Photo credit: “The Controversial Topics of Wikipedia” on Wired.com

An interesting headline caught my eye this week via Forbes: “Disgusting!,” Cry Legal Experts: Is This The Lowest A Top U.S. Law Firm Has Ever Stoop (ht Above the Law).

Quick history lesson: During WWII the Japanese (allegedly) kidnapped (mostly) Korean women and forced them to be “comfort women” (prostitutes).

The case in question involves a U.S. law firm taking on a controversial action surrounding this issue:

Would any self-respecting U.S. law firm represent a client who suggested the Jews deserved the Holocaust? Probably not. As a matter of honor, most law firms would run a mile, and even the least honorable would conclude that the damage to their reputation wasn’t worth it.

Where imperial Japan’s atrocities are concerned, however, at least one top U.S. law firm hasn’t been so choosy. In what is surely one of the most controversial civil suits ever filed in the United States, the Los Angeles office of Chicago-based Mayer Brown is trying to prove that the so-called comfort women – the sex slaves used by the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II – were no more than common prostitutes.

Not exactly the way I’d like a story on my firm, in Forbes, to begin.

So why am I writing this post?

Call it what you will — a game changer, jumping the shark, yellow journalism, link bait — but something has shifted in the land of corporate communications and management with the advancement of social media.

While law firms like to hold themselves out to be above the fray (we’re a “profession” after all), truth is, we bleed green just like any other business and are susceptible to outside influences.

Earlier this month, the co-founder and CEO of Mozilla was forced to resign due to a relatively small political contribution he personally made to a now unpopular California state proposition.

Prior to the contribution being revealed — several years after the fact — there was no indication that his contribution ever impacted the running of the business, or the management of the employees.

But his personal position is now incredibly unpopular and political forces used social media to put pressure on the company once the contribution was unburied, and he resigned.

Then I saw the Forbes headline this week. And read the comments. And started a discussion. And listened to the debate. And I have one question that cannot be answered … yet:

What does this mean for law firms that take on unpopular or controversial clients or causes?

Prior to social media, would the corporate clients of any AmLaw 100 firm know if their firm or attorney was representing (insert unpopular cause or person)? For those of us in legal marketing and PR we know how difficult it is to get the New York Times, or any publication other than from the legal industry, to include the name of your firm in a story.

Law firms were, for the most part, immune from the general public’s gaze.

Now, with a Google search, particularly through Google Scholar, you can easily identify the law firm and the lawyer involved in most every notorious case or cause.

A quick blog post, a few links on Twitter, perhaps a Change.org petition, perhaps a HuffPost cover, and game on.

We are seeing the pressure being placed on businesses, political causes, and whether or not a kid gets an experimental (and potentially life-saving) medical treatment.

Bubba Watson found out that the food police didn’t like his Waffle House visit after winning The Masters (guess he should have gone to Disney World). Luckily, enough people have enjoyed a late night feast at WH and the feigned controversy lost wind quickly. But not everyone gets off that easily.

I’m thinking about Sea World and Blackfish, and the inability to have a conversation or a debate on the issue. Sea World does have a paid ad — Truth About Blackfish — at the top of any search for Blackfish, but I’m not going there on social media or anywhere else.

Seriously. Right now, there is no other side to the debate. You are against Sea World. Period. I am ready to go through my Facebook photos and delete every picture I have of my family and Girl Scout troop at Sea World dating back eight years ago.

And forget making a political contribution. I’m done. Who knows what will come back to haunt me when?

I thought it was bad enough having worked for Handgun Control, Inc. in the ’90s. I actually updated my resume with the newer name, The Brady Campaign, to soften the controversy. But I assure you, in almost every job interview I have had it has come up in conversation, and not always in a positive way.

Why would any of us think that this type of social media pressure will not impact law firms and lawyers?

While every accused criminal is entitled to a defense by our constitution, no law firm is under any requirement to represent an individual or corporation in a civil matter.

Will lawyers second guess taking on a client, even if they believe in the case, or just want the money? Will the law firm jettison the offending lawyer and client to appease the Twitterverse? Not like it hasn’t happened before in our above-the-fray world.

Let’s not forget that not every client, cause, or position is controversial when engaged. Not every opinion or stance is forever. While it was very unpopular, at the time, to take on the board of education in Brown v. Board of Education, times and attitudes changed and those spat upon are now hailed, and vice versa.

I don’t know the Mozilla CEO. I don’t know the lawyers at Mayer Brown. I do know that in a “free” country the idea that we have to hide our affiliations, beliefs, or clients lest we are monetarily attacked for supporting a bad or unpopular position is a dangerous path to walk.

Yes. There have always been economic boycotts, but this is different. It is the absolute shutting down of speech with the only resolve being the closing of a business or the black balling of a person. And while not a First Amendment issue, it is a worrisome one to me.

So what’s the answer here? What does this mean for law firms that take on unpopular or controversial clients or causes?

I don’t know the answer. This is another one of those “It will be interesting to see where we’re at in five years” situations.

  • Laura

    And now your “likes” can come back to haunt you, too. Not just that they could adversely affect your ability to get hired, but you could lose your legal rights, as well (see General Mills).

  • Laura

    P.S. This also “proves” that consumers want to buy services and products from companies/people that/who have the same viewpoints and morals as they do. (That’s kind of a given, but I’ll say it anyway.

  • So much has changed because of social media. The influence of people can really have an impact on how facts are accepted by people and how things that are supposed to have tremendous impact can be taken lightly easily.

  • bombkiller007

    I think the impact is very serious. Legal protections and clear paths to equal opportunity to address issues are dictated not through a judicial process, but a form of “mob rule” where the loudest and most effective at mobilizing on social media will trump individual and group access. As you mentioned, Roe V Wade was not popular, but it was represented. Imagine if all of the legal powerhouses of the time decided that they will not take a case if its too controversial? We would still be sipping from separate fountains based on race in this country.

    Yours is by far the best article I have seen on this subject to date. Fingletons original article in Forbes and his follow up article today where he takes a victory lap and is now attempting to create an international row by social media pressuring of Ambassador Kennedy is even more telling as to the creation of not a “bully pulpit” in social media, but a “pulpit of bullies” that will gradually erode legal process.

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