Q&A with The Legal Diary’s Founder & Editor Edward Fennell

Edward Fennell, ‘The Legal Diary’ founder & editor and former editor of The Times’ ‘Law Diary’, delves into how law firms have changed their approach to PR and gives advice for lawyers in dealing with journalists in a Q&A with legal and litigation agency, Bell Yard Communications.

Edward Fennell began his legal beat when working at The Times where he memorably interviewed a Baker McKenzie partner in 90’s Moscow who described the scene of Russian tanks rolling past the window. Edward’s journey progressed to starting The Legal Diary blog and penning a medieval monastic murder story in semi-retirement.

Over the course of your career, how have law firms changed their approach to PR? Did their attitudes change? Any notable trends?

Yes, absolutely dramatic changes since I first started in 1987. Until shortly before there had been a ban on marketing and promotional activity and when this ended most firms were very unclear on how to handle it. A few went for immediate activity and made a botch of it. Others were very nervous with everything having to be handled by the managing or senior partner. In due course, they brought in PR firms but often expected unrealistic results. Besides, many were still reluctant to get drawn in. Famously, when Slaughter and May came top of the M&A table one year I asked for a comment. They replied that they would think about it. And much later in the day they simply got back and said they did not think a comment was appropriate!

The big catalyst for change was when firms suddenly started to open up offices all over Europe – especially Eastern Europe. They were desperate to get the news out and that prompted the development of a much more professional approach.

What inspired you to pursue a career in journalism?

From my early teens I became an avid reader of newspapers and news magazines and had a strong sense of vocation towards journalism. The Times, The Daily Mail (a very different kind of paper back in the 1960s) and The Economist were my big reads.

After university I started working as an Information Officer in local government. Employment and recruitment issues were my specialism and that gave me some expertise to start writing for The Times. Subsequently, I was on hand when The Times set up its weekly LAW section in 1987 and I continued to do that for 30+ years until a combination of age and Covid brought it to an end.

What was your best scoop/what’s been the most interesting story you’ve ever covered and why?

In August/September 1991, Russia was going through a terrible period of unrest. Some elements of the army staged a coup involving driving tanks into Moscow. I was aiming to write an article on the general situation from a legal perspective and was interviewing a Baker McKenzie partner in the Moscow office. As we started to talk the tanks began to roll past the building. He went to the window and gave me a vivid description of what was happening. It made the opening para a lot easier and more exciting to write!

How do you fact-check your work?

At The Times one was backed up by a fantastic sub-editing and legal service so one was saved from the worst errors. Just in the course of writing though I usually fed back to interviewees what I was planning to quote or say on their behalf. Many of the topics were highly technical, even for lawyers, so I had no hesitation in double checking that I had understood correctly.

Why did you set-up The Legal Diary?

After stopping writing the Legal Diary for The Times in Spring 2020, I thought it might be fun to continue it on a bigger basis, taking in some of the other material that I thought was interesting but had not been able to use. Besides, being now semi-retired I needed something to do with my time and keep in touch with the wider world. 

What is the best tactic for approaching you with storylines?

Usually best just to drop me an email as it is the best way to digest a story. Tuesdays are probably the best days to reach out because I publish on Friday so I need, ideally, to have my stories sorted in priority by Wednesday/Thursday morning. Getting them to me on Tuesday or Wednesday morning allows me time to digest them and get a sense of their level of priority.If I think they are ‘possible/probables’ I often come back with a query/clarification. Or a request for an accompanying image.

What advice would you give to lawyers for dealing with journalists?

Keep to the point – distill your expertise to the key points. Don’t blind with science. Bear in mind that the journalist is an intermediary to an interested audience – even, maybe, potential clients!

What advice would you give to aspiring journalists?

To be frank I feel so far removed now from what it’s like getting into the business today that I am not sure I can offer any meaningful advice other than the obvious:

  • start writing about topics that fascinate you and develop some expertise and contacts in that field,
  • try to get the pieces published somewhere/anywhere to show your abilities/expertise (and, one hopes, talent),
  • then start extending and making the right contacts across the media,
  • pray for a bit of luck

Tell us about your recent novel and how it came about.

I am a historian by background and am lucky enough to live in Winchester adjacent to the site of the medieval monastery – Hyde Abbey – where Alfred the Great was buried (it’s now a ruin, destroyed by Henry VIII). I am also very interested in Chaucer and was pretty convinced that Chaucer had known Hyde Abbey quite well. The clue is that the Tabard Inn in Southwark – where Chaucer’s pilgrims meet – was a real place and was actually owned by Hyde Abbey – and the abbot spent quite a lot of time there. So a medieval monastic murder story against the background of the Peasants’ Revolt was an obvious plot line, linking up real historical characters with Chaucer’s fictional ones. I thoroughly enjoyed writing it!

Order ‘CHARTER FOR MURDER’ by Edward Fennell here

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