While law firms are considered a “conservative” professional service business, they seldom always represent conservative issues or at best, neutral ones. The law, like anything else, is politically charged. Think “liberal” ACLU attorneys versus “conservative” ADF lawyers. Which brings me to Katherine Franke’s article at The Huffington Post titled, “King & Spalding’s Self-Made Mess.”
Ms. Franke did an excellent job of showcasing how one law firm managed to offend both the “left” and the “right” with one statement after it decided not to support the Defense of Marriage Act, DOMA. Ms. Franke explains how this has become a public relations nightmare for King & Spalding’s reputation.
Here are my thoughts about when a law firm finds itself walking a very thin line among clients with divergent viewpoints:
- Review the mission and values of the law firm. Can a law firm that represents evangelical Christians also defend the free speech rights of an atheist? Depends. If the firm values that the US Constitution protects the rights of the faithful and faithless, then it can serve both clients. If the partners believe that they have a call from God to defend Christianity, then serving conflicting clients will create…conflicts.
- Plan for damage control. I remember a case where a public relations agency that represented Planned Parenthood also represented a major Catholic archdiocese. Talk about a battle between pro-abortion and pro-life organizations. If this was a law firm representing both, then you have to work through various scenarios. Find a way to keep both clients, or decide which client you would rather keep and do what is necessary to break off from the second client. (I wish I could explain how to do this in a blog post.)
- Be transparent with your current clients. Before a law firm takes on a potentially “hot-button” new client, consider having a conversation with the clients who love your work and are advocates for your firm. Decide on which partners can talk to which clients and clue them in to the type of client you are considering that is likely to raise concern about certain groups. It’s a great way to show mutual trust, and you might learn something in the process like how your current clients value your going to the mat when it’s justified.
I know this particular matter with DOMA has opened many cans of worms. However, it’s a great lesson for other law firms to learn from when it comes to potential liabilities with your client mix.