Four Linsane Lessons for Corporate Counsel
In my work as a consultant on crisis communications and other complex public perception issues, I’m often accused of relying too heavily on sports metaphors when counseling and training.
But they work. . . so I’m making a Linsane drive to the hoop once again.
The big news in the sports world in the past several weeks, of course, has been the emergence of Jeremy Lin as a bona fide NBA star. For those of you who missed it (and if you did, you may be working too hard), Lin, a Tiawanese-American basketball player from California, had been passed over by major scholarship-granting universities (he had to settle for Harvard), then cut by two NBA teams before landing at the New York Knicks. There he wallowed on the bench for weeks, before injuries to several key players put him on the court as a starter.
Lin responded in a manner befitting a made-for-TV movie: he scored more points in his first six starts than any player in NBA history (and that includes Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal). He became the first Harvard student to play in the NBA since 1954, and the first Asian-American since the 1940s. He was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated two weeks in a row.
In the process, Lin demolished stereotypes about basketball, race, and athletic ability. He also left the sports world wondering: how so many could have been so wrong about so good a player?
But for our purposes, the question is: What can the emergence of this off-the-bench Knicks superstar teach corporate counsel and their business colleagues about legal and public perception crises? Consider the following.
1. Corporate Counsel Can Make a Difference as 'Company Point Guard'
A point guard in basketball brings the ball up the court, directs the offense, and distributes the ball to other players on the team. Without such a leader, the team flounders. The Knicks, for example, had won 5 games and lost 15 before Lin took over. Suddenly, they won seven of the next nine with Lin leading the charge.
So, too, in crisis matters, high-profile litigation, and other complex public perception events. The lack of a sure-handed leader—a skilled corporate point guard directing the action—can lead to failure. Public implications of legal disputes are ignored until it is too late. No one is properly explaining what is happening to investors, regulators, employees, and other influential audiences. Ill-conceived public statements, slapped together at the 11th hour, do little to help. Companies and their lawyers fall back on tired clichés that reinforce the sense the things are spinning out of control—“No comment” being only the most obvious example.
As corporate counsel, it often falls on you to be the point guard for your organization in the heat of a difficult corporate crisis or high-profile legal matter. You need to run an effective offense: moving the ball down court, anticipating what’s going to happen next, passing at the right time to team members who can score.
2. Counsel Can Set the Whole Game's Tempo
In basketball, you can play an “up-tempo” game (pushing the ball up the court at a breakneck pace), a “set” offense (taking time to execute defined plays, sometimes with five or six passes before every shot), or some combination in between. A good point guard dictates the tempo of the action and gets the other side playing his game, not theirs. If the other team is constantly on their heels, responding to your latest move rather than running their own offense, you’re probably winning.
In crisis and high-profile litigation, if you are spending all of your time responding to the plaintiff’s characterization of the issues and the facts, you are also probably losing. I advise clients in these cases that they have to start playing the game at their own tempo, putting the other side on their heels. Make your arguments effectively, force a plaintiff to answer a question about their motivation and characterization of the facts, bring in key third parties to reinforce your views. Rather than just respond, open new avenues of communication that begin to reshape the debate. When you start dictating the tempo, good things happen.
3. You Aren't Going to Win Every Time You Step on/in the Court
The resurgent Knicks won six games in a row at the start of what’s now called the “Jeremy Lin era,” but they also lost a few. And Lin himself has struggled at times, particularly as opponents learned more about his game and designed defenses specifically to stop him (against the Miami Heat, he made only one of 11 shots and committed eight turnovers). Yet smart teams know a season lasts a very long time, and they don’t dwell on today’s loss, take their ball, and go home.
In high-profile litigation, news coverage ebbs-and-flows over weeks and months. . . sometimes years. As I mentioned in a prior column, facts and evidence develop over time, and today’s devastating news coverage can be overcome if lawyer and client remain steadfast in their messages, themes, and commitment to ensure the public truly understands their side of the story. Defendants who give up after one bad story are playing for a single game and not for a winning season.
4. Corporate Groupthink Will Prevent You From Being the Best
Finally, and in my view, most importantly: beware groupthink wherever you find it. Be wary of conventional wisdom, since it is often wrong. Test common suppositions you and your company have about the ways in which you operate—both in the courtroom, and in the court of public opinion (see the excellent examination of the perils of groupthink from a recent issue of The New Yorker).
I’ve worked with law firms and corporations of all sizes for nearly 25 years, and I can tell you that one of the most common mistakes I see involves executives, in-house lawyers, and outside counsel who fall back on cliché, easy answers, and groupthink when responding to a complex crisis matters. It’s can be an easier road, true—but it is often not the road to success.
So when someone asks me how so many college and professional basketball teams could have missed a talent like Jeremy Lin, I tell them I’m not surprised. I’ve seen too many smart people at too many large organizations go with the safe choice, the way things have always been done. Without really thinking through the ramifications of this decision on this particular situation, and whether things can be done not just as before, but better.
From this perspective, the answer is obvious: why take a close look at that Asian-American Harvard graduate down at the end of the bench? Conventional wisdom says he’s too slow, too cerebral, not athletic enough. He should be at Goldman, not the Garden.
Take your lessons from the past, of course, and replicate what has worked where you find it. But the biggest lesson lawyers and business executives can take from the Jeremy Lin story is: a knee-jerk “because that’s they way we’ve always done it. . . ” reaction is not a strategy. Many times, it is a recipe for disaster—if not outright Linsanity.
James F. Haggerty, an attorney and communications consultant, is CEO of PRCG/Strategic Communications and the author of In The Court of Public Opinion: Winning Strategies For Litigation Communications (American Bar Association Publishing, 2009). He also hosts a weekly In The Court Of Public Opinion radio show on the VoiceAmerica Business Network.