Law firms provoke curiosity in wake of vexing releases

NEW YORK and SAN FRANCISCO: On September 3, New York-based law firm Latham & Watkins issued a press release announcing the appointment of corporate lawyer Frode Jensen. But the following day, Pillsbury Winthrop - the San Francisco firm where Jensen previously served as co-head of the M&A practice - issued a release in response. It said Jensen's departure, after 14 years at Pillsbury, "comes on the heels of sexual harassment allegations."

NEW YORK and SAN FRANCISCO: On September 3, New York-based law firm Latham & Watkins issued a press release announcing the appointment of corporate lawyer Frode Jensen. But the following day, Pillsbury Winthrop - the San Francisco firm where Jensen previously served as co-head of the M&A practice - issued a release in response. It said Jensen's departure, after 14 years at Pillsbury, "comes on the heels of sexual harassment allegations."

Neither firm would comment about the unusual situation, but the dogfight garnered significant press coverage from The New York Times and Bloomberg, among other outlets, and gave many experts pause.

Allan Ripp, a press relations specialist who represents several law firms, said that Pillsbury should not be faulted for wanting to clarify any misconceptions, but that the method the firm used was not appropriate. "Vengeance is damaging when it comes across in a press release. The vindictive tone Pillsbury conveys raises questions about the firm that wouldn't have been asked before," he said.

By choosing to send out the retaliatory release, Jeff Barge, owner of a PR advisory practice, agreed that Pillsbury positioned itself negatively.

He said the firm essentially sent out a public statement saying "its own internal systems for preventing sexual harassment failed. That's not a very encouraging signal to be sending to clients."

Barge added that sending out such a statement was not consistent with good PR practices. "The release is shocking in the overwhelming disdain Pillsbury displays for the value of the expertise of the PR industry.

No competent PR executive would have advised a law firm to issue a release like this."

Phil Goldberg, VP of litigation communications for Ketchum, said, "From a PR perspective, this does seem odd." But he was reluctant to criticize Pillsbury. "You don't know what's going on behind the scenes in a situation like this. Law firms are cautious by nature, which suggests there had to be reasons beyond what we know for them to issue such a release."

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