If you’ve ever read a transcript of a deposition you’ve taken, you know the horror of reading how you speak. Fortunately, very few people will read your deposition transcripts, and those who do likely know the horror personally make for a forgiving audience.
It’s different when you speak to the press. An unknown number of people will read your words, and what you say will affect their understanding of a legal issue. Knowing how to speak to the media will make you a savvier advocate. It can also help you grow your reputation as an expert and possibly build your business. These tips should get you on the right path.
Before you talk to the media, know what you can ethically say. Under the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, lawyers are charged with certain ethical requirements about talking to others about their cases and clients. Keep in mind: Model Rule 4.1 prevents a lawyer from making “a false statement of material fact or law to a third person.” That’s pretty simple. Don’t lie.
Can you make your statement in 10 words or less? The press loves sound bites, so be prepared to summarize your thoughts in a short, easy-to-digest statement. Before being interviewed, interview yourself. If you knew nothing about the issue or case, what questions would you ask? Answer those questions. And keep answering those questions until you have short, simple statements prepared.
As every lawyer knows, the law is rarely black and white, but non-lawyers really expect it to be. When reporters ask a question, they want an answer. This isn’t the time to expound on the many variables that could occur. Find a way to make your brief statement but still imply the variables. Use words such as may, could, likely, and probably to soften your statement.
If you can’t answer the question because it doesn’t make sense or is based on a misunderstanding, say that. If you don’t want to answer the question because it would be detrimental to your client, it presents an ethics problem, or it is outside your expertise, then decline to comment.
Like many aspects of practicing law, reliability is key. Leslie Gordon, a freelance legal affairs writer from San Francisco, advised that the most important thing for a lawyer to do with a press inquiry is to be accessible. “The more available you are to a reporter, the more you’re going to get repeatedly called and quoted,” says Gordon. Have you ever noticed that the same reporters quote the same lawyers regularly? Of course, those lawyers are experts in their subject matters. More importantly, they answer their phones when reporters call. If you are looking to build your reputation as an expert, be the easiest person for reporters to reach.
Reporters work on tight deadlines. They need responsive sources that can help them produce quality copy. If you are accessible, can make the complex simple, and answer questions as they are asked, you’re on your way to being a great source to the media and building your reputation as an expert. You are also developing great skills to use with any other audience, including juries and judges.