Brown Rudnick is making brand and reputation management part of growth plans after its Johnny Depp defamation trial victory, touting clients that include an NBA star, a “Yellowstone” actor and a Fox News-suing Venezuelan businessman.
Firm leaders have pegged the practice as one of five “pillars” of an overall operation they plan to expand 20% in lawyer headcount over three years. Camille Vasquez and Benjamin Chew, two lawyers who helped actor Depp get his win, took charge of the 30-lawyer practice about three months after the June victory.
“More people are paying attention” to protecting reputations, Vasquez said. “You can win in the court of law, but if you lose in the court of public opinion—you’ve lost.”
Emphasizing legal work that attracts celebrities such as Depp, Cher and Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, is unusual in Big Law. Reputation management, which is part of the Brown Rudnick practice, has typically been the province of public relations shops.
But branding and identifying target markets are widely understood benefits across corporate America, said law firm consultant Bruce MacEwen. “In principle, BR’s strategy should be sound and time-tested,” he said.
There are risks. “Hitching your wagon to high-profile and often volatile, impulsive, high-beta celebrities can be a recipe for disaster,” MacEwen said.
The firm last month dropped Ye because of anti-Semitic remarks, including his tweet that said he wanted to go “death con 3 on Jewish people.” Around that time, he was also seen wearing a “White Lives Matter” t-shirt.
Vasquez and Chew said that some reports falsely implied the firm signed him as a client after his remarks. The representation began in September, Vasquez said, “well before the White Lives Matter T-shirt and before the anti-Semitic remarks.”
“We as a firm, as attorneys, as people—we do not support anti-Semitism, racism or bigotry of any kind, full stop,” she said.
Brown Rudnick, a Boston-founded firm that American Lawyer ranks just inside the top 150 firms by revenue, gained heavy publicity in Depp’s June 1 win of $15 million in compensatory and punitive damages from ex-wife Amber Heard.
Less than a week after the Depp award, the firm promoted Vasquez, who had a high-profile role in the trial.
The firm is now working on a potentially much larger defamation payout. It represents Venezuelan businessman Majed Khalil, who is suing Fox Corp., Fox News Network and former Fox talk show host Lou Dobbs for $250 million.
Khalil claims Fox and Dobbs defamed him by alleging he helped rig the 2020 election against President Donald Trump in cahoots with voting machine makers Smartmatic Corp. and Dominion Voting Systems. In late September, a federal judge in New York rejected a motion to dismiss the case.
Vasquez and Chew, who both joined Brown Rudnick in 2018 from Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, have also signed on “Yellowstone” star Q’orianka Kilcher. The California Department of Insurance in July alleged Kilcher broke the law in collecting more than $90,000 in disability benefits.
Brown Rudnick also includes among its clients Sacramento Kings center Richaun Holmes, accused by his ex-wife of physically abusing their 6-year-old son, Vasquez confirmed. He faces allegations “in spite of the fact that three different courts in two different states have awarded him full custody of his child,” she said.
Brand and reputation management is one of five firm pillars along with tech, life sciences, global litigation, and crisis management, which includes restructuring, said firm CEO Vincent Guglielmotti.
The group represents corporations and sovereign nations, in addition to celebrities, he said. The work includes tax, reputation defense, real estate, and guidance over launching non-fungible tokens.
“Our mission is to help clients in every arena establish and grow their businesses and brands,” said Guglielmotti, who took over June 15 as the youngest leader in firm history at age 41.
The firm plans to expand its lawyer headcount to more than 300 over the next three years from its current number of 254, Guglielmotti said. The firm declined to cite the number of hires it plans in the brand and reputation management area.
Large law firms often have handled brand and reputation management work separately, said law firm consultant Kent Zimmermann. The “brand” side is sometimes known as intellectual property practices that include trademark, copyright, and licensing work.
Separately, a smaller number of firms have formed defamation and reputation management practices around “high net worth” individuals who typically aren’t celebrities, he said. Still, such practices aren’t widespread in Big Law.
Dale Cohen, director of UCLA Law’s Documentary Film Legal Clinic, said he wonders if reputation management fits with other mainstay Big Law practices, which focus more on corporate clients and less on wealthy individuals.
“I do not believe that lawyers are the best tool for reputation management,” Cohen said. “Trials often don’t get us to the truth.”