Sunday, 25 November 2012

Alex Aldridge

Legal Cheek founder Alex Aldridge didn't appreciate the influence he wields. He does now. It took a law suit and requests to his Internet Service Provider to close him down, before he realised how much notice people were taking of his maverick legal news site. 

"These days anyone can be a journalist. There's a whole variety of blogging sites enabling anyone to create their own content. But until Twitter, which has enabled everyone to push out that content to mass audiences in a way previously they could only dream of, people could blog away about their own personal view of the world to their hearts content, without really affecting anything; audiences were so small, any harm done would be limited.  But all that has changed."  Over lunch in Covent Garden I talk to Alex about whether the principles of ethics and standards that all good journalists subscribe to - accuracy, truthfulness, impartiality, objectivity, etc - have any special role to play as the authorities and users of social media alike try to get their heads around how we are going to control rights and responsibilities in this new social media age.  

I asked him if he thinks there's any difference between bloggers playing at being journalists, and journalists who blog. "I think the essential difference is about accountability. And it wasn't until that law suit that I really understood this in all its aspects."  "That" law suit centred on a story that was accurate, but which was accompanied by a photo of someone entirely unrelated to the affair. He wasn't the only journalist to use the photo erroneously - a leading daily paper had used the same image. But the mistake cost him dearly. "Legal Cheek started in the wild west days of legal blogging - a new frontier. With just me working on stories, for a then unknown blog, I had to be nimble and quick to get the stories first. No-one was going to deliver stories to my door." Now that he has recognised the influence his blog has, and the responsibility this carries, he takes a different approach. "I have to" he says. "There's an expectation that as a seasoned legal journalist, my stories can be relied upon and I'm accountable for that."

"It's interesting to see how Lord McAlpine's lawyers are calculating the damage to his reputation after the Newsnight/Phillip Schofield gaffe. They're basing it on the number of  followers the tweeters who named him have. They are arguing that those who have 56,000 followers, say, have a greater responsibility that those who have only two for example. And our Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer is taking a similar approach. He has promised Guidelines later this year on how damage is to be calculated, after a series of cases involving social media abuse have resulted in wildly varying approaches to quantum. This is interesting: it's telling us not only about where the boundaries are in this wild west landscape, but also how responsibility and accountability are intrinsically linked to the strength of your following."

I also took the opportunity to ask Alex about a novel method of reporting we'd noticed recently on Legal Cheek.  You may have seen that his coverage of the Annual Bar Conference earlier this month took the form of a report of the most interesting tweets: "The Bar Conference In Tweets: Most Retweeted, Most Eye-Catching, Most Amusing".  For readers, this provided a fresh, novel way to learn what was being talked about, compared to the traditional journalist event write-up.  "It only worked by selecting the best from the #barconf2012 timeline.  Twitter timelines can in fact be very hard to read - it's not always obvious which tweet is replying to which, and how the thread of conversation is actually running. So a bit of deciphering was important to enable Legal Cheek visitors to understand what was going on. It's an interesting addition to the journalist skill-set. It's almost like "curating" - certainly it's more than just "aggregating".  It's an interesting role to have."

Well it's certainly interesting watching you develop Legal Cheek, Alex. I wonder where you'll take us next... 
News of another favourite legal blogger, in the dock this week for a highly entertaining distraction at London Twegals most recent tweet-up. The great and the good of the legal blogo- and Twitter-sphere gathered at The Lamb Tavern in Leadenhall Market to witness the Trial of Charon QC - entertainingly staged by This Is Your Laugh (this company should go right into your address book right away!) famous for putting on "individually-tailored comedy experiences" using Comedy Store and TV regulars: Norman Lovett the face of The Red Dwarf computer Holly, played Judge; and Bob Slayer, architect behind the Alternative Fringe at Edinburgh played defence. 
What a fun way to do a corporate (well almost) event!

Did we learn anything new about the legal profession's favourite blogger? 
- That there was a time when he was "never knowingly under-refreshed"? That was public knowledge (Rioja anyone?) and the man is now famously tee-total. 
- That his alter ego Mike Semple Piggott is the man who launched BPP Law School? We all knew that too. 
- That he has, in the words of his Lordship, "as many pseudonyms as any self-respecting rapper". But we know them all - Charon QC, Lord ShaggerDr Erasmus Strangelove and various other partners in Muttley Dastardly LLP, etc. And, as he was keen to point out, he has never hidden his true identity. 

It was the witness statements that were the revelation of the evening: a rather stressed @PME2013 tricked into donning a moustache and leading the crowd singing Queen's We Will Rock You (some in the room should be hanging their heads in shame); and @Jezhop managing to squeeze more key messages about his firm Riverview Law into his testimony than I have ever witnessed in legal circles :) 

Great fun night. If you missed it, watch out on Twitter for the next announcement about a Twegals Tweetup.

Don't get me started on the subject of women bishops! Can't think when I've been so disappointed with my beloved Church of England. I'm heartened by the fact that an overwhelming majority of the votes overall were in favour - also a majority in each of the three houses: House of Bishops, House of Clergy and yes, even in the House of Laity. The vote was scuppered by the antiquated voting structure requiring two-thirds support in each House. But surely the issue of women's leadership ministry in the church shouldn't even be in question!  

I'm confident the Stained Glass Ceiling, as this issue has become known, will eventually be removed. it's just a matter of time. Cast your minds forward: hope I live to see the day when the Church of England is arguing instead about the possibility of mandatory quotas for female bishops. Now there's a thought...

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Catriona Moore

Catriona Moore gives the phrase "unlocking potential" a whole new meaning. She is mum to five-year-old Amy who suffers from Rett Syndrome, a neurological disorder caused by a faulty gene that prevents the brain from communicating with the body and means her daughter cannot make any "purposeful" movements. Although Amy's brain is completely normal, she is unable to make the right connections with her own body - and thus neither with the outside world.  So Retts is a form of locked-in syndrome as communication - as well as walking, even eating and breathing - is severely impaired. 

"Unlocking potential" is a big theme in the world of personal and professional development, talent and human resources management, etc.  It's big business too. And in the world of professional services firms, where services are generally delivered through people, it is particularly key. Indeed it's a recurring theme in the conversations I have with law firm managers as I go about my business (and the subject of a book launching this month that I will be blogging about next week). But when Catriona told me the story of her beautiful little daughter Amy, how she worried when her development seemed so far behind her little friends, and became distressed when a number of the motor and other skills she was just mastering at about 18-months-old then actually started to recede - and the devastation that came with the knowledge the cause was Rett....I started to think about unlocking human potential in a whole new light.

We met at the third annual Reverse Rett London event to raise money for research into this devastating disease.  Catriona was one of the speakers.

"Rett Syndrome affects about 1 in 10,000 girls." Catriona tells me.  "Grief is something that's usually associated with death, with loss. Our little girl was alive. And yet in that traumatic period leading up to her diagnosis, we felt like we'd lost her. We were grieving for the loss of the girl we thought Amy was. The loss of our hopes and dreams for the sort of family we thought we'd be. As parents, the loss of peace of mind."

"But there is real hope and that is what we all focus on. A cure is tantalisingly close: the year Amy was born, 2007, an experiment on mice managed to reverse the disease entirely. We know that if the same applies when the treatment is given to humans, we really will be able to "unlock" our daughter's potential!

Catriona's husband, Amy's dad, is legal journalist and friend Eduardo Reyes, hence my invite to the dinner. The event was staged to raise funds to take this research to human clinical trials. "It is not just about preventing the disease to save the children of the future" Catriona insists. "The wonderful hope of this research is the potential to release children and others who are suffering today.  The disease was completely reversed in the mice trial.  We know Amy's brain is fine in itself - we had a scan recently - so if she could just be released from the Syndrome, she could finally lead a normal, care-free life! And if we can raise the funding, clinical trials could start in only two or three years. If we had the opportunity, we would sign Amy up for trials next week!" Rarely have I been to a charity fund-raiser where the possibility of reaching the end-goal, in this case a cure and means of reversing the condition for today's sufferers, was so tangible.  I was moved.

@joannaMG22 was also at the dinner and together with @edreyesjourno the three of us are now cooking up an idea for a legal Rett fundraiser. Could we persuade firms to donate just a small percentage of their talent management budgets maybe?? Do pass the word around. And watch this space for further details. But don't wait to donate! Click here to make a donation now.


Now that we can all play journalist in the new social media age, perhaps we need to take on some integrity points from the journalist tradition. Hardly a week passes without a story of an enthusiastic tweeter or blogger falling foul of defamation and other laws. 

Mark Leach at Weightmans put it well this week when he said on BBC London radio (nice placement Sophie!): "Now that we've got all these new toys to play with, all these social media websites, we will all get used to them in time I'm sure.  We'll grow up a bit in due course and get a bit more mature about them - use them with more respect. It's just that it might take a decade or so to get there!" Mark is an employment lawyer and he's noticed a sharp rise in cases relating to inappropriate comments on social media in the workplace. 

Of course we can all hope for a more mature attitude to social media use to emerge, but in the meantime any reputational damage done by irresponsible tweeters and bloggers is not so easily undone, whatever legal remedy is thrown at it. As Lord McAlpine put it, "There's a British proverb that's insidious and awful, that there's no smoke without fire. This is the legacy [this incident] has left me with." A very good point well made, and this from a man who certainly throwing a few legal remedies around as well.

Stocking fillers for the lawyer in your life. As we count down to Christmas (only 36 shopping days left!) The Conversation will offer some helpful gift suggestions for the lawyer in your life who has everything.

This week's recommendation is a book by one of our most favourite court reporters, The Evening Standard's Paul Cheston. "Court Scenes: The Art of Priscilla Coleman" studies the depictions of courtroom drama created by this iconic court artist who has worked for some 20 years for the likes of ITN and many of our daily papers.

Restricted from drawing in court, (along with any attempt at photography or other visual representation) court artists can only take brief written notes and then have to create the drawings afterwards from memory - and at high speed to make the daily press deadlines. Paul is one of the most experienced court reporters around and he covered many of the same cases as Priscilla. His commentary accompanying her sketches makes the book a particular delight. You can buy it here.

Some of the most famous trials are depicted - Rosemary and Fred West, Ian Huntley, The Hutton Inquiry, the 21/7 bombers and the moment Heather Mills-McCarthy poured a jug of water over her ex-husband's lawyer Fiona Shackleton. Priscilla's drawings have created many of the enduring mental images we store away in our memory banks about these high profile court stories. You will enjoy.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Caroline Grant

Caroline Grant is almost evangelistic about marketing Best Practice. We've been talking in recent weeks about whether legal marketers should see their role as serving, or rather as leading their firms. She believes strongly that demonstrating excellence in your chosen discipline is the best way to ensure "followership" from partners and gain their respect, enabling you to take the lead in all things comms-related. 

Caroline is Head of the Corporate Communications team at multi-award-winning law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner.  The firm is known for its legal innovation and the freshness of its approach to doing business and Caroline's mantra is to establish in the minds of the partnership that its comms team is equally market-leading. 

Since starting in legal marketing more than 20 years ago I have been fascinated by the curious and fluctuating dynamic between the two poles of the marketeer as someone who simply executes what partners ask them to do, and the marketeer who tells partners what needs to be done. If marketeers see their role as merely executing, rather than directing and leading, firms risk losing out on the best that the disciplines of good marketing, communications, media relations and key account management etc can offer the business. Equally I've seen senior marketeers with great leading-edge thinking fail, simply because they haven't been able to connect with partners and get their buy-in. Of course you can't lead if everyone refuses to follow.  So winning partners over is crucial.  But how to do this?

"The answer to your conundrum is that we have to do both: serve the partnership and lead it at the same time" says Caroline. "You have to prove your credentials like anyone else in business - show you're really excellent at what you do by handling the tasks you're given really well, meeting objectives and, where you can, exceeding expectation. This is key to establishing credibility and gradually developing the respect and authority that enables you to lead your bosses and for them to be comfortable following what you propose. But in that "proving yourself", you don't want to become stuck in the "people pleasing" zone. Sometimes the most valuable contribution you can make as a marketeer is to challenge a brief and suggest a better alternative.

"I'm very proud of my team. We've taken great care to recruit bright stars, people with successful track records in previous roles. And we invest in developing them well once they're here and ensuring everyone is focussed on comms best practice. This year I felt it was important to communicate back to the partnership just how excellent its comms team is - key to helping develop its credibility and authority within the firm. We've produced a beautiful coffee table book showing our best cuttings - page after page of coverage in City, national and international media; we've set up a daily email update of the day's best hits, called BLP in the limelight - beautifully branded (making the most of the lime in our corporate colours of course!); and for the first time this year we've entered the comms team in CorpComms magazine's best practice awards - and I am delighted to say the update so far is we've been shortlisted for three: "Best In House Team", "Best In House Staff Publication" and also our very own Dee Flynn is shortlisted for their "Young Achiever" award.

Showing the partners the team is respected externally, is lauded by its peer group, is a powerful way to gain respect internally. For marketeers working in-house in a discipline that's so alien to what the core business of law is about, it's hard to gain respect and be listened to when trying to lead. Caroline believes - and I wholeheartedly agree with her - that the answer lies in proving your excellence.

Good luck with the awards guys!

Watching journalists hoist by their own petard makes for uncomfortable viewing.  Phillip Schofield's attempt to ambush David Cameron caused the PM some discomfort, but the ITV presenter came off far worse from the blast of his own bombshell.  And much much worse was to come.  

We all know the story: on Thursday's This Morning Schofield handed the PM a list of supposed Tory paedophiles circulating on the internet, asking him to comment.  The stunt forced the PM to gaffe that loose speculation about a paedophile ring linked to No. 10 could result in a witch hunt against gays, which many took to mean he equated the two.  The next twist in this tortuous tale came when it emerged that the list passed across the table on prime time TV might be capable of being read by anyone choosing to freeze frame, and that two names were potentially decipherable. 

But the fallout from the bomb blast didn't end there, as BBC's Newsnight team and corporation Director General George Entwistle then faced painfully awkward questions about an issue of mistaken identity the editorial team failed to pick up, leading to the name of one now very angry former senior politician ending up on that list. Fatally for "Incurious George" as he has come to be known, Entwistle was unaware of a lot of the detail of the debacle that everyone else - the general public included - had gleaned from press reports and Twitter.  By evening, he had resigned.

The theory goes that our traditional news organisations still have a pivotal role to play in the new social media age, the rigour of the journalistic discipline in researching and checking stories supposedly making them a far more trusted source than most user-generated content.  In such a fast-changing media environment, they lose this competitive advantage at their peril. 
With the switching on of the West End's Christmas lights, the countdown to the Festive Season has officially begun. And in Covent Garden we are most definitely getting into the Yuletide mood. We can't help it! Our decorations are far and away the best of any of the London neighbourhoods - giant baubles hanging from the piazza ceiling and even a topiary reindeer in the square. Do make sure to avail yourself of the Winter-wonderful treats on offer - Christmas Food Market every Thursday, a Jack Daniels Christmas Tree made entirely of Bourbon barrels (from 27 November), a Lego advent calendar - and live reindeer petting every weekend. Take a look here to see the full list of advent activities. 

Come on! It's time to get into the Christmas spirit!

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Sue Nash

Sue Nash believes solicitors could gain from being forced to focus on costs.  This woman knows more about litigation costs and the changing regime than anyone I know (yes even you, Mr Legal Futures Neil Rose, which is saying a lot!)

I caught up with Sue as she was preparing for the LexisNexis Costs & Litigation Funding Forum this week and as always she was rushing around like a whirling dervish, fired up with excitement and brimming with ideas.  Well there's so much to do!  A new mandatory Costs Budgeting Process for litigation kicks in on 1 April next year following Lord Jackson's Review of Litigation Costs, and solicitors need to make sure their time- and cost-recording systems are compliant by then.  At the conference Sue was trailing the launch next February of some nifty software she has developed, Omnia, that will do just this.

"This amount of system change is painful, especially for law firms already challenged by one of the toughest markets for business most of us have ever seen.  With this new software I am trying to take a large part of this pain away.  But I would encourage lawyers to look beyond the pain: there are positive business benefits to be had from analysing your costs in such detail - never mind that you are being forced to do so."

My ears pricked up at this point, as I've long thought lawyers could get a lot smarter with their pricing and costing.  In recent years of course the debate around Billable Hours has been a headline topic.  But the issue of so many lawyers being out-of-comfort-zone when it comes to costs has been a constant theme for me, since my very earliest days in legal marketing.  I was essentially brought up in law firms, from the tender age of 22.  Over my 12 years in-house I accepted as normal a process of marketing planning and income projection that started with the question "How many chargeable hours do we need to bill?", then contemplated "How are we going to sell them and to whom?".  It wasn't until I moved to a job outside of law firms, a small PR consultancy in the West End of London, that I witnessed people starting the process by ... wait for it ... looking at the market first, estimating likely income from clients and prospects according to their business opportunities and challenges in their own marketplaces - only then deciding the capacity required to fulfil this demand.  

I asked Sue to tell me more:  "I'd love to take some firms in hand and talk them through how to understand the central cost-to-revenue ratio that lies at the heart of their business.  A lot of firms simply don't look at this properly - don't really have a handle on this at all. For some firms, this new Costs regime may well have a positive impact, focussing minds on this essential dynamic for the first time.  Potentially, the net result is a better view of their business than they have ever had before.  And in a challenged marketplace, that's got to be a good thing."

Sue has been working as a costs lawyer for some 25 years.  She is the founder of Litigation Costs Services and has an unbeatable understanding of the anatomy of litigation, how it is configured and costed - and is often asked to advise on costs and funding issues. A vexed profession can be assured that with Sue onside, adapting to a new costs regime need not be so intimidating.

Now I for one would like to see Sue step outside her usual litigation niche and provide some much needed advice and inspiration on managing costs in other parts of law firm business too.  But her feet have barely touched the ground in the last six months, and as she clearly won't be resting until after Spring 2013, as much as we need her I think we're going to have to wait until she has a bit more time on her hands...

Who'd have thought that Halloween could become such a legal minefield. First, there's a hot debate about the social acceptability, or otherwise, of trick-or-treating (this Independent article here puts the case well that we should celebrate the fact our children are safe out and about on the streets, in some communities at least, because older siblings are watching over them, and not rioting, looting or getting drunk themselves).  But in addition to this, there's a bubbling cauldron of legal lizards tails and frog-toes of fault to worry about. Thankfully the Metropolitan Police published some handy guidance under a Twitter hashtag to help us all #celebratesafely.  Choice titbits include: 

If trick or treating - don’t enter houses - stay on the doorstep
If trick or treating - don’t throw eggs or flour. It can be classed as criminal damage or even assault