Focus turns to ethical obligations that regulate legal PR

Coral Gables, FL (October 19, 2010) – In today’s world, legal issues and controversies are not only tried in the court of law, but also in the “court” of public opinion. Thus, corporate lawyers are helping their clients manage the public relations impact of their legal controversies. However, up to now there has been little systematic evidence gathered on this new trend and its implications. Moreover, little emphasis has been placed on the way attorneys advocate in the court of public opinion behind the scenes on behalf of corporate rather than individual clients.

In order to analyze the role of corporate lawyers in this area, University of Miami Law Professor Michele DeStefano Beardslee has conducted 57 detailed interviews with general counsels of S&P 500 corporations, law firm partners servicing those corporations, and public relations professionals. Further, she sent a survey to general counsels of all S&P 500 companies which elicited a 28% response rate.

Recently, there has been concern about the ethics of attorneys’ advocacy in the court of public opinion—particularly when attorneys (especially criminal attorneys) act as spokespeople for their clients. Mike Nifong, Eliot Spitzer, and Robert Shapiro are examples of attorneys that have publicly stepped out in support of their clients and been accused of crossing the ethical divide because of how they spoke about and positioned the legal issues.

DeStefano Beardslee’s paper titled, “Advocacy in the Court of Public Opinion, Installment Two: How Far Should Corporate Attorneys Go?” attempts to investigate the existing ethical obligations that regulate attorneys’ management of legal PR. It contends that current ethics rules are not relevant for corporate practice as it relates to public relations. They do not provide adequate guidance to lawyers on how far they may or should go towards using the media in favor of their corporate client when they are not acting as spokespersons but instead are managing legal PR behind the scenes—especially regarding matters that may never reach a court of law. Moreover, the current rules do not actively encourage lawyers to behave socially responsibly or to convince clients to behave socially responsibly in the court of public opinion.

The research has been published by the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics and is available now. The preliminary findings from this study appear in two installments. In the first installment, DeStefano Beardslee focused on how public opinion can shape and affect legal controversies. It also discussed how corporate attorneys manage legal PR for their clients. In the second installment, Prof. DeStefano Beardslee highlights some examples of wrongdoing by corporate attorneys. Due to the fact that professional guidelines put the spotlight on the wrong place and on the wrong subjects, they become irrelevant to corporate practice as it pertains to public relations. Moreover, these professional guidelines risk a race to the bottom — where lawyers’ ability to spin is valued over their ability to provide effective legal advice that accounts for PR concerns and the corporation’s long-term interests. Ultimately, the second installment contends that corporate lawyers should act in a socially responsible manner and counsel their clients to act that way as well. DeStefano Beardslee recommends revised education methods and disciplinary rules to provide better guidance to lawyers as to how to ethically manage legal PR for corporate clients.

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