Tag Archives: Ethics

Spontaneous Exclamations: A brief holiday piece on padding your stats

Adam Katz is a senior associate at Harrison & Held, LLP.  He concentrates his practice on federal & state tax matters, mergers & acquisitions, entity structure and formation, commercial finance, and non-profit law.  Adam can be reached at (312) 753-6110 or akatz@harrisonheld.com.  Comments on all posts are welcome!

Almost every attorney, at one point in their career, feels the itch.  Especially in this economy, when every hour counts towards job security, there’s a pressure to reach above and beyond stated goals.  Many attorneys work hard and hit their targets, while other attorneys may flounder or simply not receive enough work to bill the minimum required hours.  The itch to pad your stats a/k/a bill for extra time you did not work on a matter can be quite tempting.  On one hand, nobody may ever find out and you’ll get paid and bonused on hours you only worked in your wildest fantasies.  And what boring fantasies those would be.  On the other hand, you can fake hours and get caught, sanctioned, sued, and/or become a case study for all aspiring attorneys to examine in their dreaded mandatory ethics classes.

In honor of the holiday spirit, I’ll make this quick and easy for you:  DON’T DO IT.  If you choose to and get caught, you’ll end up with more than coal in your stocking or lose all of your Hanukkah gelt to poor dreidel spins.

It’s a simple weighing of benefits versus the consequences.  As an associate, if you pad your stats, you may hit your minimum hour requirement and be eligible for that lockstep raise and standing to move up a class year.  If you double-pad your stats and hit top bonus thresholds, you may receive a couple extra zeros on your bonus check and be the envy of the office, but at the end of the day you’ll have to not only live with yourself, but live with the fear of getting caught.  After you get busted, you will likely be sanctioned by your state bar, fired from your job, potentially blacklisted from your legal community, and (worst case scenario) featured on a slightly more famous law blog.  As a partner, if you pad your stats, say goodbye to your clients, and I shouldn’t need to remind you of this.

To all those who ignore this post, start with the (wo)man in the mirror, and as Michael Jackson aptly sang, “Take a look at yourself and then make a…CHANGE.”

With that in mind, here’s to a happy, ethical, and BlackBerry-free holiday season.

Your Client Wants to Talk To The Press: Ethical Considerations in High-Profile Matters

Debra Pickett is President of Page 2 Communications (www.page2comm.com).  A former newspaper columnist and television commentator, Pickett offers consulting and training to law firms and lawyers who deal with the media.  Reach her at deb@page2comm.com.

Let’s assume, for the moment, that your client is NOT Rod Blagojevich.

Still, if you handle issues that get public attention, whether over the neighborhood grapevine or the national news, you’ve probably been faced with clients chomping at the bit to get the facts out and tell their side of the story.  Your first priority, of course, is the legal issue at hand.  And your next, quite naturally, is avoiding any trial publicity that might threaten the fairness of the proceedings in the matter.  So, your instincts (and experience) might tell you that it’s best to keep your client away from reporters and social media entirely.

Certainly, there are plenty of good reasons to be concerned – you don’t want or need to see your legal strategy laid out in a public forum before adjudicative proceedings even begin.  But there are also some great advantages, for your client and you, in keeping some channels of communication open.  How can you best advise your clients in these situations, while still doing your most effective and ethical work?

First, know the relevant codes of professional conduct and understand how they come into play.  What information is off-limits in extrajudicial statements?  If there has been recent adverse publicity – not initiated by you or your client – Illinois’ rules of professional conduct do allow you to make public statements that protect your client from the prejudicial effects of that publicity.  In other words, silence is not the only ethical response.

Second, consider your client’s temperament and how you can help mitigate risks and limit exposure created when he or she speaks publicly.  Does your client need a “minder” to be present during media interviews or should someone offer coaching in advance of a conversation to clarify what needs to be kept confidential?  These services might be available to your client through a public relations firm already on retainer or through resources connected to your own marketing department.

Third and finally, take a moment to talk with your client about the long-term and strategic impact of the public statements they wish to make.  Are there implications for their relationships with customers, employees and neighbors?  While the immediate instinct to respond to negative publicity by “fighting fire with fire” is certainly understandable, there are probably more productive ways to engage in civic conversations about important matters.  Finding ways to promote your client’s overall image in the community and nurture key connections can go a long way towards mitigating the damage done by rumors and concerns over a contentious matter.

After giving some attention to these three considerations, you’re in a great position to help your client make good decisions about how to communicate with all the various stakeholders and constituencies interested in the high-profile matter you’re handling.  Now, of course, if our first assumption wasn’t valid and your client actually IS Rod Blagojevich, well, that’s an entirely different advice column!

Magic words for dealing with non-legal media

Debra Pickett is President of Page 2 Communications (www.page2comm.com).  A former newspaper columnist and television commentator, Pickett offers consulting and training to law firms and lawyers who deal with the media.  Reach her at deb@page2comm.com

When I was a reporter at a big daily newspaper, I was often shocked by how willing people were to talk to me.  I’d call, introduce myself and then, pretty much immediately, start asking questions that, under most circumstances, should have earned me a slap across the face.  Instead, people were consistently forthcoming, helpful, even eager to share their stories with 2 million strangers.

There was one exception: lawyers.

Their responses to my questions seemed to fall into two categories: complete stonewalling or hyper-aggressive “spin.”  In either case, the quotes I took from them did little to convey their clients’ points of view, which, naturally, did not make them more willing to take my calls in the future.  Nor did the dreaded “refused to comment” or “couldn’t be reached for comment” lines my editors and I put in to stories when we didn’t get anything we could use.

By contrast, many of those same attorneys seemed to have great working relationships with more specialized media outlets, like the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.  Stories in those publications almost always featured great quotes from lawyers and lots of explanatory detail.  So, what was the difference between my approach, writing for the general population, and that of the reporters whose audience was grounded more deeply in the legal community?  And why, more importantly, did the mainstream press as a whole seem to have such a contentious and unconstructive relationship with the lawyers who were making news?

Journalism, like litigation, is an antagonistic proposition, sometimes more than it needs to be.  From my vantage point as a reporter, with no background in law, the reticence of the attorneys I interviewed, especially their strict adherence to the rules of professional conduct around trial publicity, looked like just so much posturing.  There’s a certain ego rush involved in being the seeker of truth, and it’s all the more intense when it seems like someone is withholding information.  It’s tantalizingly easy to make a lawyer look like a bad guy.

My perspective changed when, after leaving journalism, I started working with attorneys who, along with their clients, recognized the need to include strategies for mass communication in their work, particularly when defending clients in labor and environmental cases.  They were as flummoxed by the apparent hostility of the non-legal press as I once had been by some of their colleagues’ refusal to fully answer my questions.

Working within the ethical constraints of Rule 3.6, which governs trial publicity, our opportunities and limitations were clear: no public statements that could threaten the fairness of the proceedings; only statements of basic facts and claims and whatever might be necessary to protect a client from the prejudicial effects of recent adverse publicity not initiated by their side.

This left lots of room for getting the facts out to interested members of the press and public.

The big challenge was that general interest reporters and community members – those without legal backgrounds and training – often asked questions that couldn’t be answered fully without overstepping Rule 3.6.  So the most important element of our communication strategy was how to handle these inquiries constructively.

We found that three phrases: (1) thanks for calling (2) when’s your deadline and (3) happy to help, go a surprisingly long way in re-setting the tone of the interactions.  “Thanks for calling” immediately creates a sense of rapport and the possibility that your interests – namely, getting the facts out – might be allied.  “When’s your deadline?” conveys consideration and camaraderie, and an inclination to be helpful.  And, finally, “happy to help,” seals the deal: though there are some things the attorney is not able to say at this time, he is doing what he can.

In between the nine magic words, over the course of a brief interview, even if the attorney couldn’t answer every question in as much detail as the journalist wanted, she could usually offer some useful information, such as scheduling and next steps, and, most importantly, could begin to establish a positive relationship with the reporter covering the case.

Reporters for legal publications knew what they could ask to get these answers, but others did not.  They needed a little help.  And that help made all the difference.  Nine magic words made it happen.

Honesty

Bill Wilson spent over 20 years in legal departments at corporations large and small, from high tech to brick and mortar, and is writing about various topics while trying to find that next great career opportunity.

I may be in the minority these days, but I would much rather that someone be honest with me than beat around the bush.  Did I screw up?  Tell me.  Think I’m obnoxious in my general approach?  Let me know.  Not a snowball’s chance in hell that you’re willing to help my search?  Prefer you tell me to get lost, rather than let me think I can count on you.

I am not entirely sure when it started, or how it became the norm, but our society’s inability to be candid is becoming toxic.  We have invented so many little minuets to avoid telling someone the truth about themselves that it’s almost comical to watch.  Other than enable people to avoid confrontation, it serves absolutely no purpose.  Sooner or later, there will come a reckoning: that inability of yours to ever be on time causes some type of catastrophe, followed by a ruinous argument, ending a relationship that could have been saved with a little bit of candor.

It’s critical during a job search, and even more so once someone is hired.  If you’re networking with a candidate, and you don’t think you would really be inclined to help, tell them, and even better, tell them why.  Maybe they’re just too pushy or self-centered.  Maybe their approach to you was offensive in another way.  If someone is offending you in a networking setting, they will probably be repeating the offense during an interview or after taking a position.  Help them avoid that damage.

In the employment context, one of the drivers of bad employment litigation outcomes is the lack of candor in performance appraisals.  A terrible employee skates on for years and no one takes the initiative to identify the shortcomings and suggest how they can be fixed.  Then the employee is fired and it leads to a lawsuit, as the lack of critical evaluations is cited as the  basis for a pretext charge: couldn’t have been my performance, so something else – e.g., protected category discrimination – must be the reason.

Feedback is a gift and should be offered and received that way.  You can’t fix a problem you don’t know you have.  Few of us are so self-aware that we have that objective “outside-in” view of ourselves that is necessary for change.  I am not suggesting that diplomacy should be cast to the wind, and we should become acid tongued oracles to everyone we know.  Differentiate between a situation involving merely how you would do it and how they did it; that’s not what you should focus on; everyone is entitled to be unique.  But if there is something substantive that is doing the other person a disservice, act.  Take some time to understand why you feel the other person falls short, and how best to describe it so that they can see what you see, and why it’s hurting them.

And never offer criticism in the heat of a moment; you’ll be far harsher than needed, and risk doing damage, sometimes permanent, to the relationship.  But constructive criticism, offered where deserved, in kindness, can help someone improve and make a difference in their life/career.  If you’re the recipient, accept it graciously, ask questions if necessary to insure you understand what you did wrong and how to correct the shortcoming, and find a way to make the change.

One more thing: It’s probably better to forget this advice if you’re a candidate and you feel your networking contact is an idiot.  It’s just not done.  It’s one thing to burn a bridge.  Quite another to blow it up.

Leveraging Your Reputation: What’s your story?

Tom Ciesielka is President of TC Public Relations (www.tcpr.net). Tom has over 25 years of marketing and public relations experience, working with individual lawyers and mid-sized law firms. He is also a former board member of the Legal Marketing Association in Chicago and has spoken at Chicago Bar Associations CLE programs.  Reach him at tc@tcpr.net.

I’m often asked by lawyers when the right time is to contact the media with news and what news the media should be contacted about. The time is always right for the right story but as far what that story is, consider the following angles to pitch your firm’s current cases to the media:

Ethical/religious controversy- There are some subjects that people just don’t usually like to discuss at the dinner table, but these controversial topics are often what secure a spot on the front page. Perhaps a condominium association does not allow Christmas trees to be set up in the lobby and a firm is representing a tenant, or shareholders are seeking representation against a company board that has not acted in their best interest. Interesting stories on current, hot topics can quickly become hot news stories, so if you’ve got the spark, consider pitching it for front page coverage.

Emotional cases- Human interest stories have a way of interesting lots of humans. Funny how that works. The media always report on stories that touch the heart, whether in profound or soft ways. Be a storyteller. Talk about what your client has endured or suffered through (making sure to clear it with them first).  Striking a chord with the media can often times be easiest when it’s the emotional one. Don’t talk about malpractice; talk about how your client’s future has been changed forever.

Unique advice- Think about what you specialize in, perhaps your practice area(s) or your type of law. Writing contributed articles in legal trade publications or sitting down with a local reporter to explain a complicated legal issue will help you establish authority and create your personal brand of legal expertise. All you need to do is realize what kind of expert you are and promote that expertise.

Big-player cases- A public figure of a well-known company is to media attention what a gun with fingerprints is to a prosecuting attorney. The media want the inside scoop on names that will resonate quickly with readers. If you’re taking on Blue Cross Blue Shield or battling against a popular politician, use that opportunity to piggy-back on the big names to amplify your firm’s name to the same status.

Big settlements- Victories should be celebrated. Winning thousands or millions of dollars for your client is worth talking about and should be announced. Media love big numbers, so multimillion dollar settlements should be shared with the relevant audiences. It helps the image of your firm and establishes you as a winner, not to mention that in the end, when the client wins, you win.