Kelso Consulting's blog for lawyers

#metoo: Defending the indefensible: would your press team know how to respond in times of crisis?

By Katy Dowell, PR Manager - Kelso Consulting (Public Relations agency)

The day after The Lawyer Awards, 2012, the editorial team were invited to an event with a team of lawyers from an international law firm. The very same day The Lawyer issued a newsletter to more than 60,000 followers packed with sexual innuendo in reference to a former senior partner from that very same firm.

The former partner, well-known in the City, had been cautioned by police in a London hotel after a drug-fuelled sadomasochistic sex session in an exclusive London hotel.

#metooThe editorial decision not to name the partner was taken on the basis that this was a personal matter and the partner was no longer at the firm or practising law. No doubt it would have been a most-read story had we decided to run it.

I cannot help but think now that this was a mistake for a journalist, and a minor PR coup for the firm who could rightly claim to have silenced the most-read legal titles.

Legal publications have shifted in their attitudes towards such stories, as also have regulators who are under much more pressure to act on complaints and put lawyer names on record.

I have little doubt it would be a different case today, with both the legal press and national newspapers reporting it in as much detail as they could dig up.  The drug-taking element is of course salacious, but the sexual behaviour allows the media to conflate sexual misdeeds with sexual harassment in an effort to justify running tabloid stories in business publications (as happened with the sacking of one Latham partner – more of which later).


Bully boy culture

Sexual misconduct, harassment, workplace bullying were all issues which the legal profession kept hidden under a bushel until the advent of the #metoo movement. Now it is having to deal with both past skeletons and, also, lingering current misconduct.‘be ready to receive tough questions about the conduct of partners accused of unacceptable behaviour’
This means PR & marketing departments need to be ready to receive tough questions about the conduct of partners accused of unacceptable behaviour. How you manage such stories could either reflect well on the firm and its credentials, or, done badly, blow the story up to damage the entire partnership.

Earlier this year, for instance, The Times put a former head of Baker McKenzie’s European and Middle East on its front page. This lawyer is well liked and respected by the press, having invested much time in networking with journalists - I speak from experience. He faces the possibility of being struck off after the SRA charged him of behaving in an “inappropriate manner” towards a junior lawyer in 2012.  It is important to note that he has denied the allegations.

Had the complaint been properly dealt with back in 2012 it is unlikely that he would be having to profess his innocence in front of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal and the entire legal profession.

Instead, the SRA is also charging him with attempting to influence the internal investigation into his conduct. At the same time, two of his former colleagues (now with senior roles at Linklaters and KPMG) have also been charged by the SRA over allegations they allowed him to use his seniority to influence the investigation (which they both deny).

The firm itself faces charges because it failed to refer the matter to the watchdog in 2012, instead asking the complainant to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Baker McKenzie told The Telegraph that it had been “co-operating fully” with the SRA but conceded that its probe was “undermined in a way that was unacceptable and should never have happened”.


In the know?

According to Roll on Friday, which first uncovered the complaint, the press team was completely in the dark and, it alleges, the lawyer lied in response to questions about a redundancy pay out spike highlighted in the LLP accounts.

If the marketing team had been aware, maybe they would have raised some red flags, or at least have been better prepared to manage the ongoing press fallout. Instead, the firm is trying to move on from this case legacy, but that must be difficult when it keeps cropping up on the front page.
Share a secret too widely and there could be a risk of it leaking within the firm and to the press
Whether your marketing and PR team needs to know all is a call only your senior management can make. Share a secret too widely and there could be a risk of it leaking within the firm and to the press. The key is to have your team prepare for all eventualities, so they are capable of dealing with a crisis.


Take action

Take actionOnce upon a time “managing the PR” was all about trying to cover-up or stonewall press enquiries (and as mentioned above sometimes this worked very well).  However, now firms have begun to understand that the best defence is to live up to their values, rather than try to deny breaches of them.

For instance, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan confirmed the dismissal of a high-profile partner to The Lawyer in May 2018, after he was suspended in February that year. The partner was accused of inappropriate behaviour by two members of staff. Quinn Emanuel did not provide details of the claims, apart from saying that they were “extremely serious” and involved “inappropriate behaviour”.

The firm did tell journalists, however, that it had asked Mishcon de Reya partner Alison Levitt QC to investigate the complaint and then reported it to the SRA, which launched its own investigation.

By focusing on its actions to address the complaint and publicly stating to be intolerant ‘inappropriate behaviour’, Quinn Emanuel sent a clear message about its employment policies not only to its own lawyers but the entire legal profession.


Don’t panic!

On the other side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, the downfall of a former head of the world’s biggest billing law firm, Latham & Watkins, was handled in full view of the media; although from the outside it’s hard to fathom whether this came about through careful strategy or the result of a panicked press team.

The incident that led to his forced resignation began in November 2017 with two nights of texts and sexts to a woman he had not met in person, and the firm had no formal relationship with. These culminated in him threatening legal action against her after she threatened to publicise the texts.  Fast forward to March 2018, when Latham & Watkins demanded his resignation and then issued a press release all about it.

Don't panicAccording to the firm’s press statement, the resignation related to “the exchange of communications of a sexual nature with a woman whom he has never met in person and who had no connection to the firm”. The partner issued his own apology at the same time, admitting that “I made a personal mistake for which I bear considerable fault and humiliation”.

Questions remain about Latham’s handling of the matter, with some inside the profession claiming the firm had taken a ‘hammer to a nut’ approach. According to Above the Law, the woman who had received the sexts said she “wanted to be clear that I am not accusing {him} of any kind of sexual misconduct from my perspective. We were consenting adults”.

The firm was no doubt thinking about American Christian groups as well as the media, with #metoo then at a fever pitch following the Harvey Weinstein allegations, so it appears to have blatantly made an example of the partner. Latham presumably felt it needed to be seen to be in control, so applied its standards without fear and favour by punishing inappropriate behaviour.“Instead of taking control of the story, it spiralled out of control”

However, it could equally be argued that it instead of taking control of the story, it spiralled out of control. The result was that everyone from the Wall St Journal down looked for ways to hook the news to the #MeToo movement, thus amplifying it in the news hugely.


Take ownership

Taking ownership of a story by bringing a suitable journalists’ attention to what your firm is doing to tackle inappropriate (or downright illegal) behaviour is an effective way of making your story a one-week wonder.

If you stay silent and simply refuse to comment, the allegations will be published with the inclusion of a ‘no comment’ at the foot of the story. More damaging still, it could encourage an inquisitive journalist to dig further (as Roll on Friday did to Baker Mckenzie) and go on to highlight the firms’ disastrous ignorance and look for other angles.

However, the Latham case illustrates the importance of thinking carefully before going nuclear with one of your partners in front of the media.


Be prepared for tough talk

PR & marketing teams need to be prepared for all eventualities so the firm can answer tough questions and show it is embracing modern working practices.

Having in a place a crisis plan that all stakeholders can refer to things for things such as timetabling statements and responses is a good start. Journalists understand that they must give right of reply before publishing, but they can’t wait forever so make sure you ask for a deadline for your comment and stick to it.


Be proactive

The macho culture which has long dominated the legal profession is starting to fade, but the legacy lives on and journalists are happy to report allegations from women emboldened by the #metoo movement, whether regarding current or historic misconduct.if you have concerns about working practices now is the time to act internally (1)
Rather than waiting for a phone call from the press about a complaint, if you have concerns about working practices now is the time to act internally.

Schedule a meeting with your senior management team and highlight why firms must adopt a zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate behaviour. That way, if you do need to speak to a reporter about the behaviour of a lawyer or employee, your will be able to say honestly that your firm is taking the matter seriously. The proactive step will also be warmly received by the regulator.

And if you believe that bad behaviour only happens in the City where lawyers live in a high-pressured yet closeted environment, you would be wrong.

When it comes to inappropriate behaviour, the size of your firm is unimportant to the reporter who is more likely to be focused on the allegations involved.

Nevertheless, it is likely that the firm brand will be cited, so you need to be aware of the implications for your firm…. Not least because in a crisis, decisions made “on the hoof” are often bad ones.  For more on crisis management, read my colleague, Tim Prizeman’s, paper on the psychology that causes businesses to turn a crisis into a disaster.


Topics: PR Disaster, Lawyers, PR

Katy Dowell, PR Manager - Kelso Consulting (Public Relations agency)

Written by Katy Dowell, PR Manager - Kelso Consulting (Public Relations agency)

Katy Dowell is a highly experienced business journalist having previously worked on two of Britain’s top legal and insurance business magazines. PR Manager at award-winning Public Relations agency Kelso Consulting - we specialise in working with law firms, B2B tech companies, management consultants and other professional partnerships to help them stand out and win more business with high-impact thought leadership, together with great press coverage and social media results.