on some point or another. Human beings often drop words and make wildly inaccurate assumptions about context and knowledge among their listeners. Let the reporter know you are happy to answer requests for clarification and otherwise clean up quotes and misunderstandings.

After the Interview

 
In order to protect the firm’s professional reputation, the attorney should always ask (a) when the article will be published and (b) how to obtain a copy.
 
Article in hand, the attorney should read it to ensure that it does not include misquotes or material errors that could be attributed to the attorney. Resist the urge to edit or critique the article.
 
Finally, can you amplify the article’s reach? Consider reprinting the article on the law firm’s website, if possible. You may have to negotiate with the reporter for permission.
 
Consider also mentioning the attorney’s remarks in a blog post or client newsletter. Rather than lead with “I was featured in Such-and-Such Journal yesterday …,” consider “The News-Review published a very informative piece on workplace non-competes yesterday …” instead. You’ll get style points for that, and likely another call in the future.
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By Thomas O'Toole

A journalist with three decades' experience reporting on legal affairs, Tom is the managing editor and lead writer at Lawyers Media LLC.

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