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Just a Little Hypocritical?

Vivia Chen

November 13, 2020

Thank goodness law firms are so full of it. I honestly don’t think I’d have as much fun writing this column if firms weren’t so clumsily sanctimonious.

First, let me say that I’ve been around the block. I don’t expect purity from Big Law. I get that firms serve controversial, sometimes yucky, clients. If you eliminated all the polluters, tax dodgers, monopolizers and scoundrels from their roster, almost every brand name firm would close shop tomorrow. And we certainly don’t want that.

It’s not the client that galls me. It’s the hypocrisy.

I’m talking about that small coterie of major firms (the New York Times focused on Jones Day and Porter Wright Morris & Arthur) that are representing President Donald Trump or his cadres as he desperately tries to hold onto the presidency.

Here’s what’s galling: How can firms that profess to value diversity and equality so fervently (see Jones Day and Porter Wright‘s diversity statements) take on matters that amount to minority voter suppression—especially in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the racial justice movement?

More galling: Do firms think we’re too stupid to notice that words won’t glaze over action?

I know, I know, they’ll insist they’re not really involved. That’s what Jones Day argued in its recent statement: “Jones Day is not representing President Trump, his campaign, or any affiliated party in any litigation alleging voter fraud. Jones Day also is not representing any entity in any litigation challenging or contesting the results of the 2020 general election. Media reports to the contrary are false.”

The subtext: ”Fake News.”

If only it were that simple. In the statement, Jones Day digs itself in deeper as it defends its work for the Pennsylvania GOP. (The Republicans are challenging the state’s supreme court order that extended the statutory deadline to return mail-in ballots.) The firm says the case “presents an important and recurring rule-of-law question under the U.S. Constitution.” The firm goes on to say defiantly: “Jones Day will not withdraw from that representation.”

Very high and mighty. I’ll leave the import of the Constitutional issue at stake to scholars. But in my humble opinion, thwarting mail-in ballots smacks of voter suppression. (The Times reported that six Jones Day lawyers thought the lawsuit “would only undermine the public confidence in the election” because the late ballots wouldn’t affect the outcome in Pennsylvania.)  And if you’re touting your creds as a firm that values diversity and equality, it’s eroding your brand.

Porter Wright’s role in post-election challenges is more blatantly reprehensible. According to the Times, the firm recently initiated several lawsuits in Pennsylvania, including one against the Pennsylvania secretary of state and county election boards, “trying to poke holes in the reliability of the election results.”

(Asked for comment, Porter Wright sent me a statement that notes its “long history of election law work” on behalf of Democratic, Republican and independent campaigns. “At times, this calls for us to take on controversial cases,” reads the statement. “We expect criticism in such instances, and we affirm the right of all individuals to express concern and disagreement.”)

Porter Wright’s role in the vote challenge is particularly curious because it’s tried to distinguish itself as a champion for diversity. It recently catapulted to Diversity Lab’s Mansfield Rule list, which recognizes firms with laudable records on promoting women and minorities. Though the Ohio-based firm is hardly a big name, Porter Wright probably picked up some favorable publicity for making that list. And now it’s up there with Jones Day, sharing the spotlight as a firm that suppresses votes and undermines the election process. What a way to go!

All this is to say firms can’t have it both ways—though they will certainly try. As I said, I have a strong stomach for controversial clients. I don’t condemn firms for representing the Harvey Weinsteins, Bin Ladens or Hannibal Lecters of the world. If firms want to represent Donald Trump in the various tax and criminal charges he might face after his presidency, I say go for it. (You might ask for some collateral because he’s skipped out on legal bills.)

But there’s a difference between representing a polarizing client and championing a cause that’s antithetical to a firm’s professed values. There’s something deeply cynical about seeking the disenfranchisement of American voters under the guise of law.

If you’re going to take on work that at its heart is destructive to equal rights, can you at least turn down that noise about diversity, inclusion and justice? It’s really grating.

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Twitter: @lawcareerist

Photo: Pixabay


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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: [email protected]

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