We’re living in an era in which everything gets politicized. For law firms and businesses broadly, this state of affairs has dramatically changed the calculus when it comes to stepping into politics.
Corporate America has by-and-large been content to sit on the sidelines or remain behind the scenes when it comes to politics. The same goes for Big Law, which is cautious by nature and has studiously avoided getting into politics for any reason. In the current environment, however, that position is becoming more untenable.
Politics has become increasingly pervasive in our culture—and with that comes a public that is more engaged—and divided—than ever. The media is watching how corporate America reacts to social and political developments. There are greater expectations for businesses, especially those that claim to be values-oriented, to acknowledge and act on the issues facing our country.
We’ve reached a point at which saying or doing nothing is frequently perceived negatively. It’s begun with consumer brands and will affect businesses of all kinds. As a result, more and more businesses, including law firms, now find themselves taking a stand.
Guidelines for Taking a Stand
To navigate these new expectations, law firms should follow three guidelines.
1. Understand Your Audience
Any action must take into consideration the motivations and values of current clients, prospective clients, business partners, and employees. When taking a stand on a political issue, make sure it’s consistent with the firm’s values and those of its audiences.
Forward-thinking firms understand the long-term benefit of living up to their values and make the strategic decision to take a stand. Audiences that share those values will reward them.
For example, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matters protests sweeping the country, law firms that stood up with commitments to the fight against systemic racism, with Skadden in the lead, showed their teams and clients that they were ready to live their values.
2. Plan for What’s Next
Being proactive doesn’t mean always engaging—but keeping heads down no longer guarantees safety. Whether taking a stand or remaining quiet, a firm’s decision must be well-considered.
When political events as dangerous as those this month take place, ignoring the issue carries risks. Have a position and be ready to communicate it. If the firm issues a policy or statement, they should share it widely both internally and with clients. If not, individual practice groups or partners should be prepared to address questions from clients about where they stand, factoring in their values and those of their constituencies.
If the judgment is not to act, firms should be prepared for any pressure they may face. The polarization of public opinion, cable news, and social media makes staking out any kind of middle ground significantly harder and will keep our country divided even after a new president is sworn in.
And while we don’t know what the next consuming crisis will be, we know another one lies ahead in our current climate. Firms should develop guiding principles that lay out their values, standby statements for different scenarios, and potential answers to hard questions. The more prepared a firm is, the quicker and more confidently it can act when a crisis materializes.
3. Develop a Nimble Mindset
The rules for corporate engagement in politics have already changed dramatically in just the past few years. But this month’s violence at the Capitol was at such a different scale that the rulebook was thrown out yet again.
The events created new urgency about the issues the country is facing and the deleterious effects President Trump’s pervasive lies have had on our country.
Because our political leaders are failing us again, the public increasingly expects businesses to step in to guide the way. The business world is no stranger to stepping up when the government has failed to act—as they did with gun safety, when brands like Dick’s and Walmart banned firearms from their shelves and with the many corporate commitments to combat climate change as the current administration rolls back environmental protections instead.
Since Jan. 6, we’ve seen companies take unprecedented actions that reflect a desire to rise above party politics and do right by our country. From pulling political donations from those who instigated the violence at the Capitol to calling for Trump’s resignation or the invocation of the 25th Amendment, companies are stepping up and turning up the pressure on our political leaders. The companies that act first and lead the way for others, as Crowell & Moring has done by calling for Trump’s removal from office, will get an outsized benefit.
While it may be tempting to think of what happened this month as an exception instead of an existential threat, the changes to our political and corporate culture have moved us rapidly into unchartered territory and will continue to do so. Our country likely is heading down a path on which corporate America in general and Big Law specifically will have to step in and quickly take a stand in the face of politically volatile situations.
The time to prepare is now.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Michael Gordon is principal of Group Gordon, a strategic communications firm that works with corporate and public affairs clients including law firms, financial services, professional services, public policy, and many other industries. A former attorney with Skadden Arps, Gordon worked in the Clinton White House and as spokesperson for the Clinton Justice Department.