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Law Firms Mostly Quiet in Fight Over Georgia Voting Rights (4)

April 7, 2021, 4:32 PM; Updated: April 7, 2021, 10:45 PM

As corporate leaders continue a public pressure campaign against changes to Georgia’s voting law that have sparked a national debate, the country’s largest law firms so far are staying on the sidelines.

Bloomberg Law contacted 21 major law firms with offices in Georgia. Nineteen of those firms—including those with hundreds of lawyers in the state, like Alston & Bird, Kilpatrick Townsend, and Eversheds Sutherland—declined to comment or didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

The quiet posture of the firms and their leaders so far on Georgia contrasts with their activities on other fronts this year. Prominent firms have publicly committed to stepping up social justice efforts and have walked away from certain clients following the 2020 presidential election and Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Two also called for President Donald Trump to be removed from office.

King & Spalding and Troutman Pepper, a pair of global firms with deep roots in Atlanta, told Bloomberg Law generally that they oppose voter suppression.

“We support voting rights for all Americans, oppose any undue and discriminatory restrictions to the ballot box, and stand firmly with those who support full and fair access to the voting process in Georgia and across the country,” Troutman Pepper said in statement provided to Bloomberg Law by spokeswoman Diane Iselin.

King & Spalding in a similar statement said the firm has a “long history of supporting nonpartisan election protection initiatives and we are committed to continuing this work.”

General statements are not enough, according to Lauren Stiller Rikleen, an attorney and consultant who is on the steering committee for advocacy group Lawyers Defending American Democracy.

“We need firms with some of the greatest legal minds in the country to do more than say, ‘We’re in favor of the right to vote,’” said Stiller Rikleen, who was previously president of the Boston Bar Association. “We need those legal minds and their resources to be actively engaged in protecting the right to vote.”

The group, led by former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger and a number of Big Law alums, recently issued an open letter calling on firms to take action to fight the Georgia law. It wants firms to pour money into pro bono efforts and refuse to take meetings or schedule events “in states that disenfranchise minority voters.”

Paul Weiss Chairman Brad Karp is so far the only leader of an AmLaw 100 firm to sign onto the letter. The firm, which partnered with the NAACP to provide voting rights assistance during the Senate runoff in Georgia, does not currently have an office in the state and has not publicly detailed any specific actions it is taking in response to the new law.

“It takes a lot for law firms in large numbers to come out on the side of a public debate like that,” said James Jones, director of Georgetown Law’s program on Trends in Law Practice. “Most firms are partnerships and are reluctant to take what’s perceived as partisan positions because they may have partners with very different views.”

“Law firms also have clients, and those clients may also have different views,” Jones said.

‘Serious Consequences’

The new Georgia law steps up voter identification requirements, makes it easier to challenge voter eligibility, and gives state legislature control over the state elections board. It does not include other controversial provisions, such as a proposed ban on Sunday voting.

Karp, the Paul Weiss chairman, has asked the leaders of the 100 largest law firms in the country to sign on to a general statement denouncing “all efforts to restrict the constitutional right of every eligible American to vote and to participate in our democracy,” according to an email obtained by Bloomberg Law. The statement doesn’t specifically reference Georgia.

Fifteen firms have signed on to the statement, Karp told other industry leaders in a Tuesday email.

Those firms are: Akin Gump; Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton; Cravath Swaine & Moore; Davis Polk & Wardwell; Debevoise & Plimpton; Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson; Milbank; Morgan, Lewis & Bockius; O’Melveny & Myers; Ropes & Gray; Simpson Thacher; Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom; Sullivan & Cromwell; Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz; and Weil Gotshal & Manges.

Karp declined to comment.

Jenner & Block, an AmLaw 100 firm headquartered in Chicago, put out its own statement generally decrying new limits on voting rights. The firm, which does not have an office in Georgia, represents organizations challenging election laws in the state and in Arizona.

Prominent Georgia companies like Coca-Cola Co. and Delta Air Lines Inc. have directly slammed the law, which critics say is a thinly-veiled effort to curtail voting after the state tipped narrowly in favor of Democrats in the recent elections.

Major League Baseball also pulled the annual All-Star Game from Atlanta in response to the new voting requirements.

The moves prompted criticism from prominent Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who on April 5 warned companies of “serious consequences” if they use their power to support what he termed as far-left causes.

“Parts of the private sector keep dabbling in behaving like a woke parallel government,” McConnell said.

—With reporting by Steven T. Dennis

(Updated to include information on statement circulated to major law firms.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Opfer in New York at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; Allie Reed in Washington at areed@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor on this story: John Hughes in Washington at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com

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