President-elect Donald Trump speaks as one of his attorneys, Sheri Dillon, of Morgan Lewis & Bockius, listens during a news conference, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, in New York. The news conference was his first as President-elect. (Photo: Seth Wenig/AP)
The names of corporate law firms are not usually mentioned in major political news conferences. Lawyers are, or course. Nearly all of America has been introduced to David Boies, David Kendall and Ted Olson.
But Boies, Schiller & Flexner; Williams & Connolly; and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher? Those names may be even less recognizable by the general public than “I Can’t Believe It’s a Law Firm!“
Enter Sheri Dillon of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. The tax partner name-dropped not only her firm but her colleague Fred Fielding during a press conference for President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday. She talked about how Trump engaged her firm, which worked on his matters, their legal opinions and even referred to legal files set out on the stage.
Nick Gaffney, managing partner of Zumado Public Relations in San Francisco, which works for law firms, called the moment of a corporate lawyer talking tax next to Trump on live television “incredibly unusual,” “beautiful” and “the best thing ever” from a law firm public relations perspective.
He said he could only remember one other time when a law firm name appeared as prominently before such a large audience. It was 60 years ago, when President Richard Nixon delivered his “Checkers speech” and read a legal opinion from Gibson Dunn.
“I would milk this for four years,” said Gaffney, whose firm has not represented Morgan Lewis.
“No matter what your take is on this administration, you’re going to have to do business with [the government].”
Allan Ripp of Ripp Media, a New York-based public relations consultant who works for law firms regularly, fleshed out the upside for the firm.
“The Morgan Lewis shout-out recalls the classic scene from ‘When Harry Met Sally,’” he said. “Now, you can imagine big corporate clients going to Morgan Lewis and telling their tax lawyers, ‘I’ll have what he had!’ referring to Trump’s orgasmic success.”
Ripp said he does not work for Morgan Lewis.
But the idiom that all publicity is good publicity doesn’t always apply to the secretive business of corporate defense firms. Sometimes, entire cases and deals stay confidential forever between lawyers and clients, and bar rules prohibit lawyers from sharing information on whom they represent without their clients’ consent.
Law firm partners can also be touchy about—or in disagreement of—their colleagues’ professional affiliations. For instance, when newly-appointed White House counsel Donald McGahn II began advising Trump prior to the presidential election, Jones Day lawyers registered covert opposition. That prompted the legal blog Above the Law to ask if the firm should drop its representation.
The Wall Street Journal outlined another potential hazard for raising a firm’s profile in client relationships. The business paper opined this week on Covington & Burling’s engagement with California legislators to oppose Trump policies.
“The firm is making a major political statement putting itself on retainer to fight the Trump Administration even before it takes office,” wrote The WSJ’s editorial board. “Covington & Burling’s partners must figure they won’t get blowback from their other clients.”
Morgan Lewis, on this engagement and despite Dillon’s very public appearance, is choosing to make no official statement at all.
“We do not comment on our clients or the work we do for them,” a Morgan Lewis spokeswoman said Wednesday.