Big Law PR Shop Splits Up, Citing Differing Philosophies

Photo by SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

Differing philosophies around how to approach legal marketing and PR has split up Hellerman Baretz, the communications firm that had advised numerous large law firms including Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Akerman, and Mitchell Silberberg.

On Monday, 12 PR directors and associates, along with an unspecified number of “content lab” writers, parted ways with John Hellerman, and announced the launch of Baretz+Brunelle.

Hellerman has re-branded Hellerman Baretz as Hellerman Communications.

Spencer Baretz and Cari Brunelle lead the new firm, Baretz+Brunelle.

So what caused the break-up?

The PR specialists, who, perhaps ironically, advise law firms on how to manage the public communications about these sort of shake-ups, have been open about the fact that a disagreement led to the divorce.

In the legal marketing world, Hellerman Baretz operated alongside communications firms Greentarget, Rubenstein Associates, and others, in helping managing partners roll out releases about their businesses, including about law firm mergers and leadership changes.

[Full disclosure: Hellerman Baretz was a sponsor of Big Law Business, and Baretz + Brunelle is now a sponsor.]

Said Brunelle: “We had different philosophies on how to successfully run and grow a business, and most importantly, how to provide value to our clients. Over time, it became more and more clear that those differences were not going to be resolved. So, like many before us, we said to ourselves: ‘Change is good. Life is too short. Time to move on.'”

Ah, yes… The work goes on. The cause endures. And the dream… the dream shall never die.

So how does John Hellerman feel about seeing his colleagues set up their own boutique? By the looks of his new website, one might think the overall sentiment is… favorable.

A screenshot of John Hellerman's revamped website for Hellerman Communications
A screenshot of John Hellerman’s revamped website for Hellerman Communications

In a series of back-and-forth emails, we shared Brunelle’s comments with Hellerman, and Hellerman’s comments with Brunelle, to evoke some insight into the rupture.

Hellerman’s counter seemed to suggest that changes in technology were at the root of the so-called “different philosophies”:

“Spencer and I had different visions of the future and what would be demanded from an agency like ours. Over the years we put together a great team and they are talented and I’m very proud of our work. But, as we discussed yesterday, I’m also absolutely certain that the future is going to be completely different than the present — advances in technology are disrupting everything and what is relevant today becomes irrelevant much sooner than it ever did. And when everything I touch is going through a transformation — our clients and how they are able to perceive and measure our success, their clients, the media, how media is consumed (you name it, if it is currently being done by a human, someone is working on technology to do it better, cheaper, and faster) — it makes me want to transform, too.”

He added that he is sure that 1) Spencer Baretz will “continue to be a player,” 2) that he has an interest in his success and 3) he wishes them well. But he noted that he has “a different style and a different vision.”

Said Hellerman: “I want to build something different, and sometimes it’s just easier to sail a new ship then try to turn the old one around.”

In a follow-up rebuttal to Hellerman’s comments, Brunelle fired back about the technology points, saying that human relationships will always be the most important element of legal PR.

“As to John’s view of ‘the future’ — the business of PR, and indeed the business of law, is, and always will be, a relationship business. Plain and simple. While these businesses may be made more efficient by technology, in our view, they will never be replaced by robots. While we absolutely do think technology will bring more business value, there will never be a replacement for strong interpersonal relationships, especially in the practice of law and PR. If there was a philosophical difference which drove our break up, that was it.”

Well, despite that entertaining exchange, we’re still left with no specifics around what the difference actually was — typical PR! I guess to find out, you’ll have to just ask them yourself. In the meantime, we’ll continue reporting on the news both shops have to share about the largest law firms they counsel.