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Law and PR: Different Sides of the Same Coin

Posted At: Sept. 20, 2013 6:30 p.m.

by Brian C. Hoff & Susan Griffiths

Law and public relations are not usually thought of as a cooperative exchange of cultures in the business world. PR and law often clash when the two industries are forced to work together. That said, studying PR as an undergraduate can actually be beneficial to a career in the legal field.

“PR students spend their undergraduate educations honing their skills in reading, writing, speaking, working individually and in groups, and listening,” said Martha Griffith, assistant director of admissions at the University of Alabama School of Law, who studied PR as an undergraduate. “All are critical skills in law school and in the legal profession generally.”

library6Law school is not something one simply decides to undertake. It is a process that is not only emotionally draining but extremely time consuming, both while applying for admission and once in the classroom. Many law school candidates come from a background of political science, history or criminal justice. Few, however, have a background in communication.

Kathy Fitzpatrick, a professor and associate dean at Florida International University School of Journalism and Mass Communications, decided the two career fields were an excellent fit. She used her journalism undergraduate degree and professional public relations career to develop a career in law and later returned to the academia as a PR professor.

“Lawyers advise and counsel on the legal implications of decisions and actions; public relations professionals advise and counsel on the public implications of decisions and actions. So there are a lot of similarities in both what we do and how we do it,” Fitzpatrick said.

Reading and writing, while somewhat simple skills, are the core of a PR student’s education. To law degree seekers, these skills are heightened and fully tested throughout their education. Griffith emphasizes that these skills are used often whether working alone or in groups during law school.

“In PR, I learned to read and think critically. Courses and extracurricular activities helped me to develop written and oral communication skills,” Griffith said. “All are skills that are important in law school, and I leaned heavily on my PR background while working toward my law degree.”

Along with critical reading and writing skills, PR students attach themselves (for better or worse) to RPIE, known to many as the four-step communication process. Research, planning, implementation and evaluation comprise the “go-to” strategic process for most public relations professionals and students.

Fitzpatrick said the same is true for law and all strategic communication.

“There are, of course, similarities in all forms of strategic communication, regardless of the setting,” she said. “It’s pretty much the same process or procedure.”

Fitzpatrick expanded on this point, noting “the process” applies best when used in litigation.

So how does one actually get into law school? Griffith shed some light on the subject.

“I urge PR students to remember that their PR degrees standing alone will not get them into law school,” she said. “Get involved. Get hands-on experiences. Go to conferences and meetings. And don’t think you have to do it all in PR. As many PR majors will do, consider getting a minor outside of the communications realm. It may challenge you to think in different ways.”

Prof. Fitzpatrick reiterated that lawyers and PR practitioners are not all that different and cut to the core of what these two professions do.

“Both are professional service providers, but more importantly they are counselors and advisers. What do lawyers do? Lawyers advise and counsel,” Fitzpatrick said. “Public relations professionals advise and counsel as well.”

Whether publicly or legally representing a client, both professionals push aside personal preference and embrace the task at hand. Using research, planning and evaluation skills, the two can correlate and create exceptional outcomes for their clients. PR and law may conflict because they do not understand that they are simply different sides of the same coin. Those who are the most successful in their field understand this similarity and harness its strengths. Studying PR can be beneficial to a career in the legal field and vice versa.

As Fitzpatrick said, “The [same] process applies . . . It’s all strategic.”

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