Pond Lehocky Stern Giordano, a high-profile Mid-Atlantic workers' compensation and social security disability law firm is a prolific advertiser. This advertising has led to ever-increasing visibility and awareness for the firm in the region's legal and business marketplace. Heightened visibility and awareness for a business, however, does not always bring with it the kinds of attention businesses covet. This was the case with a recent article by the Philadelphia Inquirer, which shined a spotlight on Pond Lehocky's ownership of a pharmacy. The tone of the article was not positive. But the firm's response to the Inquirer article as well as a second article that ran in this publication demonstrates an effective communications strategy that law firms can employ to engage the media and the court of public opinion when they or their clients are on the receiving end of negative publicity so as to help prevent reputational and business harm.
On Sunday, Sept. 24, The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a front page article (which was posted online the previous Friday) raising questions about the propriety and ethics of the ownership interests of some Pond Lehocky attorneys in a pharmacy to which Pond Lehocky apparently refers its clients (and their medical providers). At issue is whether an ownership interest by lawyers in a pharmacy it refers clients to is a violation of the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct. The Inquirer article included comments from Sam Pond, one of Pond Lehocky's name partners, as well as Abraham Reich of Fox Rothschild, Pond Lehocky's outside ethics counsel. However, the tone of the article suggested that there was something unethical about the practice.
On Sept. 26, The Legal Intelligencer also ran an article about this issue. In the article, reporter Max Mitchell focused on the ethical implications of the business practice. Reich was quoted extensively in the article.
Finally, around the time these two articles were published, Pond Lehocky posted on its website a response to the Inquirer's article. The response challenges assertions in the Inquirer article, provides more information about the firm's relationship with the pharmacy, and contains testimonials from the firm's clients about their experiences with the pharmacy.
Do you see a pattern emerging from the two articles and the website response? In each instance, Pond Lehocky or its outside attorney made an effort to tell the firm's side of the story and control the narrative. In the Inquirer article, Pond and Reich took the opportunity to explain why there was nothing untoward about the business arrangement. In this publication's article, Reich again explained why there were no ethical problems with the business arrangement. And, Pond Lehocky's statement on its website allows it to communicate—directly and unfiltered—with its clients, attorneys, staff and the general public about the issue. Given the nature of the internet as a communications medium, with this statement the firm is able to provide the public with as much information the firm believes is necessary to rebut any suggestion by media reports or third parties that its attorneys' ownership interests in the pharmacy is unethical–-without worrying about an outside editor's efforts to alter or limit that information.
Pond Lehocky's strategy of aggressively telling its side of the story and attempting to control the narrative is a gift to the local legal and business community. Unknowingly, the firm has charitably provided to the community a three-part blueprint that other lawyers should consider employing when their own business practices or their clients' legal issues draw media or public scrutiny.
Pond Lehocky decided that it was not going to ignore requests from reporters to comment on this issue. Had it done so, these two articles would likely have stated that the firm declined to comment. This would have been problematic for two reasons. First, without comment from Pond or Reich, it is doubtful that any other sources interviewed for the articles would have offered the kind of full-throated defenses of the arrangement that Pond and Reich did. Second, by providing such a defense, readers of the articles are forced to consider the fact that maybe there is nothing to see here. After all, the thinking goes, why would two attorneys go on the record and forcefully defend this practice if it was so unethical and wrong? Note that the inverse is often true: silence in the court of public opinion often leads to a presumption of guilt. The thinking being that if parties aren't willing to go on the record and defend their actions, those actions must be indefensible. Otherwise, the parties would have spoken up. By willingly commenting on the record to the media about this business practice, Pond Lehocky both affirmatively told its side of the story and avoided this dreaded presumption of guilt.
In response to media coverage about this business practice, Pond Lehocky makes no apologies for investing in a pharmacy as a way for it to fight for the rights of injured workers. The firm suggests that actions by its frequent foes–insurance companies–forced the firm's hand. The firm further suggests that some of the information that appeared in the Inquirer's article was provided by these same insurance companies. This aggressive, pro-worker, anti-insurance-company theme is virtually identical to the firm's ordinary branding. The firm typically positions itself as the David to the insurance companies' Goliath, aggressively fighting the good fight on behalf of its clients who did nothing wrong other than show up for work on the fateful day they were injured on the job. And, like most plaintiffs firms, the firm speaks publicly as if it has a chip on its shoulder. In other words, Pond Lehocky's response to this media coverage is exactly what you would expect from the firm. By responding in this manner to the suggestion of its own unethical conduct, the firm is defending its reputation while also reminding its clients and the region's legal community why clients and referring attorneys choose to work with the firm. That is not a coincidence—it is savvy marketing.
With the state of technology today, there is no shortage of ways for law firms and clients to tell their side of a legal dispute directly to the firms' and clients' most important audiences. Firms and their clients should be considering how they could use their corporate websites, social media accounts, blogs and email newsletters to convey this information. Each of these tools can be used to convey different kinds of information. With no word limits, websites and blogs can offer a point-by-point rebuttal of a negative news article, an explanation of why supposedly unbiased "experts" have a vested interest in taking an adversarial stance against a firm or client, or the transcript of an interview. Social media can be used to share favorable news articles or briefly rebut negative news articles. And email newsletters can be helpful in sending highly targeted messages to particular audiences, such as employees, clients, or business partners. Best of all, most firms and clients already have this technology up and running. They only need to create the necessary content to disseminate publicly. Pond Lehocky did just that. Sure, there was a time commitment involved when the firm decided to draft the statement it posted on its website. But a few hours of a few attorneys' time will easily pay for itself when that investment prevents at least one current or prospective client from going elsewhere for their legal services–or even brings new clients into the fold.
In the court of public opinion, you either control the narrative or someone else does it for you. If lawyers and their clients allow the latter to occur, they almost certainly are asking for damage to their reputations and business interests. In certain situations, that damage can be fatal. Only time will tell the impact of this recent media attention on Pond Lehocky's reputation and business. But when faced with negative publicity about its business practice, Pond Lehocky made a decision that many lawyers and their clients choose not to make: Pond Lehocky decided it would make its voice heard and seek to control the narrative. When faced with similar situations, other law firms and lawyers would be wise to follow suit. •
Wayne Pollock is the founder and managing attorney of Copo Strategies in Philadelphia, a boutique law firm that helps other attorneys and clients make those clients' cases in the court of public opinion. He is also a director at Baretz+Brunelle, a national communications firm that has been named the "Best PR Firm for Law Firms" by The National Law Journal and the New York Law Journal. Contact him at 215-454-2180 or @waynepollock_cs on Twitter.