When prospective clients and others do online searches for law firms, what will they find? Well, if they search the firm’s name in the “News” section of Google they’ll find items like new partners, new offices, transactions closed, some litigation victories, rankings information, quotes from partners on major issues (public relations), blog posts– and sometimes even Tweets that support breaking news.
But when just one partner breaks the law, or is alleged to have done so, that news item very quickly rises to the top of that search and pushes all that other positive news out of the way.
I’ve been analyzing online law firm news since the early days of the Internet and have seen this happen to law firms EVERY time a partner/associate/staff member gets into trouble. Gone are the days when yesterday’s news was just that and the bad news would disappear like the paper it was printed on.
Unfortunately, these negative news items stick around online for a long time..making managing partners and management committees seethe while their marketing/PR people are asked to make the bad news go away. That’s even more difficult when that bad news is Facebooked, Tweeted and LinkedIn instantly.
Instead of demanding that marketing/PR staff make it go away, which is not something they can do quickly or easily unless they have the keys to Google’s vault, managing partners and executive committees need to look much harder at the associates and partners they hire. And they need to put strict internal policies and investigative tactics in place so that those involved in money laundering, sexual harassment, malpractice and verbal abuse can be detected before severe damage is done to innocent parties and then, the firm’s reputation.
Of course, law firms can’t always catch the bad apples before they begin to rot the reputation of the firm. But I also think that too many law firms still have a business model that allows lawyers to run their own ship.
Many law firm leaders are great about instilling pride in their firm. They constantly talk about the collegial atmosphere, the proud history, the pro bono work and the overall culture. Where some law firms fall down on the job is the assumption that just because someone passed the bar, or went to a prestigious law school or brings in a nice book of business, that they would never do anything unethical or illegal.
Just like the branches of government, law firms need more checks and balances to protect against those whose actions can kill business and destroy a reputation that might have taken two centuries to build.
Law firms of all sizes today face challenges they’ve never faced before: increased competition from BigLaw, boutiques and solos along with continual demands by general counsel to lower their fees, to name a few.
That’s why firms can’t afford to be lax or look the other way when the bad apples, in the form of partners, associates or staff, start falling from the trees.