Practicing Law amid Polarizing Politics

By Melanie C. Hagan posted 02-20-2017 08:51


We’re still in the early days of this new administration, but its impact on lawyers is already making news. Big law firms are grappling with their partners choosing sides in administration matters as well as how partners’ decisions affect firm reputation and other firm clients. For example, even before the inauguration, the California legislature had former Attorney General Eric Holder, now a partner at Covington & Burling, on retainer to challenge policies of the new administration if necessary. The Wall Street Journal opined [Note: this link requires a log in] that Covington & Burling’s partners must think that its corporate clients won’t protest. On the other hand, Sheri Dillon, a tax partner at Morgan Lewis & Bockius, was engaged by the new president and appeared with him at a press conference in mid-January. Morgan Lewis made no official statement at all.

Public interest lawyers are also making an impact. During the last weekend in January, when some arriving international travelers were being detained, lawyers flocked to JFK, Dulles, San Francisco, and other airports to offer assistance. Lawyers continued to show up even days later, causing some to ask whether the new president has “elevated the public’s view of lawyers and the work they do.”  

But what about those of us who don’t work at big law firms or in public interest law? What issues could we face? One blogger asks whether solo and small firms can “afford to be principled” in choosing clients while facing the real financial pressures of running a business. Not surprisingly, she concludes that lawyers have to make their own decisions, not unlike the decisions they’ve faced in their practices before: what can they live with?

Another blogger advises lawyers to avoid talking politics at all with both peers and potential clients. He even offers some suggestions for getting out of uncomfortable political conversations. These suggestions mostly amount to different techniques for changing the topic—such as redirecting the conversation to the latest viral cat video or flattering the speaker while asking for input on an unrelated matter. If all else fails, another option is to simply stare blankly at the person ranting until he or she wanders off.

At the end of the day, whether we’re in a big firm or have a solo practice, we need to think about how much, if at all, the current political climate will affect our professional decisions.