PR, Integrity and Standing Up for the Rule of Law

by JD Supra Perspectives

If 97 companies, most of them Silicon Valley leaders, can join a 9th Circuit brief and 160 companies can jointly speak publicly against a clearly discriminatory ban, why can’t their lawyers?

In the past week, Corporate America has stood up to President Donald Trump in a variety of ways, including a broad-based front opposing Trump’s sweeping ban on the entry of people from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

Starbucks swiftly issued a public statement decrying the ban and pledged to hire 10,000 refugees.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick resigned from Trump’s economic advisory council and became a signatory to a letter condemning the ban after employees expressed outrage and riders launched a successful Twitter campaign to delete the Uber app, which 200,000 riders did.

More than 160 VCs, academics and biotech CEOs published an open joint letter to Trump expressing their “deep concern and opposition” to the travel ban.

More than 90 tech companies joined an amicus brief in Washington State’s challenge to the travel ban. That fast-tracked case has now been argued and is pending in the 9th Circuit. 

Following oral arguments, Trump slammed the panel, tweeting “Politics!” Later, he told the National Sheriffs’ Association, “If these judges wanted to - in my opinion - help the court in terms of respect for the court, they’d do what they should be doing. I mean, it’s so sad,”

Trump’s slams prompted SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch to call Trump’s comments regarding the judiciary “disheartening” and “demoralizing.”

This silence on the sidelines is even more disturbing now, considering Trump’s firing of his acting attorney general and his criticism of the judiciary...

But as Susan Beck of The American Lawyer wrote in December 2016, law firms have been strangely silent.

This silence on the sidelines is even more disturbing now, considering Trump’s firing of his acting attorney general and his criticism of the judiciary, first before the election, in questioning a judge’s impartiality because he is of Mexican descent, and then ridiculing the federal judge who blocked his travel ban as a “so-called judge.”

In California, attorneys are charged with maintaining “the respect due to the courts of justice and judicial officers.” These words, from Business and Professions Code Section 6068, Duties of Attorney: 

(a) To support the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this state. 

(b) To maintain the respect due to the courts of justice and judicial officers.

Yes, those are the first two requirements, placed at the beginning of the code to reflect their paramount importance.

Law firms have always been cautious making public statements on politics or controversial issues. Typically, they let their pro bono work speak for itself. Such pro bono work is laudable and much needed, but when the integrity of the judiciary is attacked, lawyers—and not just the ACLU—should come to its defense.

Law firms tend to be conservative when it comes to public relations and public statements. Some firms will take a stand regarding diversity, but few if any put their name on the line regarding other issues. (Ted Boutrous of Gibson Dunn, who pledged on Twitter to defend any woman sued by Trump for exercising her free speech rights, is a wondrous exception.)

"Every single CEO of any company of magnitude is thinking and feeling pressure and trying to decide what to do" to speak out about the ban, Sydney Finkelstein, a professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business told the Washington Post

If Corporate America can figure out how to do it, even in Super Bowl ads, certainly so can law firms.

What elements are required? These, for starters:

1. Strong cohesive management with a firm grasp and belief in its firm culture. Because these leaders are trusted by their colleagues, they have the ability to act quickly.

2. A highly skilled PR and communications team whose wisdom and experience is respected. Ideally, this team should include those with experience outside the legal industry.

3. A comprehensive plan for crisis communications, including how to speak to employees, clients, and the public.

4. A keen understanding of its client base and their clients’ needs and interests.

5. Strong client relationships that allow the firm to reach out quickly to general counsel to determine their level of sensitivity on a topic.

Look at it this way: If 97 companies, most of them Silicon Valley leaders, can join a 9th Circuit brief, and 160 companies can jointly speak publicly against a clearly discriminatory ban, why can’t their lawyers? Even general counsel are doing it. Accounting firms such as PwC have. Even Wall Street has managed to find words of concern. And if even JP Morgan can do it, why not law firms?

This is not the time to sit on the sidelines. Yes, some PR professionals have advised against joining the fray, or counseled their clients to proceed with extreme caution. But forward-thinking firms unafraid to take a stand can and should speak out, respectfully but unequivocally, when the rule of law and integrity of the judiciary are impugned. Trump’s ban aside, there is no shame in speaking truth to power to protect the “respect due to the courts of justice and judicial officers.” A savvy PR team can guide any firm through this.

I would love to be proven wrong on this one, love to learn that Big Law has made powerful statements, both internally and externally. If you know of any such statements, please send them my way, and the mea culpa will be all mine. 


[Susan Kostal is an editor, writer, business development strategist and media coach with over 25 years experience on the beat and in the C-suite.  Susan's expertise includes legal industry trends, marketing, communications, and public relations.]


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