Lessons from the Jill Abramson drama: when to call in the lawyers

Lessons from the Jill Abramson drama: when to call in the lawyers Igor Stevanovic

The very public firing of Jill Abramson from The New York Times is driving a lot of press coverage. The New Yorker has run several articles. “Why Jill Abramson Was Fired: Part Three,” a May 18 piece, said a key issue was how she handled the possibility of bringing another high-ranking editor on board. Previously, “Why Jill Abramson Was Fired,” published on May 14, included a gender issue: It noted that she complained of pay inequity, hired a lawyer to represent her and got canned shortly thereafter; that article indicated that the hiring of the lawyer was a factor in the termination, but the Times vociferously denied it. A Politico story on May 17, “Sulzberger’s Last Straw,” said, “New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger fired executive editor Jill Abramson after concluding that she had misled both him and chief executive Mark Thompson during her effort to hire a new co-managing editor, according to two sources with knowledge of the reason for her termination” And a May 19 article in the Times, “In First Public Remarks After Firing, Jill Abramson Talks of Resilience,” quoted a Sulzberger statement: “I concluded that she had lost the support of her masthead colleagues and could not win it back.”

The whole controversy got me thinking. When should an employee hire a lawyer and get one in the mix? What should an employer do when it receives a letter from an employee’s lawyer? Here’s what experience has taught me.

First off, when an employer gets a letter from an employee’s lawyer, do not—I repeat do not—circle the wagons and assume a defensive posture. Know what? The letter may be accurate. There is still a chance to fix the situation before it spirals into litigation.

But many employers conclude that if the employee brings a lawyer into the picture, then the employer/employee relationship is broken—and broken for good. And lawyers for employees do their clients no service when they send a letter that’s accusatory, condescending and one-sided.

For execs thinking of getting a lawyer involved, here’s some advice: Do so only if you believe you are on your way out and need a good exit package.

Here’s a final piece of advice for the departing exec. It comes from the poet Jack Gilbert in “The Lost Hotels of Paris.” He writes, “But it is the having and not the keeping where the treasure lies.”

Lawyers for employees need to impart this life lesson, side-by-side with the legal advice, just as lawyers for employers need to impart the wisdom that not every challenge is worth a nuclear exchange.

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