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An Uncomfortable Client

Vivia Chen

March 2, 2014

I know clients are sacred commodities these days, but for the life of me I cannot figure out why a firm like Mayer Brown needs clients fighting this kind of cause.
Recently, the firm sued the city of Glendale, California in federal court, seeking the removal from a city park of a statue honoring "comfort women"—women from Korea, China, and other parts of Asia who were forced into sexual slavery by Japan to service its military during World War II. (The bronze memorial depicts a young girl in traditional Korean clothes, sitting on a chair, next to an empty chair.)
I was never a litigator, but the complaint in Gingery v. City of Glendale strikes me as rambling and not terribly artful. Basically, it argues that the plaintiffs (two Japanese Americans and a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing "accurate and fact-based educational resources" about World War II) are "offended" by the statue.
At one point, the complaint notes that one plaintiff is troubled that the statue "presents an unfairly one-sided portrayal of the historical and political debate surrounding comfort women and presents the potential to disrupt the United States' strategic alliances with its closest East Asian allies, Japan and South Korea." Later, the complaint says the statue is so offensive to the plaintiff that it is "effectively denying [the plaintiff] full enjoyment of the Park's benefits."
At this point, you're probably saying to yourself, as I did, "Really? Seriously?" Indeed, it's hard to believe anyone could make such politically tune-deaf, revisionist arguments with a straight face.

But just in case you're not moved by the plaintiffs' plight, the complaint also throws in some constitutional arguments—that the statue "unconstitutionally intrudes on the Executive Branch's authority to conduct American foreign policy."


But let's return to the original question: Why on earth did Mayer Brown take on this case? (I asked the firm to comment but it declined; its spokesperson said the firm doesn't comment about on-going litigation.)

As you can imagine, there's been vehement condemnation about this representation. Legal Satyricon gets rather emotional, calling Mayer Brown "the least honorable law firm in the world." Hyperbole aside, it makes the very valid argument that this is not a case where an unpopular defendant (like a child pornographer) needs defense or where principles like free speech are at stake. As fighting the good fight goes, this one just isn't good enough.

Above the Law's David Lat also asks some pointed questions—like "how much the plaintiffs are paying Mayer Brown to handle this matter and who is funding the litigation. . . do the plaintiffs have ties to existing corporate clients of the firm?"

We might never know those answers, but what's clear is that Mayer Brown has a lot more to lose than gain with this case. For one, the firm seems very vested in China (it has four offices there)—which makes its representation in this matter particularly insensitive if not downright stupid.

So stupid, in fact, that I don't think this is a matter of greed or giving into powerful clients. I could be totally wrong, but I have a feeling that not a lot of discussion went into taking on this case.

Which raises another question in my mind: Would Mayer Brown or any firm go near this case if the clients were Holocaust deniers who were offended by a statue memorializing victims of Nazism?

I'll leave that discussion to you. For now, I'm willing to give Mayer Brown the benefit of a doubt and just call it a matter of sloppy vetting.

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Image: from Wikipedia—Chinese and Malaysian women and girls during World War II.


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This is pretty frivolous and a rather poor example of litigating. Obviously, the plaintiffs lack standing to assert claims that the statue interferes with the foreign policy making power of the United States. Only the Justice Department can assert such claims. It is a rather poor advertisement for the quality of Mayer Brown's work. Is there really any dispute about the slavery of the comfort women? Denial of a fact does not make a controversy. It only makes a bogus Fox News style controversy.

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About The Careerist

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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