Legal Consultant Limelight: Marcia Horowitz

Marcia Horowitz says she has “always liked working with lawyers,” and it shows. The Rubenstein managing director was on the shortest of shortlists when Lawdragon researched its guide to top consultants and inquired about trusted advisors for media placement and crisis communications. Experience counts, and Horowitz has a wealth of it now that she is more than 30 years into her tenure at Rubenstein, which began helping lawyers with media matters before law firms had PR or communications departments.

When one looks at the breaking news of the day, there is almost always a legal angle,” Horowitz says. “So lawyers are often directly or tangentially involved in all of the biggest stories as they break, and this keeps my professional life interesting and moving, often at high speed, every day.”

Lawdragon: Can you talk about how you got into PR work, and when you started having at least a partial focus on law firms? When did that start – when enough firms really started looking for outside help with PR and crisis communications?

Marcia Horowitz: I have a Masters in Journalism from Boston University and started my career working in the Mayor’s press office. It was there that I met Howard Rubenstein, who hired me as an account executive. I have been working for Rubenstein now for more than 30 years. We were certainly one of the first public relations firms to represent a law firm. Today, our law firm and crisis and reputation management practices dovetail well. We understand the first edict is to do no harm. Much of our crisis practice involves clients involved in lawsuits and we have vital experience in understanding court proceedings and what is appropriate to say or not to say.

LD: As one of the most esteemed and experienced experts in marketing for lawyers and firms, what are the biggest changes you've seen during your career?

MH: I have seen a sea change in the way law firms view public relations and marketing. When we first represented law firms, there were no public relations or marketing professionals in-house. We dealt directly with lawyers. Our first mandate, which has not truly changed fundamentally, was to have lawyers quoted on key issues of the day and to garner media coverage of big legal “wins.” This presented a huge learning curve for many attorneys. Law firms viewed themselves as professions, not businesses. Lawyers often found it unseemly to lower their standards by speaking to a reporter and saying anything but “no comment.” Obviously, the Internet turned everything on its head again. We now regularly speak to lawyers about everything from Twitter and LinkedIn to paid content.

For that reason, the thrust of our work is constantly changing as online media evolves daily. A negative article can get lost in a day in the tumult of the Internet or it can seemingly last forever, prominently appearing in every Google search of the individual or the firm. Especially for our crisis clients, the exclusive we would give to, say, the Wall Street Journal or another high-profile outlet has sometimes been replaced by breaking the news on Twitter.

Another dilemma these days is dealing with the continuing erosion in the number of news outlets and journalists. I think one of the biggest challenges is forming concise strategic messages that define our clients in a straightforward way and finding new and better ways to get heard in the crowd.

LD: Do you remember the first lawyer or firm you represented and can you talk a bit about the engagement?

MH: My first client was Weil Gotshal. My first placement was an op-ed in the Business Forum section of the Sunday New York Times. Harvey Miller wrote the piece, suggesting that filing for Chapter 11 actually had some benefits. That began the era of the reprint.

LD: Your organization, Rubenstein, is widely regarded as the go-to specialists for marketing of all types, including crisis communications. Do you have three tips that all lawyers could benefit from?

MH: In terms of reputation management, law firms facing a crisis themselves should do three things: First, focus on the right thing to do rather than on the right thing to say. Next, always tell the truth. You’ve heard it before: often it is the cover-up, not the crime, that causes the most problems. Third, be brief. This may sound elementary, but media statements should ideally be no more than three sentences. Giving the media a long document written in legalese gives a reporter the opportunity to cut the statement to pieces and to pick and choose what to use.

LD: What are the biggest mistakes, generally, you see lawyers making in the media?

MH: The biggest mistakes are saying too much, or saying too little. Reporters are looking for opinions and they need content that is interesting and thought-provoking. The competition with other law firms can be fierce, so saying something with substance will increase your chances to get mentioned. Of course we all agree not to cross the line by saying anything that might upset an audience important to them. It is simply not worth it.

LD: Can you share a recent client experience – even if in veiled terms – that you believe was successful and highlights a particular key lesson in dealing with the media?

MH: As a team, one of our greatest values is in being involved in the decision-making of whether to settle a matter or endure the pain and expense of pursuing it in court. Linked to this is whether to comment in the media and what that comment looks like. In every instance these decisions are made in concert with leadership and counsel as well as others who have a particular understanding of the issue. The pendulum on the "no comment" solution has swung both ways. It has gone lately from "you look guilty if you say no comment" to "whatever else you say can and will be held against you."

LD: Is there an engagement in your career that really stands out, either for the intensity of the experience or the novelty of what was being dealt with?

MH: I once had a client, a high-profile lawyer, who had not disclosed all his conflicts to a client he was representing. It was a remarkable lapse in judgment, and the New York Times decided to delve into the particulars of the case in a big story – complete with a big picture of the lawyer – on the front page of the business section. We worked hard to soften the blow of that article. To my amazement, for years thereafter, our legal clients said they wanted us to get them a profile in the Times just like that one.

LD: At what point should lawyers start learning marketing and outside-the-courtroom communication skills?

MH: Everyone can benefit from fine-tuning their communications and presentation skills. We regularly do media training for lawyers interested in enhancing their reputations through the press. But it won't work without buy-in from the attorney. Getting quoted these days is more and more of an art. Sound bites are contrary to legal training but getting closer to it makes a big difference.

LD: It’s been an interesting era for law schools. Can you discuss any work in this field and what type of assistance they tend to need?

MH: We represent two law schools. They face the scourge of lists and rankings, and the challenge of distinguishing themselves from other schools.  For these clients, exposure in the media that is seen by prospective students, academics and donors remains top of mind. Because law schools have no client conflicts, we often offer commentary from professors who are unencumbered in expressing their point of view.  I do think the right kind of media exposure, and a lot of it, is particularly helpful for law schools who appreciate the value of a steady drumbeat of mentions.