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What to Say When Your Instinct Is to Say Nothing

Firm leaders must recognize the importance of communications in this time of greater transparency and accountability.

By now I’m sure you’ve heard about the deafening silence American Lawyer reporters Meghan Tribe and Hank Grezlak experienced when just 13 of the Am Law 100 firms responded to repeated requests for information on internal harassment policies. “Behind Big Law’s Wall of Silence on Sexual Misconduct” revealed many troubling things about the experience of women in Big Law. It also revealed that many law firm leaders do not appreciate the importance of communications in 2018.

Corporate lawyers are by nature cautious people who think in terms of risk-management, limiting exposure, and avoiding litigation, which means that they are inclined to say nothing when asked to comment on hot-button issues. But silence makes a resounding statement, and if you think you can wait on the sidelines until #metoo blows over, think again. This issue is not going away. So what is a good strategy for communications?

• Extend professional courtesy to journalists by actually responding to their calls and emails, even if you can’t share anything concrete. It can never hurt to build good will.
• Better yet, invite a reporter to sit in on a meeting on this topic. You still control the boundaries of that conversation, but it shows you are taking workplace harassment seriously.
• Acknowledge that the culture is changing, which means that in the past your firm got things wrong. We all did. Our understanding of consent has evolved. We see more clearly how power imbalance operates in romantic relationships. You are not admitting wrongdoing by articulating this. But you are demonstrating that your firm does not have its head in the sand.
• Consider having the statement come directly from firm leadership instead of the marketing department. This too sends a message.

Keeping silent only alerts reporters that there is more to the story. Instead, use this moment to your firm’s advantage. Control the message and build good will with the journalists covering this extraordinary time of upheaval.