Client Pushback Over Trump No Skin Off BigLaw’s Nose
Law360, New York (April 4, 2017, 8:21 PM EDT) — Despite the highly publicized and scathing letter sent to Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP last week by a client kicking the law firm to the curb over its representation of President Donald Trump, BigLaw firms are not likely to start sweating their ties to Trump anytime soon.
The media hoopla surrounding the March 28 letter from Wallace Global Fund co-chair H. Scott Wallace eviscerating the law firm for “enabling” alleged conflicts of interest through its tax advice to the president has raged over the past week, but experts say Morgan Lewis and other law firms that represent Trump don’t have too much to worry about when it comes to pushback from clients.
Law firms that have represented Trump include Morgan Lewis, Jones Day, Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP and Arnold & Porter LLP.
In general, large law firms represent a number of people and entities that could potentially be seen by certain clients as morally reprehensible, including white collar defendants, corporations accused of fraud and tobacco companies, but that doesn’t mean they should or will be boycotted, according to Kent Zimmermann, a consultant with Zeughauser Group.
“Everybody has a right to representation under our system. I think that’s a strength of our judicial system and society and I think it’s a slippery slope to start to criticize law firms based on their client lists,” Zimmermann said.
He added that, as someone who is not a Trump supporter, he wouldn’t be eager to represent the president, but “I think law firms have a duty collectively, as a profession, to make sure everybody has representation.”
Whether or not the criticism of Morgan Lewis is appropriate, there’s no indication that the type of activism Wallace Global Fund engaged in will become commonplace.
Wallace Global is a progressive investment fund that adheres to principles of “asset activism” — a far cry from the large, publicly traded companies that are the bread-and-butter of large law firms.
“In this case, Wallace Global promotes itself as a leader in the ‘asset activism movement,’ meaning they’re trying to appeal to the most left-leaning and activist-leaning investors and potential investors, and that will translate to cutting ties with firms like Morgan Lewis,” Howard Breuer, co-founder of Cavalry PR, said.
“Any other fund claiming to be part of this same movement or that’s trying to appeal to the same investor demographic is scrutinizing its relationships in the same way and is likely to follow Wallace Global’s lead,” he added.
But the buck will likely stop at small and privately owned clients, according to Mark Jungers, co-founder of Lippman Jungers LLC.
“No large, public client is going to make a decision like that,” Jungers said. “I don’t think they’re under enough pressure to distance themselves from the administration.”
In fact, some corporations’ interests align with the policies of the Trump administration, he said.
“These are sophisticated businesspeople and I think they’re going to make business decisions. Using the best law firm is a good business decision, regardless of who their other clients are,” Jungers added.
Morgan Lewis’ representation of the president and the publicity it has received as a result could also end up helping the law firm, according to Hugh Simons, a legal industry consultant.
“I think the net effect might actually be positive for Morgan Lewis because they gain more from the fame and notoriety than they lose from those who find it reprehensible,” Simons said.
Additionally, working with the White House, regardless of who is in office, is still a ticket to business and prestige, said Allan Ripp of Ripp Media.
Members of the current administration will move on to new jobs in a few years, taking general counsel positions with major clients or landing at prestigious law firms, and having those relationships is “golden,” Ripp said.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a mass defection, or a tipping point,” he said. “The agendas of major corporate clients are still consistent with many of the things the administration is trying to do — growth, jobs, tax rates, rolling back in regulations — they want as much help as they can get.”
Additionally, the Wallace Global Fund paid Morgan Lewis just under $80,000 for legal services in the most recent fiscal year, tax records published online by The American Lawyer show, a drop in the bucket for a law firm like Morgan Lewis.
“It’s not like Goldman Sachs is leaving,” Jungers said. “Law firms don’t even like $80,000 clients because they create conflicts. These law firms are built on representing clients that give them millions of dollars a year worth of work.”
According to Ripp, unless there’s a major crisis of some sort caused by Trump that would precipitate impeachment, law firms are likely to proceed as they have with past presidential administrations — representing leaders of all political stripes in a variety of matters.
By Aebra Coe
–Editing by Pamela Wilkinson and Catherine Sum.