Jane Genova
Jane Genova

Johnny Depp may have won most of the defamation litigation against former wife Amber Heard, but the case’s six weeks of raw testimony may have cost him career ground.

In the LA Times, Josh Rottenberg and Anousha Sakoui put it this way: “… how much of an appetite Hollywood will have to hire … remains to be seen.” In addition, lawyers for the defendant plan to appeal the verdict. Any ding to a career could turn out to be for nothing.

The new gallows humor in both legal and public relations circles could be: They won their lawsuits, but then lost their careers—or jobs.

Yes, the decision to sue brings with it the risk of bad publicity risk. Many lawyers, reports Jake Holland in Bloomberg Law, have made it a best practice to give those planning litigation this warning: Beware of what the official media and social networks could do with information associated with even the filing of a lawsuit.

Litigation itself, as many know, is a wild card. What is being recognized more and more is that publicity is just as much a wild card.

Depp has plenty of company in becoming a publicity “victim” by deciding to opt for litigation.

When sued for alleged sexual assault by former lover Guzel Ganieva, billionaire Leon Black could have simply set an army of elite lawyers on it. He could afford that. Instead, he countersued with his own lawsuit. That quickly evolved into what Heather Perberg describes in Bloomberg as “a tabloid-worthy tale.”

One of the things Black alleged was a smear campaign in which his former partner at Apollo Josh Harris and public relations leader Steven Rubenstein had been players. In the amended complaint the concepts and language were sensationalistic:

“Like Shakespeare’s Iago, enraged by being passed over for promotion [to CEO of Apollo] he [Josh Harris] turned his wrath on his mentor and leader [Leon Black].”

The media had a ball with that. Black, whose once-iconic brand continues to be tarnished by his business association with Jeffrey Epstein, evolved into cartoon fare. Odds of a comeback seemed to abruptly deteriorate.

On the other hand, publicity associated with litigation can be professionally useful.

In a lawsuit against Fox News, Gretchen Carlson alleged she had been fired for not providing sexual favors to Roger Ailes. Not only was that settled for $20 million, Carlson became a feminist champion. Plum broadcasting assignments fell into her lap, ranging from A&E Networks to PEOPLE (the TV branch).

Another spin-off from litigation publicity can be a mixed bag.

After suing venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins for alleged gender discrimination Ellen Pao found access to those big jobs in tech closed-off. The one at Reddit as Chief Executive Officer she did get ended quickly. Since the defendant was totally acquitted in that high-profile trial, she was essentially finished in Silicon Valley as a player.

But all the publicity about gender issues made her, like Carlson, a feminist leader. Currently she heads Project Include, whose mission is diversity. She retains influence. For example, she published an attention-getting op-ed about Elizabeth Holmes in the New York Times.

The reality is that the court of public opinion can have more impact on a career than the court of law. As yet, it is not mandated that lawyers educate clients about that as a part of professional ethics. But the legal sector is fully aware that how their clients’ legal matters, careers, and lives wind up frequently depends on public relations.

That is one of the growing reasons, as the Wall Street Journal documented, law firms are branching out from only providing legal counsel. For example, Big Law firms Dentons and Ropes & Gray use journalists for storytelling that is leveraged both for clients and the law firm itself.

That shift beyond legal-only includes establishing consulting profit centers.

For its Global Advisors, Dentons recently added what was once called NextLaw Public Affairs Network and is now Dentons Global Advisors Network. That technology platform connects global and US clients with 220 elite public relations firms in 155 countries.

Obviously public relations services have developed as much power and influence as those of Big Law— maybe more so. And law firms know that—or they should.

This is part of the macro movement of the law firm’s being able to supply comprehensive business solutions for its clients. Increasingly, clients are demanding that.

In an interview in Leaders Magazine, Paul Weiss chairperson Brad Karp sizes up the emerging law firm-client relationship as a “business partnership.” That means lawyers have to understand every nuance of the client’s business. One aspect Karp fingers is the client’s overall risk tolerance. As the Depp trial showcased, that includes the ability to absorb and navigate the unpredictable dynamics of publicity.

Young people seeking to make a good living in a career filled with influence and power might opt for education and training in college in public relations. That could be a terminal degree. In contrast, opting to go to law school after college could cost them, according to US News, on average each of the three years:

  • Private law school - $53,034
  • Public, resident - $29,610
  • Public, non-resident - $42,754.


Jane Genova ([email protected]) helps business work magic through storytelling. One client noted that she “makes shipping containers come across as sexy.”