When saying nothing won't do the trick

 Marion A. Ellis and Bruce Bowers, 

The Daily Record Newswire
Lawyer Edward Bennett Williams was fond of saying that “nothing is often a good thing to do and always a clever thing to say.”

The expression isn’t original with Williams. Rather, it came from historian Will Durant, but it’s a philosophy that many lawyers think will serve them well. After all, say the wrong thing and it can come back to haunt you in court.

True enough. But we are here to tell you that a lawyer who insists on saying nothing, ever, to the media, who stonewalls and hides, is not doing himself or herself any favors and also may not be offering the best service to a client.

Lawyers deal in conflict, and so do the media.

“No one has discovered a way of making good will, harmony, reasonableness easily dramatic,” columnist Walter Lippmann wrote. “In overwhelming measure the news of the day is the news of trouble and conflict.” Small wonder that reporters like to cover court cases.

You never know when you’ll have a case that makes news, locally or nationwide, or even worldwide. Do you think that before they took on the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case in 2013 the lawyers involved ever thought they’d be practicing their profession before a national TV audience?

Or ask the lawyers in the Duke lacrosse case of 2006. Some of them held press conferences for the first time in their careers because their clients, the lacrosse players whom they knew to be innocent, were getting slammed in the media.

“We had to do something,” said Wade Smith, a Raleigh lawyer who represented one of the defendants. The district attorney, Michael Nifong, claimed in numerous interviews and press conferences that “hooligans” among the players had committed “gang rape,” all but convicting them in the public eye before any trial. Outraged citizens demanded conviction.

“We would be negligent if we just sat back and let the prosecutor do that,” Smith said, especially after tests came back showing no DNA from any of the players on the alleged victim. “The courtroom was no longer the home of that case. It was gone, and it was in every home in Durham County, where that jury was going to come from.”

In such cases, legal expertise isn’t enough. A top lawyer can help his client’s cause if he is skilled in dealing with media.

“The lawyer’s art of persuasion must encompass public approval, because, whether we like it or not, it may have real impact within the courtroom,” wrote lawyer Louis Nizer.

While some cases may involve large companies with their own public relations departments, others may involve citizens with little or no experience with reporters and the public spotlight. A lawyer can be their broker, shielding them from reporters or making their case to the public, depending on the circumstances.

Skillful media relations can do more than increase your value to clients. They also can help increase your business and boost the reputation of the profession, which, as you know, is often viewed with skepticism, a skepticism that goes way back.

Thomas Jefferson said, “It is the trade of lawyers to question everything, yield nothing, and to bill by the hour.” Ouch. And Mark Twain found it “interesting to note that criminals have multiplied of late, and lawyers have also. But I repeat myself.”

Today, research shows that the public perception of attorneys is below that even of bankers, those guys who won’t lend you money and close shop at three every day to play golf.

Recent newspaper stories describe cases of law firms padding their bills, doing unneeded tasks and assigning more lawyers than necessary to cases. Little wonder many people see lawyers as greedy ambulance chasers, vultures who drive honest doctors out of business with malpractice suits based on flimsy evidence and make off with most of the money. Never mind that many of these stories are false, and settlements and verdicts in favor of plaintiffs are down.

So, a little polishing of the profession’s image won’t hurt. Then there is the basic matter of finding clients. The recent downturn in the U.S. economy had many firms across the land report significant drops in business.

Many young attorneys find it difficult to get work and wind up waiting tables when, 30 years ago, they would have joined a respected firm. For sole practitioners or people in small firms, skill in dealing with the media can be an asset in getting one’s name known, which can draw in the business.


Edward Bennett Williams knew the value of publicity. While he claimed that saying nothing was often the best idea and frequently banned other lawyers in his firm from talking to the media, he cultivated reporters as friends. One of his best friends was Ben Bradlee, recently deceased executive editor of The Washington Post.

Marion A. Ellis of Durham and Bruce Bowers of Charlotte have worked with some of the top trial lawyers in the nation. Their book “Media Training for Lawyers and Law Students” is available at MediaTraining4Lawyers.com. Ellis is co-author of the history of the Mecklenburg County Bar and the American College of Trial Lawyers. Bowers is a documentary filmmaker who has conducted on-camera media training at Duke, UNC and Wake Forest.


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