Many of the nation’s most renowned law firms have felt the public relations wallop delivered by law gossip blogs, those online tabloids that can turn an interoffice memo into a virtual billboard of bad news for partners or associates.
Whether the topic is layoffs or love affairs, it seems that no subject is too edgy for sites such as Above the Law, Greedy Associates, AutoAdmit and a few others that dig up the legal profession’s dirt.
The immediacy — and, at times, the brutality — of the media form is presenting a challenge for firms that are wary of their private matters entering the public domain.
“We’re sensitive to the issue that things can very easily end up in cyberspace,” said Mairi Luce, a partner at Duane Morris who also handles associate training and development.
Duane Morris “monitors” the blogs, Luce said, “to see what’s out there in terms of gossip.”
At bonus time last year, Duane Morris sat back and watched while some law firms sent e-mail to associates announcing their bonus amounts, which then were posted on Above The Law and elsewhere.
The postings prompted Duane Morris associates to press management for the details about their own pending bonuses, Luce said, which the firm subsequently disclosed in one-on-one meetings.
Although private meetings do not prevent anyone from revealing the content of a conversation to a gossip blog, they make it more difficult for the information to make the rounds without the glaring reality of a document.
“We’re a little bit more cautious and slower to put information out there,” she said.
A rule to follow
Gossip blogs have created an immediacy of information and a quick way to share comments, compared with newspapers and magazines, said Rodgin Cohen, chairman of Sullivan & Cromwell.
But the rule for law firms to follow has remained the same over time: “With any widely disseminated message, you have to ask if you’re prepared to see it in a publication,” he said.
New York-based Sullivan & Cromwell was highlighted for months on law blogs after former associate Aaron Charney filed a lawsuit in January 2007 alleging that he was subjected to sexual orientation harassment and retaliation by the firm. The case settled last year.
“I accept that publicity is a good disinfectant,” Cohen said.
Still, Sullivan & Cromwell has asked attorneys not to contact press regarding firm matters. And if it is a client matter, “it would be cause for immediate dismissal,” Cohen said.
A law firm can prohibit, as a term of employment, its attorneys from contacting the media about its inner workings, said Sarah Pierce Wimberly, a partner at Ford & Harrison, a labor and employment law firm. Whether the restriction is written or verbal, law firms have the power to fire attorneys if they violate such an agreement, Wimberly said.
But most firms do not have such agreements, she said, partly because their leaders are older and do not realize the impact that leaks to blogs can have.
“There’s a generation gap,” she said. “They need to be cognizant.”
With the rapid posting of innuendo, internal documents and reader comments, gossip blogs have empowered associates in an “information revolution,” said David Lat, editor in chief of Above The Law. His blog gets more than 100,000 hits per day, he said.
The rise of legal-gossip blogs coincided with a great demand for associate help at large law firms beginning about three years ago, he said.
“How much of that empowerment is due to blogs is not clear, but I’m happy to take whatever credit I can,” he said.
Above The Law’s popularity mushroomed with its obsessive attention to associate pay hikes, when attorneys could not post fast enough the news of their firms’ raises. Big law firms that had not increased associate pay were included on the Web site’s “List of Shame.”
With biting sarcasm and often raunchy commentary from readers, Above The Law makes no apologies for posting rumors and gossip, and is careful to note when its information is unsubstantiated. So far, at least, it hasn’t been sued, Lat said.
One of the more popular posts, he said, included that of Nixon Peabody’s pep song, “Everyone’s a Winner,” a funk-inspired tune produced last year and distributed to the firm’s partners and employees after it made Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Places to Work” list. The song also had a link on YouTube.
The law firm’s efforts to bolster teamwork with the song were shredded by blog commenters, one of whom wrote, “This is so embarrassing. Can I rescind my acceptance of NP’s offer?”
The story snowballed after a representative, unidentified by Above The Law, contacted the blog and asserted copyright infringement. Not only did Above The Law keep the link to the song alive, it reported on the law firm’s reaction.
Richard Rochford, chairman of Nixon Peabody’s intellectual property practice, said that, in hindsight, the firm’s reaction was a “PR gaffe.”
“You have to work through the legal consideration and consider whether you want to engage in dealing with it or let it ride,” he said.
Several law firm leaders did not return phone calls or e-mail messages seeking comment for this story. Other leaders said that they did not read Above The Law, Greedy Associates or other gossip blogs.
But having someone in management or upper administration keeping track of gossip blogs, as with any other form of media, is important to help protect the firm’s reputation, Luce said.
“Your firm can get in there,” she said. “You should be aware of what the characterization is and why.”
Besides directing attorneys not to pass along information to gossip blogs, some law firms have used blocking software to keep attorneys from forwarding or printing internal e-mail, Lat said. But people who want to leak information seem to find a way.
In one instance, he received a photo taken from a cellphone of the tipster’s computer screen, which displayed an inter-office e-mail.
“Anything that is visible with the human eye can be leaked,” he said.