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US College Bribery Scandal Sees One Big Law Firm Score A ‘D’ For Crisis Management

Caplan US college scandal

John Bowie* Willkie Farr & Gallagher has placed its co-chairman, Gordon Caplan on a leave of absence following the US college fraud scheme that has lead to the arrests of dozens of people and embroiled actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlan.

The scandal involves bribes used to get the children of wealthy individuals, including CEOs, fashion designers, actors and – it would seem – attorneys, to get their children into colleges, including Yale and Stanford.

said on Wednesday it had placed co-Chairman Gordon Caplan on a leave of absence following charges involving a U.S. college fraud scheme.

Caplan was arrested but the scandal failed to solicit information from the major law firm, which leads to questions as to the way it handles crisis management in such matters.

There had been a statement that referred to an outside PR consultant that suggested the co-chair had been on a ‘leave of absence’ and no longer held management responsibilities.

Then silence.

Law.com reported lawyer and marketer Gina Rubel, who helps in crisis preparation matters, who said “There is no way anyone could have guessed that something like this would happen. It’s out of left field, which is exactly why there’s such public outrage.”

Unexpected or not, the fact is lawyers are also designed to handle crises, including their own. When crises break, then the lawyers get talking, not listening to the Sounds of Silence.

“The firm will continue to be managed by its Chairmen, Steven Gartner and Thomas Cerabino, and its Executive Committee,” the U.S. firm said in a statement.

Federal authorities arrested dozens of people on Tuesday for a $25 million scheme to help wealthy Americans, including actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and some CEOs, cheat their children’s way into elite universities, such as Yale and Stanford.

Caplan’s most prominent client is Canadian department store chain Hudson’s Bay Co, which also owns the Saks Fifth Avenue luxury retailer.

  1. Thank you for sharing my quote from the Law.com article. To get the full picture, I suggest you refer to https://www.law.com/mid-market-report/2019/03/19/crisis-lessons-in-the-immediate-aftermath-of-the-college-admissions-scandal/

    In the article, I said:

    “As a professional observer to the firm’s crisis response, it is measured and lukewarm. It’s also odd that the statement was issued by a crisis communications professional as opposed to a spokesperson from the law firm. …

    Lesson #1: A company statement should almost always come from a spokesperson with leadership responsibilities.

    Lesson #2: Statements should be shared where the audiences are. By not sharing it more publicly, people are drawing their own conclusions. The statement also is deficient. What about Caplan’s clients? Shouldn’t the firm have said something—even if it simply set up a hotline for interested clients and parties to call regarding their legal representation.

    Lesson #3: Consider all audiences.I was contacted by a reporter from The American Lawyer to discuss the firm’s public handling of the matter. The article, Willkie, College Admissions and the Crisis Management Playbook, quoted me saying: “There is no way anyone could have guessed that something like this would happen. It’s out of left field, which is exactly why there’s such public outrage.” I further opined that while firms plan for natural disasters, cyber breaches and, increasingly, the prospect of seeing lawyers ensnared in situations of lawyers behaving badly and #MeToo allegations, no one could have anticipated this. The article notes, “predicting a $75,000 payment aimed at fixing a college test score would be offered long odds.”

    Lesson #4: Expect the unexpected and get ahead of the story. …

    Lesson #5: Communicate openly within the confines of the law. When an attorney is accused of bad behavior and removed from the firm, it is wise to place a notice on the firm’s website (for the short term) with the firm’s official statement. Include what the firm is doing to address any client matters that may be affected or interrupted by the news. Yes, in Caplan’s case, it is a “personal matter,” and it’s a personnel/HR/employment law matter which the firm cannot publicly discuss, however, it is also a client matter which requires due diligence and transparency.

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