The public backlash against Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani partner Mercedes Colwin was swift following her Nov. 9 appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show.
The labor and employment litigator’s controversial remarks about the truthfulness of sexual harassment allegations brought by women in a segment discussing potential sexual misconduct by U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore quickly went viral. While Colwin took to Twitter to address her segment on “Hannity,” the clip had already taken on a life of its own.
Within a few days, Gordon Rees issued a statement distancing itself from Colwin and her comments and, by Nov. 14, she had stepped down from her position as managing partner of the firm’s New York office.
“The hard part is when you do interviews and particularly when you go on TV, you’re supposed to say things that are provocative and interesting,” said Cari Brunelle, a founding partner of New York-based public relations firm Baretz+Brunelle.
But there is a fine line, Brunelle said, noting that in trying to be interesting and provocative, one has to be careful to not cross certain boundaries that could be disastrous for both a law firm and its attorneys.
“Your words take on a life of their own and they just live out there forever, and in [Colwin’s] case, it’s going to take her years to push down coverage of this incident,” Brunelle said.
Law firms and their lawyers are constantly being called upon to comment in the media on certain legal and political matters, which can create great exposure for both. But when lawyers, as legal analysts or advocates, become outspoken, partisan media figures, that process can put both a firm and its lawyer in a precarious situation, to the benefit of none.
“I sympathize with someone who appears on-air. When you do a lot of TV it’s incredibly easy to slip up and say something without really thinking about it,” said Daniel Cevallos, a former DLA Piper lawyer now employed as a legal analyst at MSNBC. “That’s the kind of situation, that [Colwin] interview, that keeps me up at night and reminds me to always be really cautious with my words when I’m on-air.”
Law firms, therefore, need to be careful and cognizant of what their lawyers are doing and ensure that they have been properly trained in dealing with the media, Brunelle said. Most firms already do that, she added, but there are occasions when things go awry.
Colwin’s comments also come at a time when Big Law is facing its own issues with how it treats working women in the profession, Brunelle said.
“I think that’s the challenge and law firms are doing as much as they can to show that they are supportive of women and the advancement of women, and this could be a challenge for Gordon Rees,” said Brunelle, adding that the firm must continue to demonstrate its support for women among its ranks and in the legal profession.
Colwin, who is not the only lawyer linked with Gordon Rees to work for Fox News (fellow legal analyst and anchor Gregg Jarrett also once worked at the firm), is hardly the first Big Law partner-turned-pundit to stir up controversy.
Earlier this year, Greenberg Traurig’s Rudy Giuliani, no stranger to politically controversial statements, made waves after he told Fox News that he had been involved in the initial planning of President Donald Trump’s first executive order barring refugees from certain predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. Giuliani, a senior adviser to Greenberg Traurig executive chairman Richard Rosenbaum, saw the latter issue a statement distancing himself from the former New York City mayor’s comments.
“I believe as attorneys, as legal analysts and as human beings, if we make mistakes, we should apologize for them,” said Lisa Bloom, a high-profile plaintiffs lawyer and women’s rights advocate. “That’s really all you can do—you can’t go back in time and fix your mistakes.”
Bloom, who has served as an on-air legal analyst for several networks, faced her own backlash in October after she defended disgraced media mogul Harvey Weinstein in a New York Times story that alleged he had sexually harassed women for over three decades in Hollywood.
While she declined to discuss her work for Weinstein, Bloom said that mistakes like Colwin’s happen over the course of a legal analyst’s career. The best thing one can do is apologize and hope that the audience and public will accept it and forgive an individual if their only crime is saying something stupid, she said.
“When you’re on live TV day after day, year after year, you’re going to make mistakes,” Bloom said. “As somebody who’s made mistakes, sometimes very big mistakes and sometimes very publicly, is it’s embarrassing and [you] get a lot of hate and anger. [But] I think we have bigger issues to deal with in this country other than pundits making a dumb comment on TV.”