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Legal Consultant Limelight: Gina Rubel

As a licensed lawyer and former litigator, Gina Rubel gets to pursue both her passions by providing marketing and public relations services to law firms. The coupling does more than make her job enjoyable – it’s critical to her reputation as one of the best in her field. In fact, the founder of Furia Rubel Communications recommends that law firms hiring media specialists set the same types of standards and expectations that are expected of them by legal clients. Once that happens, however, Rubel believes that generally the best policy is to let the experts like her do their job when it comes to implementing broad strategies or responding to crisis situations.

Lawdragon: Can you describe for our readers the types of services you provide within the legal industry and to whom?

Gina Rubel: My agency, Furia Rubel Communications, supports law firm growth through integrated legal marketing, public relations, and content marketing. I work with law firm leaders on business strategy, business development, high-stakes public relations, media training, crisis planning, and incident-response support, including high-profile litigation media relations.

LD: How did you first become interested in providing this type of professional service?

GR: I am a third-generation attorney in my family. My grandfather, Edward W. Furia Sr., practiced law and became the first Italian-American U.S. Magistrate in Pennsylvania. My father, Richard F. Furia, was a Philadelphia trial lawyer with whom I practiced law early in my career. However, before going to law school, I worked in the public relations and marketing sectors and my undergraduate degree is in corporate communications. I had the opportunity to marry my two career loves, and I ran with it. I like to say that in both the practice of law and legal marketing and public relations, you communicate a strategic message to a targeted audience to elicit a specific response. It’s the means and the mediums that are different.

LD: What do you like about your job? And what do you like about working with lawyers?

GR: There are many things I find satisfying about the legal marketing and public relations profession. For one, I enjoy working with attorneys and legal marketers who understand the value of what we bring to the table. For instance, we currently serve as the agency of record for an AmLaw 200 firm for which we handle everything from business of law stories to crisis planning and media training. The attorneys and associates alike have taken the time to get to know how we can support them, their clients and help them to provide the best client value possible. What we do often enhances a law firm’s client advocacy – and this client, in particular, appreciates that.

Another reason I like working with lawyers is that they are smart and are not afraid to ask questions. Lawyers challenge every recommendation. While that may seem daunting, it causes us to work smarter and more strategically. One thing is for sure: I am never bored or unchallenged.

LD: Out of all the work you’ve done in your career, what would you say is the most interesting matter you’ve worked on for a legal client?

GR: This is a tough question. I have worked on heaps of interesting and thought-provoking matters. On the crisis communications side, I’ve dealt with hostile takeovers, mass layoffs, corporate restructuring and lateral departures. I’ve handled communications regarding a law firm partner who represented a high-profile global institution in a sexual harassment case which garnered nationwide publicity. I oversaw messaging and internal management in several matters after it was discovered that a senior officer had misappropriated client funds. I have handled employee and client communications for various law firms and other clients who lost power and/or facilities during hurricanes and other natural disasters. Further, I have managed crisis communications during various public rallies, protests, and demonstrations for retail facilities, municipalities, and legal matters including death penalty cases.

On the more proactive side of public relations, I find every attorney and almost every matter exciting. Some of my favorite assignments have been in the intellectual property, natural resources, energy, banking, toxic torts, MDL, and business sectors. I enjoy working with law firms and other businesses such as banks on their strategic planning as it relates to proactively communicating mergers and acquisitions, C-level successions, and other major business developments.

LD: Are there any trends you are seeing in your area of consulting or advising in terms of the types of matters keeping you busy these days?

GR: The legal marketing industry has changed dramatically since I founded Furia Rubel Communications more than 16 years ago. When I started, there was no such thing as social media and people were still using faxes to communicate information. Now, the speed with which we communicate information and turn around work is exponential. That has affected the consulting industry in many ways – in particular, the need for law firms to have well-thought-out crisis communications plans (a.k.a. incident-response plans) and trial-publicity plans. These are the things that are keeping us most busy – even though the majority of our clients rely on our full-service, integrated-marketing expertise.

Gone are the days that you could respond to a journalist within 12 to 24 hours. Now it’s minutes. As a result, it is important for law firms to plan, consider their strategy, and determine what is in the best interests of their firm and its clients.

LD: Can you describe a recent matter or strategy that you’ve handled?

GR: We recently handled media relations strategy for a law firm client which found itself in the cross-hairs of an absurd lawsuit. The law firm was accused of wrongdoing by a former employee who had been fired for justified and well-documented cause. The former employee filed a pro se complaint against our client – a story of which was sensationalized by some members of the media. We worked with the firm to craft messages and devise a strategy to respond to the matter in kind, while working within its outside counsel’s media policy of “no comment.” The matter has since been dismissed by the court, and the resulting media coverage set the record straight. This is what I consider a success story.

LD: What were some of the challenges of navigating that successfully?

GR: The key challenges in this matter were, one, we had little time to craft the proposed messages because we found out about the case through a reporter’s inquiry – this meant we were in a reactive media relations posture as opposed to a proactive stance; and two, the outside counsel’s law firm maintains a “no comment” media policy which meant our client had to be in the driver’s seat with message management. A blanket “no comment” media policy is almost never the best media relations approach.

LD: What was the final result of this from your point of view?

GR: In this case, the client is the law firm and the impact is that they got a fair shake with the media. The good news is that the majority of the legal trade and other business trade media are fair and prefer accurate reporting. We don’t deal with a ton of sensationalism in business-to-business media. There are certainly legal tabloids and various blogs that we have to contend with, but all-in-all, our client got a fair shake and their reputation did not suffer.

LD: Is there a specific lesson or take-away from this matter?

GR: This is a great example of why law firms need to include media relations and public relations strategy in their high-stakes, high-profile matters. As a former litigator turned publicist, I walk a tight-rope, and I’m often in conflict with myself. My PR mind says one thing, and my traditional, conservative lawyer mind says another. In the end, I find that I often come out in the middle – with the most strategic way to manage the court of public opinion while making sure the matter plays out properly and ethically in the court of law.

LD: Please discuss your career path. What were some of your earlier jobs that got you here?

GR: I earned my J.D. from Widener University School of Law and was admitted to practice in Pennsylvania – a license I continue to maintain. During law school I clerked for the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, and for nearly two years I handled crisis communications, risk management and international media relations while serving as the law clerk on highly-publicized death penalty appeals. I then spent several years as a litigator. My work as a judicial law clerk pointed me back in the direction of public relations and crisis communications – so I married my two degrees, law and corporate communications. I transitioned into communications and human relations at a video-on-demand start-up. In less than a year, I successfully generated national publicity in the trade press and regional television.

I then became head of public relations at a direct marketing firm. When they interviewed me, the founder asked, “Why would someone with an attorney’s background want to work in direct marketing?” I can still quote verbatim my answer: “Lawyers communicate a targeted message to a targeted audience to elicit a specific response. Isn’t that what direct marketers do?” We as lawyers obviously have to understand legal theory and case law, but ultimately, whether in a brief or a courtroom argument, we have to analyze our audience and come up with the most effective message – this is the same type of communications analysis handled by marketers. That was my epiphany of how to combine the law and corporate communications. I was hired to direct public relations for the agency, pharmaceutical, and consumer product accounts. I worked in two additional agencies supervising public relations and crisis communications for pharmaceutical, biotech, nonprofit and manufacturing accounts. In 2002, I decided to go out on my own to bring sophisticated marketing and public relations services to law firms. The rest is history.

Having a law degree and experience as a trial attorney has helped to legitimize me and the company in the eyes of lawyers and law firm management. That is precisely why the company niches in legal marketing and public relations.

LD: Did any experience from your undergraduate work push you towards this type of career?

GR: As a student at Drexel University, I had the opportunity to work in three co-op positions, each for six months. My co-op experience pushed me in the direction of communications. My first co-op was as an assistant editor with Physician’s News Digest where I found my love for writing and storytelling. My second co-op was with an electronics distribution company where I developed their internal communications initiative including an internal newsletter that was launched at their global sales meeting. My final co-op was with a nonprofit where we handled internal and external communications, sponsorship relations and fundraising.

LD: Was there a course, professor or experience that was particularly memorable or important in how your career turned out?

GR: While all of the corporate communications and law courses shaped my career, there are two that stand out: psychology and trial advocacy.

All of the psychology courses I took helped me to be a better listener, a more effective communicator, and to understand the importance of emotional intelligence (EQ) as it relates to life in general, serving as an employer, and serving our clients.

Trial advocacy was similar. We had to learn how to communicate with co-counsel, judges and jurors. We had to learn voir dire and how to identify physiological and sociological traits that could create bias. And we had to learn how to present an argument in such a way that we could advocate effectively on behalf of our clients, which is something I do every day.

LD: What advice do you have now for current students or young professionals who want to do communications for law firms?

GR: Legal marketing and public relations is a legitimate profession which starts with having a solid understanding of business in general and the business of law in particular. My first piece of advice is to take every psychology, organizational behavior, statistics and data analysis class possible. All of these things will make you a more effective and efficient communicator. My second piece of advice is to join the Legal Marketing Association (LMA) and learn from people who have been in the industry for the last 30-plus years. There are many idiosyncrasies in our industry – LMA provides the network and resources communicators need to be more successful.

LD: You touched on this before with social media, but how has your profession changed since the early part of your career?

GR: Legal marketing has been legitimized – that’s first and foremost. Put another way, in August 2018 the American Bar Association was 140 years old while the Legal Marketing Association was 33 years old. When I started in the profession, the courts didn’t have formal email accounts, there was no e-filing, there was no such thing as social media, cell phones came in bags that weighed several pounds, there was no such thing as Wi-Fi, and the facsimile had revolutionized how we communicated in law and public relations.

What it comes down to is moving away from a tactical approach to marketing to focusing on strategy. Legal marketing and business development must be discussed at the firm management level to help law firms accomplish their overall business goals of client satisfaction and profitability.

LD: What makes a client or type of matter stand out as a favorite for you?

GR: There are always clients that rise to the top of the list – that is because they value and respect the strategic counsel and services we provide. They give us a seat at the strategy table. They communicate regularly and efficiently with us, and they don’t micromanage.

LD: How would you describe your style or philosophy as a professional service provider? What characteristics does it take to thrive in your area?

GR: My philosophy is to lead with integrity. The characteristics that I believe one must have to thrive in legal marketing and law firm communications include, one, the ability to understand the types of matters that the lawyers handle and the demands placed on them by their clients. Two, we need to listen to the lawyers and in-house legal marketing and business development teams we serve and respond with well-thought-out feedback based on quantifiable data whenever possible. Other characteristics critical to success include the ability to write effectively and efficiently; to collaborate, empathize and negotiate; and finally, to be able to breathe and not take anything personally.

LD: Do you have any negative experiences in advising lawyers that taught you new approaches, or caused you to reconsider working with lawyers?

GR: Professional services providers, and especially lawyers, are some of the most demanding clients – and yet, they can also be the most rewarding. As a lawyer, I’ve never reconsidered working within the profession but there are certainly days that I get great satisfaction from serving clients in the various other industries that we support.

LD: What advice would you give potential clients in terms of how to most productively work with an outside advisor?

GR: When it comes to law firms, if they are going to hire an outside advisor, they should vet them the same way the lawyers expect to be scrutinized by their clients. Set expectations, be responsive, ask questions, and collaborate openly. Read the reports. Ask for quantifiable results whenever possible, and check in regularly. And might I repeat, be responsive. We shouldn’t have to follow up two or more times to get an approval on something the law firm expects us to complete in a timely manner.

LD: Are there lawyers or firms you won’t work with again and if so why?

GR: Absolutely. There is good business and there is bad business. We have had to resign an account or mutually agree to dissolve a contract from time to time. These have typically been smaller law firms run by attorneys who believe that they always know better. They did not respect the experience or counsel that we brought to the table nor did they wish to collaborate. These are the same firms that often asked us to pitch media stories about topics they believe to be important but the media would never cover. These types of accounts tend to do unto others as they would prefer others do not do unto them.

LD: Why did you decide to go out on your own instead of joining or staying with another company that also did media work for law firms?

GR: When I launched Furia Rubel Communications, we were the only legal marketing agency in Pennsylvania. I capitalized on the opportunity to serve an industry that I loved while creating a solid foundation for a viable business. Since then, many providers have come into the legal marketing space, many of which do not have former practicing attorneys at the helm.

LD: What do you think makes your company unique?

GR: Furia Rubel is a full-service agency deeply experienced at helping B2B clients create strategies and execute tactics to meet their objectives. We are client-focused and data-driven, and our legal and ethics expertise provide compliance-industry and high-risk businesses like law firms with an added layer of efficiency and protection.

We have a wealth of experience in legal communications having worked with many law firms over the course of 16 years. We build strategic partnerships with clients for business growth and stability, having helped many achieve their goals through the conception and execution of strategic marketing and public relations. We also are known to deliver exceptional client service right from our renovated barn-office in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

Furia Rubel is ranked among the top regional agencies and the top 50 women-owned businesses by the Philadelphia Business Journal. The agency also has the unique distinction of being listed in The Legal Intelligencer’s Hall of Fame and among the top agencies ranked by National Law Journal, New Jersey Law Journal, New York Law Journal and the LegalTimes.

As a boutique agency, we maintain a low volume of high-quality relationships and are mindful not to find our agency in conflict with work handled on behalf of our existing clients. We treat every client the way we expect to be treated – and our executives are involved every step of the way.

In addition to our professional credentials and expertise, we are a certified women-owned business.

LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?

GR: As a working mother, any time I’m not working, I try to be with my family. We spend time on our historic Bucks County, Penn., farm gardening and caring for our animals. I also enjoy traveling with my family and supporting our children in their various academic and sports endeavors – and always with my camera in hand.

LD: Are you involved in any community or public interest activities?

GR: Over the years, I have had the opportunity to serve on various boards and be involved in many community and public interest initiatives. Currently, I serve on two committees of the Legal Marketing Association, as an advisory board member to Women Owned Law, and as a volunteer and child sponsor for a family in the Philippines with Pearl S. Buck International.

LD: Do you have a favorite book or movie about the law?

GR: There are few books or movies about the law that I have enjoyed. When you live something every day, it’s difficult for me to find the subject matter entertaining. However, as a South Philadelphia Italian-American, I will always laugh when watching Marisa Tomei, Joe Pesci and Ralph Macchio in My Cousin Vinny. I still remember seeing it for the first time. I was on an outing with the Italian-American lawyers club called The Justinian Society at law school. It was 1992, and I knew then that they had a classic.

LD: If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing now?

GR: If I weren’t in my current job, I’d be the host of a travel show and a travel writer like Rick Steves, or I’d be a wildlife photographer for National Geographic.