How to Ethically Introduce Yourself to Reporters as a Source

Janet L. Falk, Ph.D.

Falk Communications and Research

Craig Dobson

Dobson Law LLC

When you see a colleague with a similar law practice quoted in the news, do you think, “Why are they talking to HER and not ME?”

The answer is simple: Reporters call the people they know. They do not call an attorney they’ve never heard of.

If you want to be seen in the news, you must professionally—and ethically—introduce yourself to reporters.

Consider why you want to be quoted in the media. Is it to attract potential clients? Perhaps you want to stay top of mind with referral sources. Maybe you want to keep in touch with your many contacts or advocate for the cause of the nonprofit on whose board you serve.

As a litigator, you might issue a press release to generate a news story that will put pressure on opposing counsel and make him want to settle the case without going to trial. You might seek to attract associates and laterals who want to work for your hot firm that’s always getting in the news.

The first step to connecting with the media is to think like a reporter and use journalism's five W’s: who, what, when, where and why:

Having answered these questions, you are now ready to compose a Media Profile (sample here). Starting with your contact information and a general description of your background, describe your practice in general terms. Are you focused on transactions, litigation or contracts? Do you work primarily in certain industries, such as technology, financial services or health care? The descriptions of your practice area and industry in your Media Profile help the areas of your practice become progressively narrower.

Now you arrive at the meat of the matter. Reporters know what has happened already. They want to know what is going to happen before it happens. You have a unique perspective as an attorney working on specific matters and issues in a particular industry.

The Trends on the Horizon/Upcoming Hot Topics section is where you address topics that are not being widely discussed but will have an impact on operations and profitability across many players in the sector. Pinpointing these trends, deadlines or big picture views will position you as an authoritative source who has her finger on the pulse of the market, making you the attorney a reporter will want to contact.

Now, before you send the Media Profile to reporters, make sure that you have stayed within the boundaries of the ethics rules regarding advertising. If you have any doubt about which states’ rules apply, compare Rule 8.5 in each of the jurisdictions involved.

Under the relatively new ABA Model Rule 7.1, lawyers must avoid making “false or misleading communication” about themselves or the work they do. The lawyer should evaluate her communication not only by what is included, but also by what is left out to make sure this standard is met.

Older versions of the ABA Model, New York’s for example, might revolve around the definition of advertising. According to Rule 1.0(a) of the New York Rules of Professional Conduct (NY RPC), advertising is defined as “any public or private communication made by or on behalf of a lawyer or law firm about that lawyer or law firm’s services, the primary purpose of which is for the retention of the lawyer or law firm.” Because this communication is between an attorney and a reporter and is not for retention of the attorney, the lawyer’s Media Profile might sidestep the definition.

In dealing with reporters, note also that NY RPC Rule 7.1(o) states, “A lawyer shall not compensate or give anything of value to representatives of the press, radio, television or other communication medium in anticipation of or in return for professional publicity in a news item.” In other words, inviting the reporter to coffee is fine, but there is no pay-to-play to ensure a mention in the media. Even if your state has not adopted such a provision, it would still be wise to follow it.

Often lawyers are called upon by reporters because they are, in fact, specialists. However, the rules of your jurisdiction might prohibit your referring to yourself as such. See, for example, NY RPC 7.4(a) and (c). In those jurisdictions, you might instead say that your practice is focused on or limited to a particular area of the law, whether M&A transactions, commercial real estate or intellectual property. The prohibition of using the term specialist might also extend to referring to one’s self as an expert. The ABA Rules’ current prohibition on the term is now limited to calling yourself (or implying that you are) certified. See ABA Model Rule 7.2.

Lawyers commenting on their own cases should be keenly aware of ABA Rule 3.6, and prosecutors Rule 3.8. These rules reflect the maxim illustrated in Sheppard v. Maxwell (384 U.S. 333 (1966)) and subsequent cases that trials, and most especially criminal jury trials, are to be conducted inside the courtroom, not in the media. Even so, certain statements are permissible under the current version of the rule, and standards of diligence and competence might even require lawyers to speak out to avoid prejudice to their client caused by publicity originating elsewhere. See ABA Model Rule 3.6(c).

A Media Profile may be updated twice a year, as new, pressing issues emerge for which you can weigh in on those topics.

You can also use a time-sensitive version of a Media Profile to position yourself as a source for commentary on a breaking news story. As an example, several Boston-based attorneys provided much of the day-to-day commentary when the trial of the Boston Marathon bombing was underway. That’s to be expected; the proceedings were in their backyard. When the verdict was announced, one news story, however, quoted an attorney from Miami! Miami? Why HIM and not YOU?

Here’s how that attorney probably got in the news article. He likely contacted reporters covering the trial and offered this snapshot of a Media Profile:

Whatever your reason to be seen in the media are—connecting with contacts and lapsed clients, building your reputation and personal brand, speaking at a conference—you must professionally and ethically introduce yourself to reporters, keeping in mind the rules on advertising. Once you get a reporter’s attention, you must be mindful of how to conduct that conversation, which is a future discussion.

Craig Dobson, Esq. has a practice in ethics and immigration at Dobson Law LLC in New York City; he is licensed in New York and Georgia.

Janet Falk is the head of Falk Communications and Research in New York City. She provides media relations and marketing communications services to law firms and consultants.

Falk and Dobson presented How to Ethically Introduce Yourself to Reporters and Speak About Your Practice, Cases and Other Matters, available from PLI Programs On Demand.

Also available from PLI Programs On Demand:

Avoiding Ethical Minefields When Departing a Law Firm

Professional Ethics and Virtual Mediation

Ethical Considerations for Lawyers Working Remotely

Also available from PLI Press:

Corporate Compliance Answer Book (2021 Edition)

Ethics in Context: December 2020

Compliance & Ethics Essentials 2020

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and official policies of Practising Law Institute.

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