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Five risky questions journalists ask lawyers – and how to manage them
January 31, 2024

In our media training courses for law firms, we help partners and others to get their messages across more effectively. But part of our media interview training is about enabling lawyers to prepare for difficult questions. You might have given a great answer to a question and helped the journalist with some relevant, useful information that puts you and your firm in a good light. But then you answer the next question that you’re asked and end up saying something that gives the journalist a better story – for them, that is, not for you.

Suddenly, instead of generating positive coverage you and your communications team find yourselves firefighting – looking to limit damage caused by the article and begging the journalist to remove it from the site.

How do law firms handle difficult questions in an interview?

So, if you’re a lawyer talking to a journalist, how can you handle difficult questions and maintain control of the interview? The most effective way is to identify these questions beforehand and have answers planned for them. This means that you’re not just thinking on the spot.

Here are five risky questions from journalists that every lawyer needs to be prepared for.

1. They’ll ask about clients

It’s very possible that a legal press journalist will know who your clients are but even someone writing for the FT or a general business publication will be able to find out with just a bit of digging.

Why are they asking this?

First, it adds authority to your comments. If you’re doing an interview about financial services regulation, for instance, the journalist might want to mention your firm’s banking or finance clients. It also grabs the attention of readers – if they see big name banks and others as they scan the screen or the paper, they’ll be more likely to read the article. The journalist might also include some of your clients if they’ve been in the news recently. This could be for something positive, for example because they’ve just announced healthy profits, or it could be bad news – those profits are down, or they’ve just been fined by the regulator.

How to manage this question:

As we explain in our media training workshops for lawyers, you’re quite within your rights to explain politely but firmly that you can’t mention clients. The journalist will understand this. You can then move on to talk about something else that is relevant to the subject of the interview and is positive for you.

2. They’ll ask who does something badly

This is one of those questions that journalists ask because they know that it will appeal to their audiences – even if those audiences won’t admit to liking this kind of negative reporting.

Why they ask this question.

Whatever the issue the journalist is covering – be that the use of data, negotiating new leases in the retail sector, managing the effect of Russian sanctions or complying with new ESG requirements – they’ll be aiming to give their audience some advice. This means that they will want to include examples of how to do something well. But, given that we learn from our mistakes, they’ll also be hoping to include some examples of organisations that have managed an issue badly. As we explain in our media interview coaching for law firms, things going wrong and people making errors is always newsworthy.

How to manage this question:

You can always say something along the lines of: “I can’t think of any particular examples but what I would say to anyone wanting to avoid the pitfalls here is that…”  You’re then back on the positive and away from this risky territory.

3. They’ll ask what you think about the government or a regulator.

Almost any lawyer will have thoughts on the performance of the government or a regulator. They might be positive but, more likely, they will be critical.

Why they ask this question.

This is mainly because the media want some controversy but also want to hear insights and thoughts from you, an expert who’s working in this area day in day out. What are the practical implications of a decision by a regulator or a piece of legislation. They might also want to know how you think things could be improved – what should regulators and government be doing to make life better for the sector?

What the journalist will really want to hear from you, though, is what’s going wrong. We ask this because bad news and criticism is punchier than positivity. It also gives a stronger story – “The industry is calling on the government or regulator to…”

How to manage this question:

Again, the journalist will understand if you politely but firmly explain that you’d rather not get drawn into this discussion. The journalist might be asking the question, but they’ll understand why you don’t want to answer it. All of our media trainers are working journalists (operating under strict NDAs) so they know that journalists will ask anyone anything. Once you’ve explained that you’re not going to get into this discussion, though, don’t forget to move the conversation on and change the subject so that you’re back onto the issue that you’ve agreed to discuss.

4. They’ll ask your personal opinion.

You might have given your firm’s line on an issue and told the journalist what you and your media relations people have agreed that you should say, but then the journalist casually asks, “What’s your feeling on this?” or “What do you think? It’s so easy to answer it but don’t. People sometimes say in the role play interviews that we put lawyers through in our media training courses for law firms, “My personal opinion is…”

Why do they ask this?

It ticks the “human” box for one thing. Even business journalists are always looking for a human story. If you’re giving your personal opinion then you’re likely to be more outspoken and, dare we say it, emotional than if you’re simply delivering a line to take.

How to manage this question:

One of the tricks of doing a good media interview as we explain in our media interview training for lawyers is to sound as if you’re talking personally and spontaneously but actually to ensure that everything you say to a journalist is in keeping with the firm’s line on the issue. If you sound natural and human the journalist will be more likely to accept this and less likely to ask: “But what do you really think?”

5. They’ll ask you to speak off the record

We have discussions with lawyers and with the firm’s media relations teams and PR consultants about this subject. What does off the record mean? We’ve discussed this in an earlier blog.

The problem with this innocent little phrase is that although it might sound flattering to be asked to speak off the record as if you were a senior politician or the boss of the firm, it can land you in serious trouble.

Why do they ask this?

Information given off the record tends to be more honest, shall we say, certainly more likely to be controversial and to tick the “trouble” box of our newsworthiness acronym. Look at any newspaper article and a quote attributed to an anonymous government minister or a senior executive will probably sound punchier and highly charged than an official comment.

How to manage this question.

This is very easy to handle – you’ll be glad to hear. You can simply say to the journalist, “I’d rather keep this on the record if you don’t mind.” They’ll almost always understand this – and they’ll probably respect you for your knowledge of the media business. Again, you can then go on to deliver your key messages – and back them up with some great examples.

We hope that this little list of boobytraps has been useful. Journalists don’t deliberately set out to trap you, as we explain in our media interview training for law firms. They just want a story – and thanks to our training you can give them that story in a way that also works for you.

Media Training for Lawyers & Law Firms

If you are a Lawyer or Solicitor or work in a Law Firm and want to find out more about media training, get in touch with our team today.

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