Do You Really Need a Public Relations Degree to Be a Lawyer?

When I was in college, there really were no formal degrees in public relations. Most professionals had degrees in English, Journalism or Communications, like I did when I graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology. Yet, a “fake” lawyer managed to practice law after posing as an attorney and handled more than 60 cases without a law degree. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that he was sentenced to two years in prison for such a crime. Ironically, according to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, “No one suspected anything for years because he did everything right — except obtain a law degree.”

I won’t agree that when I work with an attorney I expect that person to be legitimate. It is the type of professional service, like doctors and CPAs, where credentials, licensing, and certification are important. You can ruin peoples’ lives if you don’t know what you’re doing. (Think about all the people locked up in prison for decades and then released because they were innocent.)

While I enjoy working with lawyers and don’t expect them to get a public relations degree, in order to work with me, there are some courses I wish were part of a law degree:

  • Filing a Response to the Reporter on Time: Attorneys know all about statutes of limitations, court filing deadlines, and being at court on-time. Miss one of those, and it can lead to disciplinary actions against the lawyer. The same is required when attorneys are needed for a comment with reporters. The writers are on deadline, and with real-time news media, not responding in a timely manner can lead to being excluded from the story or even giving the impression you have something to hide.
  • The Facts Will Come Out Somewhere, Sometime: Attorney/client privilege is critical to protecting a client’s interest in a legal matter. However, it’s better for the attorney to hear the bad and the ugly before someone else leaks the information. When lawyers work with the media, while they may not be able to disclose confidential client information, they can still respond in a responsible way that helps to maintain their credibility with the media.
  • Associates Don’t Become Senior Partners Overnight: I’ve had attorneys with no media experience, expect to become an instant source for The Wall Street Journal. Unless the attorney threatens the lives of the Supreme Court justices, it’s not likely to happen. Attorneys know that most law firms have a path to go from first year associate to partner and beyond. It can often take years. While media relations may not move that slowly, building relationships and credibility with major news outlets requires paying your dues.

Perhaps Prison Legal News can develop a new section of their publication for when lawyers break the “public relations laws.”