CORPORATE CASE STUDY: PR counsel helps take Milberg Weiss' case to the public

While Milberg Weiss is hated by corporate America and tolerated by the press, the law firm's PR arm focuses on investors who've been victimized by the wrongdoing of major companies.

While Milberg Weiss is hated by corporate America and tolerated by the press, the law firm's PR arm focuses on investors who've been victimized by the wrongdoing of major companies.

To list the companies that law firm Milberg Weiss is currently suing is to simply pluck the big names from today's scandal-plagued business and financial pages - Enron, Raytheon, Morgan Stanley, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, to name a few. The firm has recently rung up big settlements from Rite Aid ($320 million), Oxford Health Plans ($300 million), and Lucent Technologies ($600 million). A major case brought a $1 billion settlement this year from 309 companies (including Priceline.com and Expedia.com) and their insurers over charges that their boom-time IPOs were rigged. Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach LLP, which bills itself as "the world's leading class-action law firm," sues companies for alleged stock fraud. The firm consistently files half of all securities class actions in any given year. Since the firm started in 1966, it has recovered an eye-popping $30 billion in awards and settlements. None of these fun facts makes the 190-lawyer firm very popular with corporate and financial America. In fact, from Wall Street to Silicon Valley and beyond, Milberg Weiss and its leaders are pretty much loathed. "I see the bad press we have; it's disturbing," says Brigitte Rudman, director of external communications. "There are days The Wall Street Journal will rip us to shreds, and days when it will praise us." Focus on everyday people Rudman says the audiences for the firm's PR are institutional investors and Joe Smith, the average investor who "decided to take some shares in a certain stock and was a victim of wrongdoing." In addition to securities, the firms' practice areas are insurance, antitrust, and consumer. "We're for the people," Rudman says. "I don't mean to sound so cliché-ish, but we are for the people." The firm does take what could be seen as humanitarian cases. In the 1990s, it recovered $1.25 billion from Swiss banks for their involvement with the Nazis. The firm currently represents 30 Nigerian families suing Pfizer for what they say were human experiments involving the antibiotic Trovan, which allegedly led to severe disabilities and deaths. (Pfizer denies these charges.) Rudman runs PR for Milberg Weiss' East Coast offices: New York, Philadelphia, Delaware, and Boca Raton, as well as the Seattle outpost. She says that Paul Amato, the West Coast press contact, does more marketing than PR. (Amato did not return phone calls for this story.) Senior managing partner Melvyn Weiss confirms the reports that the firm, which has always had distinct East Coast and West Coast identities, plans to split. "Yes, it's still what we intend to do, but it's going to take a little bit longer than we thought it would. It's complex," he says. The West Coast offices are in San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Rudman, 30, joined Milberg Weiss in September 2001, about a year after meeting Mel Weiss at a dinner and sending him her bio. Other than a year spent at law school, she didn't really have a legal background. In fact, her experience was in fashion PR and marketing, working on Mode and Girl magazines, as well as with Donald Trump and CBS' Miss Universe Organization. Before joining Milberg Weiss, she was consulting for Jason Binn's Gotham and Hamptons magazines. "When I went for the interview with Mr. Weiss" - she almost always uses the honorific for him - "I said, 'I have no background in law other than one year of law school, and I have no background in finance or securities. But if you allow me to take classes and give me material, I'll learn it.'" She was also helped by the breaking of the Enron story, an education on corporate corruption for many. Rudman became Milberg Weiss' first PR person; it previously had only a marketer, she says. She spends a quarter of her time on marketing - brochures and the like - and the rest on PR, especially pitching the media. Rudman's job is split between getting publicity for Weiss and publicity for the firm (she works with just an assistant). She says the firm got 800 mentions her first year and she takes credit for about half of them; corporate wrongdoing and stock fraud are obviously hot topics these days. "In the first three months I had [Weiss] on CNN, MSNBC, and CNBC," she recalls, adding that he often ends up speaking to the press because he is really the face of the firm, and reporters want his take on events. "Of all the law firms out there, plaintiffs' or defense, they're the one most in the news," says Mike France, senior writer at BusinessWeek, who covers legal affairs. "They're [often] in a better position than anyone to tell the public what's going on with big corporate crimes. The people she's representing are pretty important in the hierarchy of potential sources." Building name recognition An important PR moment for the firm is when it files a lawsuit - it puts out a straightforward press release meant to notify potential wronged individuals. "I would say the PR helps in getting the word out that Milberg Weiss is taking on this case. We'll refund your losses or do everything we can to fight it," Rudman says. "Once the word is out, people know the name. People know us as a strong law firm that is super-powerful. If an individual sees that, they do join the class." But Peter Elkind, Fortune senior writer and coauthor of Smartest Guys in the Room (a new book on Enron) penned a fairly scathing profile of partner William Lerach in 2000, and thinks the journalism that springs from that early publicity is often too shallow. "It's a symbiotic relationship between the press and Milberg," he says. "The firm wants to be the center of attention to get clients and be front and center in terms of getting the case. And the press needs a quote to illustrate the story in the early stages when they really don't know much. But the reality is it offers more heat than light." About the work Rudman does, Mel Weiss says, "I think it's important because a lot of misinformation gets out about what we do and how we function. A lot of our cases are news stories, so we tend to get bombarded by a lot of press. We needed somebody to interface with them, to organize it, to make it efficient, and to recognize in advance when something would be newsworthy. She's been fabulous and of great assistance in the logistics and in getting across the message." The firm must really like Rudman. For a year, it is allowing her to work from Denver, where her orthopedic-surgeon husband got a job with the Broncos. She keeps New York hours (and longer), and flies to the firm's home base every few weeks. Her New York direct dial forwards to Colorado, and most reporters don't even know they're talking to someone in Denver when they call her, she says. "She has a great deal of respect from the partners and really understands PR, and certainly PR is really important for them," says Marcia Horowitz, senior executive vice president at Rubenstein Associates, which has been Milberg Weiss' outside PR counsel for about six months. Still, Weiss says the firm continues to deal with stories that push notions the firm disagrees with, such as that "the lawyers are the only ones who get rich in class actions, that this kind of litigation doesn't really solve any problems, and that it's not good for our business environment to have this kind of litigation." But such litigation is likely here to stay, and, until its split, Milberg Weiss will continue to lead it in the press and courtroom alike. ----- PR contacts Director of external communications Brigitte Rudman Administrative assistant Gina Rivera West Coast press contact Paul Amato Outside PR firms Rubenstein Associates (New York), TransMedia Group (Boca Raton, FL)

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