Liz Bard Lindley
Liz Bard Lindley

#MeToo initially gained momentum in October 2017 with a spotlight on the accusations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, but as the past year has shown, many industries have been exposed. Women, and men, have revealed #MeToo allegations involving politicians, academics, comedians, the military and coaches; non-disclosure agreements and hush payments have been uncovered; and the names and stories of the victims and the accusers have been made public by media outlets of all types. It can happen in any business, in any industry.

Within the realm of professional services businesses, law firms aren’t exempt from facing sexual harassment claims. And while the law firm names and people may not be as instantly recognizable as those in TV (Lauer), food (Batali) or politics (Franken), allegations of sexual harassment merit media attention, no matter what the industry. Attorney and firm names take on a new dynamic — an association with potentially bad behavior — and that impression is difficult for a firm’s existing and prospective clients to forget. Moreover, the names and businesses stay in the press long after the initial coverage, as journalists watch for industry trends, tracking the number and type of allegations within an industry with lists and updates, and reminding readers of past incidents.

In the legal industry, media coverage over the past year has been a steady drum, bringing attention to sexual harassment allegations that have the ability to tarnish or ruin individual and corporate reputations. It’s not just the actions of the individual harasser that gain coverage — media will also look at the law firm’s leaders. What did they do before/during/after the allegations arose? It’s the anti-harassment policies that a law firm had, or didn’t have, in place that are revealed; the training it did or did not offer its staff regularly that is magnified; the reporting structure and efficacy that are scrutinized; the stories of retaliation fears that come to light.

The discoveries made by the press, in spite of a crisis communications plan or the lack of one, can become reasons for a law firm client to disengage with the firm, not wanting to be associated with bad behavior. In some instances, lawsuits and the resulting stories have uncovered a corporate practice of mandatory arbitration agreements, forbidding a victim from bringing an allegation public. In today’s climate, because prospects and existing clients want to be associated with like-minded companies, the revelation of an anti-victim policy can influence decision makers.

As in other industries, law firms have faced sexual harassment allegations well before the #MeToo movement began: Global law firm Baker McKenzie was sued for allegations against partner Martin Greenstein 25 years ago. A San Francisco jury initially awarded the plaintiff $7.1 million in punitive damages, finding that the firm knew of the trademark attorney’s history of harassing women but failed to do anything to correct it. The California Court of Appeals later reduced the award to $3.5 million. The verdict was upheld on appeal. Naturally, the story ran in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, but the plaintiff’s name and the law firm name appear in coverage to this day in articles about harassment, from USA Today and Fortune to the trade outlets covering the legal industry.

Undoubtedly, the stories about sexual harassment are frequent, but that does not diminish their impact. In March 2018, Latham & Watkins LLP Chairman Bill Voge suddenly resigned while Law360 was investigating his relationship with a woman with whom he allegedly exchanged sexually explicit messages. The story was covered by the Wall Street Journal, legal publications in the US and the UK, Reuters, and Financial Times, just to name a few. It may go without saying, but online searches make it easy for anyone to assess the social behavior of a company today, and these archived news stories never go away.

There are many instances where past allegations and settlements are still coming to light. For example, lawyer James Tanenbaum resigned only one week after joining Mayer Brown after the Wall Street Journal reported that he’d settled a sexual harassment claim with a female lawyer years ago at a previous firm where he worked. (As reported by law.com, Tanenbaum “forcefully denies” the claims.)

Another very recent story describes allegations of sexual harassment against the law firm K&L Gates for conduct that allegedly occurred from the 2000s through the mid-2010s, including a sexual assault.

As for the bench, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski retired at the end of 2017 after nine women, including former clerks on the Ninth Circuit, alleged sexual misconduct. His name and the sexual harassment details, however, were in the news again in December 2018, when it was discovered that he’s of counsel to a law firm, and his name’s on a brief for a lawsuit in the Ninth Circuit.

Press coverage about sexual harassment claims should now be expected, especially since #MeToo began. The details of any claim can raise significant questions about the company involved. It’s critical for PR professionals to be prepared with crisis planning for the predictable and inevitable issues that may arise. The issues that are unanticipated by a company can have the most-damaging effects. Sexual harassment allegations must be viewed as just as possible as crises related to product recalls, fraud or cyber events, and communications plans must not only be written to address these categories, but must be practiced and then updated as needed.

PR professionals can prepare for these crisis scenarios by following a well-established series of steps that are germane to most crisis communications plans. Whether representing a law firm or any other business, preparation is the key to managing a crisis effectively. Companies must be prepared for press questions about anti-harassment policies, reporting paths for victims, anti-retaliation safeguards and training standards. The headlines are here to stay, and communications teams must be mindful of, and learn from, the intense and ongoing media coverage that will follow a #MeToo allegation.

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Liz Bard Lindley, senior vice president of Jaffe, is a former practicing attorney who counsels professional services firm leaders in all areas of public relations, including crisis communications planning. She can be reached at llindley@jaffepr.com.