Over the last two weeks, three law firms were hit with negative media coverage. First, there was the Florida law firm that abruptly terminated 14 employees because they wore identical orange shirts. Then there was the exodus of approximately 36 partners at a BigLaw firm since the beginning of 2012. And then there was the “one bad apple,” a corporate partner at a BigLaw firm who allegedly assaulted his girlfriend.
In all three examples, these law firms did not seem to adequately prepare for the worst. The Florida law firm failed to think about the consequences of its HR actions before the news got out. Then it made the big mistake of saying “no comment” when asked to discuss the matter with a major daily newspaper in South Florida. Lesson: Any law firm contemplating mass layoffs must be prepared for a public outcry and should have a media statement drafted that at least partially explains why the layoffs were necessary.
The firm that experienced the partner exodus should have drafted media statements at the FIRST signs of partner concerns over compensation and most certainly when the first wave of partners departed earlier this year. Instead, it seems to have waited until the first wave of media coverage and now it’s forced to play catch-up with the media which is never an easy task.
In the case of the “one bad apple”, where the firm’s name is connected to the alleged criminal behavior of one partner or employee, that law firm at least put out a statement that said it was “working to understand the facts.” But it has not distanced itself from the partner who was arrested or expressed any concern for the alleged victim. As the criminal case against the partner progresses, the firm will face increased pressure to separate itself from the partner. If management stands by him as it “learns the facts” this can be detrimental to the firm’s reputation the longer it drags on..with online search results of the firm’s name bringing up even more stories about the alleged assault.
There are three key timelines in a crisis: Before, During and After. All too many firms don’t respond until they are in the middle of the crisis (During) rather than doing the legwork necessary in the “Before” phase to prepare for the worst. The firms that see around the corner –and that don’t sweep what seem to be minor problems under the rug– will always do better when a real crisis hits. And the damage to their reputations will be minimal if handled properly.
For more information, please see my articles about crisis communications for law firms.