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Law firms of all sizes face serious challenges to their reputations when bad behavior and questionable business practices by attorneys or staff go public. Unfortunately, many firms facing these and other crisis situations make some of the same mistakes long before the crisis begins. A firm that tolerates abusive behavior toward employees, or fails to do conflict checks, is headed for disaster. Crises are like tornadoes-there’s little time to prepare for them, people don’t see them coming, there’s precious little time to duck for cover and rebuilding can take months or years. That’s why managing partners, executive committees and other decision-makers must be able to quickly identify a brewing crisis and know how to respond effectively the moment it hits. The danger lies on many fronts, from inappropriate workplace e-mails or allegations of harassment, discrimination or hostile environment; from heightened scrutiny from prosecutors and regulators; and from clients angry over padded bills, poor advice, conflicts of interest or malpractice. Suppose a key rainmaker or an entire practice joins a primary competitor and takes along clients and staff. What if a a partner gets caught up in drugs, prostitution or child pornography, or an associate criticizes the firm’s business practices or culture? When a crisis hits, public opinion about the firm-specifically the opinion of clients and prospective hires-can turn on a dime. That’s because of the speed with which information moves via instant messaging, blogs, Web sites and news reporters who update their stories around the clock. In addition, few lawyers are trained to fight rumors, innuendo and unsubstantiated allegations outside the courtroom. It’s a mistake to ignore the media until one has an opportunity to argue one’s position before a judge, jury or regulatory agency. “We won’t argue this case in the media and will wait for our day in court” is no longer an adequate response when a high-profile client’s personal or business reputation is on the line. It is equally ineffective when a law firm is attacked. Take, for example, a firm facing a malpractice suit. The stock statement-”This lawsuit has no merit and we’ll defend ourselves vigorously”-can be a good start but might not satisfy clients, prospects and colleagues who refer business. Even if the firm ultimately is cleared by a court or oversight agency, the good news almost never catches up with the bad. What often is left hanging in the court of public opinion is a news story posted on the Internet that contains the original allegation of wrongdoing, often without a sufficient response from the firm. Other negative commentary may appear on influential Web sites. Any of this can be found easily by Internet search engines. In the past, yesterday’s news was just that, but those days are over. If a prospect searches online for the name of a firm and the first item that comes up is a negative news story, the prospect is unlikely to bother visiting the firm’s own Web site to read of its virtues. The court of public opinion will determine whether clients stay or leave, and whether prospects retain the firm with confidence. Three developments in particular have made it more difficult for law firms to maintain and defend their reputations in any crisis. First, attorney-client privilege is no longer sacred; it has been eroded by prosecutors and regulators in recent years. Second, the mainstream media have become more interested in law firm scandals, and there’s more press coverage of the business and ethics of the profession. Finally, clients are more apt to blame their law firm when their own bad behavior becomes public. Crisis procedures
THE BUSINESS OF LAW

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