How to deal with the media – and when

Every so often, attorneys find themselves working on a case that generates some media interest. These big-verdict civil cases, or high-profile criminal cases, or cases with a party who is famous (or infamous) or who the public is interested in for whatever reason can certainly provide some attention for the attorneys involved as well.

For young attorneys, these types of cases can expand upon or create a reputation, a commodity in this field. But these cases also present questions on the manner of handling that attention, especially in decisions as to whether the attorney should have any communication with the media.

The decision of whether to make a statement should not be one made in consideration of the individual attorney, or the attorney’s firm, or in consideration of future clients. It has to be made based upon what is in the best interest of the current client. Attorneys have clients that want to set a record straight or make sure their story that was told in trial is told accurately in print. That’s fair, and as their representative, an attorney should make sure the proper information is passed along.

At the same time, however, many clients, especially criminal or civil defendants would just as soon put the entire case behind them, and a story in the media would just bring additional and prolonged attention. Similarly, a successful plaintiff may be hesitant to have press coverage about a judgement for fear that distant relatives may come out of the woodwork looking for a “loan.” As tempting as it may be for a young attorney to get his or her name in the paper after a big win, if having a story, or participating in the story is not in the best interest of the client, it should not be done.

Either way, an attorney should talk to his or her client about the potential for press. An attorney, and especially a young attorney never want a client to find out about a story by reading it in the paper or seeing it on the evening news. This situation is worsened if the client’s attorney is featured in the story. An attorney should talk to the client about the story, what it will be about and what the slant likely will be so that the client will know what to expect and can make an informed decision if he or she wants any statement made.

Additionally, a young attorney should get clearance for any public comment on a case from a senior attorney at the firm. An attorney is not only representative of his or her client, and his or herself, but also the firm, and any comment that may impact the firm’s representation or how clients view the firm should be vetted and checked before given. Even a solo attorney should consider ethical implications of a statement and talk to a trusted colleague before a decision is made.

On the occasions when an attorney reviews the situation and decides that giving a statement is appropriate, he or she should take the time to think about and write out the statement. Statements can be read to or sent to journalists, and most journalists allow an attorney time to come up with something more insightful than “We’re happy with the result,” a line I have used before.

Just as the decision to make a statement should be carefully considered, so should the words of the statement. Whatever information given should be accurate and in the best interest of the client, just as if the information was given at trial in a closing argument.

There will be many more cases and many more opportunities for the spotlight. The consideration for each case, from the inception to any media coverage at the conclusion, should be for the person for whom it is the only case.  An attorney who considers that will probably make the right decision.

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