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"Mea Culpa," Says King & Spalding D.C. Partner

Vivia Chen

May 11, 2011

Fotolia_4559086_XS Just a day or so ago, crisis communications expert Bob Witeck offered King & Spalding a simple bit of advice about the brouhaha over its involvement with the Defense of Marriage Act: Stop talking about it.

But it looks like the firm is taking the opposite route. Instead of letting chair Robert Hays's announcement on April 25—that the firm is withdrawing from the defense of DOMA—be the last word, King & Spalding's Washington, D.C., managing partner, J. Sedwick "Wick" Soller, insists on falling on his own sword. Soller's latest statement, reports sibling publication the Daily Report (subscription required), says:

Although our chairman Robert Hays has issued a short statement saying he assumed ultimate responsibility for any mistakes that were made, I want to make sure the record is clear that I was the member of firm management in primary contact with Paul Clement regarding this matter. As I have reflected on this, despite the fact that our standard client/matter review process was not followed, it was reasonable for him to believe that the firm would accept the matter. This was an unfortunate misunderstanding with a friend whom I personally recruited to the firm and strongly supported. I am deeply disappointed by Paul's departure and regret the breakdown in communications.

Soller's statement certainly sheds more light on how the firm came to accept, then reject, taking on the DOMA matter--and why Clement resigned from the firm in a huff. But the big question is this: Does it take the heat off King & Spalding's management, or does it make the firm look disorganized and defensive? 

The impact will likely be mixed, says Witeck, who calls Soller's statement "stunning." It shows that Soller "sincerely believes he is uniquely culpable for the firm's missteps," and that "he wants to 'man up' and clarify who ultimately is accountable for the errors of communications and judgment," says Witeck.

Soller's statement "modestly helps" the firm's contention that the firm "likely would not have accepted the assignment at all," explains Witeck, but for the fact that the "vetting process that was short-circuited."

But Witeck warns that King & Spalding might be opening up another Pandora's box "by continuing to play out the drama in public. . . . It will raise more gossip and questions about how and when big firms are competent to manage these kinds of decisions."

Reader, is it better to tell all, or let the matter drop?


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I'm stunned mostly by the news that someone in law firm management has, however vaguely, taken responsibility for something besides other people's work. Amazing!

RIght. "I'm not sorry we rolled over on a client under political pressure, I'm just sorry the aggrieved partner inexplicably misunderstood our stellar intentions." How long has it been since we read a public apology that said something other than "I regret it if anyone was inexplicably offended"?

What strikes me about this latest statement is the passivity and abstraction of Soller's language. I'm amazed that this indirect, vague jumble of what didn't happen passes for a "mea culpa" at all, much less a "stunning" one.

I shouldn't be surprised, given that this story is located at the intersection of two cultures renowned for weaselly words: law and politics. It’s a perfect storm. I’ll definitely be blogging about this!

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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