Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Tim Sharp

Just as I thought law firm communication was becoming more about the visual, designer Tim Sharp at Moore-Wilson tells me that cutting edge websites are in one sense far more about text and content these days. I’m baffled. I know of one Top 20 law firm that has “visual differentiation” as a key strategic point. And as today we have the opportunity for far more immediacy in the creation of vodcasts and other video-style content on websites and social media platforms, etc, I thought we were moving towards a greater emphasis on visual rather than textual communication across the board: we’ve had YouTube since 2005 and now we have a plethora of channels focussed on the visual – Flickr, Instagram, Pinterest, Vine, Tumblr; and in the legal profession we’ve also witnessed the freeing up of law firm colour palettes (from grey to blue as discussed in one of my July blog) that would never have been tolerated in the pioneering days of law firm marketing. Well, it was the 1980s; moreover solicitors and barristers alike have been on a long journey to understand what “branding” means in the context of a legal business. It’s taken about 20 years for most to understand the difference between brand values which run very deep, essentially summarising partners’/members’ commonality of purpose, versus the more superficial outworking of this, logos, which were typically lawyers' first pre-occupation in the brave new world of legal marketing. They now know they are only just one of the visual manifestations of brand values.

But are we now to understand the visual is less important?

“The point is that “Look & Feel” is just one aspect of design." Tim tells me. "Functionality is equally important. What we’ve learned is how to work the relationship between form and function to best effect to engage key audiences through a website. New technologies have enabled so many different new ways to put over content, we can think so much more creatively about how to engage. I’m happy to say also that law firms have got so much slicker about this in the last few years: a typical starting point for them now in building a website is to think about “user journeys”: stepping into the shoes of clients and contacts and others who will be using the site; understanding what they will be looking for (of course Google Analytics tells us so much about what site visitors are looking at when they visit, and law firms have learned to use this data to refine their sites or when designing new sites from scratch); making this information easy for them to find/access and then planning information you want to “push” to them around this. Some of the content may be delivered in a visual way – eg vodcasts and videos, diagrams, animations, etc. But home pages rely far less on overwhelming branding and wizzy colours/visuals. They focus far more on text signposting clear pathways through the site to the information most visitors will be after.

"Part of this is definitely driven by SEO [Search Engine Optimisation] and packing home pages with words that will maximise a firm’s Google rankings [ie how searchable they are when people google eg the term “legal advice”]. Although currently there is a big debate about whether SEO is dying and being taken over by social media...

"But in part it’s about all of us developing a better understanding of the appropriate balance between words and images in communication and a deft use of both to put the right messages and impressions across in a way that engages with your audiences in the way they want to interact with you. The web design industry has a lot more functionality to play with now so is able to perfect the balance between form and function much better, and use this to engage with website users far more effectively. The top law firms have got this too, as much as everyone else in the broader business world.

I have written in this blog before about the gradual shift in our culture towards visual rather than textual information. And regular followers will know this is a theme covered by one of my all-time favourite films, Fahrenheit 451 (the title coming from the temperature that paper burns, apparently). They may not be on physical paper so much any more, but good to see that words are holding their own!
On the subject of new ways to communicate visually, my newly downloaded Vine app has been growing on me. It has taken my tweeting to a whole new level! How nice to be able to share more of what I'm doing by posting six-second video clips of the people I meet.

I read this week that in seven months since its January debut, Vine users have climbed to more than 40 million. Having trialled it this week, I completely see how it's managed to wrap its tendrils so tightly around our Twitter habits in such a short space of time. It's addictive!

Here's a Vine I posted this week featuring Kysen friend and head of arbitration at Stewarts Philippa Charles and her amazing revelation that she uses Shoes of Prey to design her own shoes. As another friend Charlotte Ward said to me when I showed her, this is the PERFECT Twitter story for me: new social media toy, creativity... and of course shoes!
From light to shade, another more serious Vine I tweeted this week told the amazing story of the Big Issue salesman who works outside our office on Long Acre (Covent Garden). 

Unbelievably he's been studying for a Masters in Psychological and Psychiatric Anthropology at Brunel University, his dissertation focussing on life as a homeless or housing-challenged person in London, and has just been awarded a distinction. People never cease to surprise me. Nice to see how much this story was re-tweeted and favourited. It's an inspiration.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Sophie Hann

Astonished to learn client Sophie Hann is literally living inside one of my favourite legal topics. Of all the editorial angles we've taken on the credit crunch, my favourite has to be the rise of the pop up shop, temporary art installation and peripatetic living space, as property owners find wonderfully creative and colourful solutions to the problem of vacant properties blighting our communities as well as being open invitations to squatting and crime. By day Sophie runs the marketing team at longstanding Kysen client Intangible Business, the IP valuation specialists who have written the blueprint for this very specialist discipline. (Not content with leading the market in the UK for brand valuation in the context of M&A or commercial disputes, they have recently been advising overseas governments on developing frameworks for emerging IP valuation professions). But I learned only this week that outside working hours Sophie is a "live-in guardian" making her home in disused commercial properties as part of a scheme to provide live-in protection to vacant buildings waiting for the appropriate planning permission or funding before being developed. I was fascinated! What a contrast she must see every day as she transitions from the consumate professional she is at IB during the day, to the artsy loft-liver she is of an evening. Just imagine making your sitting room in the middle of a 1000-square-foot former office space! It may not be your cup of tea, but in my filmic fantasy life it most definitely is. Well, okay, maybe the nomadic element to the lifestyle is not so appealing, as Sophie will need to move from place to place only staying in one location for a short period (I've chosen to live in the same house for 18 years after all). And maybe communal living is not my thing either (if you discount family life). But hey, this is what fantasies are for: appealing scenarios that absolutely don't work for you in real life.

always seen Intangible Business as creating the mould, leaving others to do the copying. So perhaps Sophie's unconventional approach to central London living is not so surprising. We discussed this as we talked about her plan for the next stage of marketing IP.

"Intangible Business is well known in legal spheres now and our founders Thayne and Stuart have a clear voice in legal media that people listen to. I'm now on a mission to make sure everyone is aware just how far ahead of even their closest competitors they are. These guys created the blueprint for IP valuation and they continue to innovate everyday. The work they do for foreign governments really shows the level they and the team work at: advising on how to set the new rules for IP valuation.” 

This lady has spark. We know her ambition. Now let's watch this space...
This week's Red Bull Bullies story proves my point that litigation and reputation should always be thought about in tandem. I've seen so many own goals by the other side when managing press coverage of court cases, where a clever, persuasive line of argument wins the legal point maybe, but threatens thoroughly to trash a company's reputation so the legal team is forced to cave in in any event. Red Bull had challenged tiny Norwich-based Redwell Brewery that its name infringed a Red Bull UK trademark in an attempt to stop them using it to trade. A social media storm ensued leading to headlines on mainstream media about Red Bull Bullies. The global energy drink giant had tried to argue that the name Redwell was problematic because in addition to the use of the word Red, both "well" and "Bull" ended in "ll". Given this attention to the phonetics and graphemics of the matter, did it not occur to them that the "Bull" in their own name lent itself only too easily to headlines of Bullying?
A-level results day set me thinking... This year Weightmans market-leading Higher Education team has taught me a lot about how university business has changed. Their funding depends more today on their ability to attract students, whereas in my day it was far more about research grants. The knock-on effect of this strategic change gives rise to all manner of legal issues, not least how staffing levels are configured around business need and how carefully this needs to be managed when things transition. A case in point is the latest trend for universities to offer cash "sweeteners" to the UK's brightest students following new Government rules allowing universities to offer unlimited places to ABB-plus students. 

But this week I have to say my interest in the subject was much more personal as my eldest landed himself a place at Lancaster Uni to study English with Creative Writing #proudmum. Although reality is now sinking in that the first of my chicks will be flying the nest... far too soon!

Nice to be able to share these mixed emotions on Twitter. Bonded with a few other mums and dads in the legal sphere and made some new friends. Good to remember all of us are working to live, not the other way around. :)

Monday, 12 August 2013

Ben Rose

The timing of my breakfast catch-up with criminal solicitor supremo Ben Rose was perfect: on my first day back from my Summer break I was keen to find out what my friends in the legal community really thought of the outrageous story that hit the headlines earlier this week about the defence barrister in the Neil Wilson rape trial accusing the 13 year old victim of being "predatory" and of having "egged the [41 year old] defendant on"!  What!?  Is this the sort of justice a 13 year old rape victim is to expect?  That can't possibly be right in an English court of law.  No sorry, that was my mistake. The defence barrister didn't use those objectionable terms. .....it was the Prosecution counsel. And the judge!!

Now I strongly believe that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty.  And also that defence lawyers need to (and should) do whatever they decently can, to provide their client with the most robust defence possible.  As discussed in this blog before, these principles are key not only to protecting innocent people caught up in the criminal justice system, but also to ensuring convictions of the guilty are secure and can't be easily challenged or unravelled. But for even a defence barrister to suggest a 13 year old can in any way be responsible for a 41 year old rapist's actions would simply beggar belief. And as for a prosecutor.... !

If anyone could put me straight on this issue and get me to think about it differently, it would be Ben - whom I personally respect and admire and who is widely acknowledged as one of our very top criminal defence solicitors, famous for handling some of the most high profile investigations and court cases of recent years.  I've known Ben and his colleagues at Hickman & Rose for years. We caught up briefly at The Lawyer Awards this June (he was shortlisted for the Client Partner of the Year award, having been nominated by not just one but several clients) and we promised ourselves a proper catch-up over the summer, hence this week's breakfast.

A lot of Ben's work I can't talk about, as his work for high profile (sometimes celebrity) criminal defendants is often confidential. One public role he had that I can mention though, is his work for a certain media mogul and his son in the midst of one of the most significant inquiries into media ethics we have ever seen - yes, you've got it: Leveson. He is increasingly the Number One choice for any high profile individual caught up in a criminal matter, whether as a defendant or a witness. What I hadn't appreciated until our discussion over coffee this week is that he leads the way in challenging the criminal justice system itself, having run a number of Judicial Reviews of the CPS. I was fascinated. So he's actually taken the CPS to court?  "We'll, the CPS of course has a duty to all concerned to run their prosecutions properly. Victims and other witnesses may be risking a lot personally when speaking out in open court to help a prosecution. It is only right that those prosecuting are held to account. There can be serious repercussions, particularly where victims and witnesses are known to the perpetrator. If prosecutors have failed to pay attention to an important detail, or procedural step, or an obvious line of questioning, then of course they should be challenged."

This is what prompted me to ask Ben about the Neil Wilson case and whether he thought a line had been crossed. I'm pleased to report that I can't actually print his immediate response, it was so full of expletives. It ran along the lines of "Extraordinary! How does that thought ever occur to someone? What were they thinking! What planet were they on!" except in much more colourful language. He continued in a more measured tone: “At least Cameron waded in and it looks like the attorney general is going to review the ridiculously lenient sentence. [Wilson walked free with just an eight month suspended jail sentence]. Just parking the clearly barmy thinking in this case for one moment, the story does raise a serious debatable point about the fitness of our adversarial system. It is most unusual to find the prosecutor, defence and the judge in agreement, and perhaps that should have been an indication things were going wrong.  But as we well know, the problem doesn’t start in the courtroom.  The insensitive treatment that many rape victims get at the hands of the laddish police culture  in the first stage in an investigation has long been criticised.  All sorts of measures have been brought in to change this experience, but in reality the problem pervades the whole justice system. I have to say though, even acknowledging these ongoing systemic issues, what happened in the Wilson case is utterly unbelievable and I hope we never see anything close to it again for a very long time."

Well, so it’s not just soft lay people like me who have such a big problem with the Wilson case. Even those who could be forgiven for being rather battle-weary through constant exposure to the criminal justice system are shocked. Even this leading criminal defence lawyer who knows more than most the importance of doing everything decently possible to give your client the best, most robust defence. Did you spot that word there? “Decent”? This is what we expect of our criminal justice system that we are normally so proud of. The Wilson case most definitely crossed the line. No debate.  

So Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal has finally been brought to account. Regular readers of this blog will know I interviewed TLT's Richard Waller last month, the solicitor leading Mrs Sharab's case against the billionaire prince for for non-payment of a £10 million-plus commission brokering the sale of one of the Prince's private jets to libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. At the time I relayed reports of the prince's extraordinary evasiveness in the court room, Judge Peter Smith's comments about his 'capriciousness' making headlines. But worse was to come with his judgment: he branded the nephew of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah a wholly unreliable witness, saying  "It is not necessary for me to determine that he was telling lies in the witness box. He came close to admitting it..." Clearly comments from the Prince in the course of cross-examination such as "You might call it a lie, I call it a tactic." didn't help his case!

Mrs Sharab, on the other hand, was described as an impressive witness and I love her quote in response to the judgment. "Today's decision has reinforced my belief in the fairness and impartiality of the English courts." No wonder wealthy foreigners continue to queue up outside the Rolls Building for a slice of British justice.  
Huge thanks to my friends at Bonelli for such great recommendations for my trip to Venice this month. Andrea Carta Mantaglia and Alberto Saravalle were kind enough to share some of their top tips for making the most of even the shortest visit to this very special place.

Now, I have always associated Alberto with Milan, Rome and New York as he spends most of his time between these three so I hadn't appreciated that he actually comes from Venice. Not only that but his family have been there since the 1400s. Clearly there aren't many people who know this charmed city better! I won't divulge some of the more personal recommendations my friends gave me, as I know what a privilege it was to be let in to some of their secrets. But I will urge you to explore the islands around Venice if you haven't ever done this. They're exquisite, each with their own waterway system instead of roads. And if you're travelling this summer, do visit the wonderful art festival dotted around the city. Biennale only takes place every two years (the clue's in the name) and runs until November.