The recent news that Linklaters obtained an injunction preventing its former CMO from sharing information to expose the firm’s alleged struggle with women in the workplace gave us food for thought. Is it always better to keep your dirty laundry out of the public eye?
From a reputational perspective the answer is, usually, yes. Faced with the option of being vilified by the media exposing such stories, it’s easy to see why a firm would choose to try to stay quiet. The public consuming any such media reports begins to form a view of the company or firm at the heart of the matter, its culture and attitudes of those at the top with responsibility for setting the tone – as well as judging its reaction to complaints from within. Stories also influence the perceptions of partners, employees, future candidates, suppliers, clients, and regulators alike.
In this instance of course, Linklaters didn’t succeed in quelling the whiff of dirty laundry altogether. Whilst the firm may have kept the details under wraps via means of litigation, the impression remains of an institution with a problem. Injunctions are a risky tool and can sometimes have the contrary effect of drawing attention to the very thing the injuncting party is trying to downplay.
Consider the alternative strategy. Had Linklaters allowed the exposé without looking to silence the messenger, might it actually have created an opportunity? It could have redefined the firm into a #MeToo trailblazer, offering a sincere, robust and public response and highlighted positive action by the firm, illustrating to the public both its abhorrence of an outmoded culture and determination to demonstrate there are consequences for those, no matter how senior or important to the firm, who transgress a newly-implemented zero tolerance policy. Compulsory training and education on expectations could have been rolled out across the firm – yes there would likely have been howls of disapproval from within, at the suggestion that everyone should need to be taught basic behaviour – but then going forward, the onus would fall onto the individual rather than the firm, to defend an accusation that their conduct had fallen short of norms that they should have known was expected.
Sadly Linklaters didn’t take such a bold and forward-looking view. Just think if this giant of law firms had set such a precedent, it might not only have earned a very different reputation on this topic but perhaps the rest of the legal community would have sat up, smelled the coffee, bowed to peer pressure and followed suit.