Every business (and every individual) occasionally does or says something they regret. Sometimes it’s just doing the wrong thing, sometimes its expressing something poorly and sometimes it’s just poor timing.
When it gets into the public domain or the media it’s what happens next that matters.
Do you admit a mistake and apologise or do you defend it righteously? Do you deflect all inquiries, issue a carefully crafted statement, or undertake a candid media interview or press conference?
Last week The Australian Financial Review ran a piece from what appears to have been a quite candid interview with the CEO of Australian law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Gavin MacLaren.
The interview followed several weeks of negative press about the firms’ unceremonious dumping of the Catholic Church as a client – even failing to inform the church before the story broke in the media. The firm later defended the action as part of a decision to move out of personal liability work, but said it hoped to keep working with the church on other areas such as property.
It was widely believed (and reported) that the firm had really dumped the church because it was unpopular (particularly with younger lawyers) for the firm to be connected to the high profile child abuse cases which the church needed to defend.
The Catholic Church hierarchy took offence and is reported to have moved all its legal business to Dentons Australia. Whatever your feelings about the Catholic Church this was not a great outcome for Corrs.
In the media Corrs spent several weeks stonewalling, releasing some bland statements – each of which resulted in quite negative media – before agreeing to a wide ranging, on-the-record interview with legal affairs editor Michael Pelly.
In addition to a mea culpa on the poor handling of communicating with its former client, the resulting story ranged over many areas including law firm CEO pay ($7 million apparently) and the desire for Corrs to break into the next level of legal services.
It was generally positive for Corrs, but was also interesting enough to have created a fair bit of buzz and discussion about the firm.
It’s interesting to contrast this with a similar crisis faced by another law firm Minter Ellison in 2021.
Managing partner Annette Kimmitt issued an ill-advised firmwide apology and ‘trigger warning’ to all staff after one of its higher profile partners, Peter Bartlett publicized his new role defending the then Federal Attorney General, Christian Porter against historical rape allegations
Whatever the rights-and-wrongs of such a statement, it created an instant firestorm when it was immediately leaked to the media.
The firm chose the path of stonewalling, offering no comment or statement for days. This was gleefully filled by innuendo and gossip and things went from bad to worse. After about a week Kimmitt was forced to resign and then everything went quiet again.
Months later, her replacement Virginia Briggs granted an interview to the AFR.
Although the resulting story was substantial, it lacked the candor of MacLaren’s recent coverage and refused point blank to address the issue of Kimmitt’s statement that had caused all the trouble months earlier. It glossed over strategic issues for the firm, made ‘big picture’ statements and studiously avoided anything which might be interpreted as even slightly controversial or … well … interesting.
The relatively dull result may have been greeted internally as safe, but failed to address the reputational issue for the firm which effectively allowed it to fester.
What can we learn from these two contrasting examples?
- Internal politics matters, but can’t paralyze action
The decision to reject a potential client is a particularly political one in a law firm partnership. How this played out in each firm can only be known by those inside. What seems a simple public revelation can freeze firm management as they don’t know where to go with lots of angry voices.
- Move fast to stem the damage
MacLaren’s interview with Pelly ends with the lament “I think it would have been great if you and I’d had an opportunity to have a conversation a bit earlier.”
Even so, he did candidly address the issue in a matter of weeks rather than the half attempt by Minter Ellison after months. The assumption that refusing to deal with the media will mean the media won’t write any stories is often wrong.
- Candour and transparency is the only way to address a blunder in the long term.
Most lawyers are risk averse and transparency can often feel dangerous. However, unless you are prepared to directly address an issue and take on some of the political risk that will entail, the reputational issue remains. It may fade over time, but it will stick and can become part of your brand, without you even knowing.
I’ve spoken to several lawyers and those working in law firms about this issue, but I’d love to hear from others about what they think.