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Blogger's Firing Raises Questions Aplenty

Denise Howell's first-ever blog post opened with a quote she attributed to Janis Ian: "Don't spoil it all, I can't recall a time when you were struck without an answer." Answers are nowhere to be found, but questions abound as the blogosphere reels from the news of her termination from Reed Smith, as reported here yesterday by Carolyn Elefant.

If you have not already read Denise's post about her firing, you should. I cannot recall a single legal-blog post ever that was at once so evocative and provocative. There are so many layers to this post -- in Denise's words and in their implications -- that we could peel away at them forever and never get to the bottom.

The short version is this: Denise Howell, one of the first and most respected legal bloggers, was fired last week from Reed Smith. Details are sketchy. Denise, bound by a confidentiality agreement, hints at her part-time parenting status as a factor and says her blogging probably was not a factor. To my knowledge, the firm has said nothing.

I've never met or spoken to Denise. But I think I know something about her, purely from having read her blog for some four years now. I know that she is smart, witty, creative, savvy and always several miles ahead of the curve. When I started writing my blog four years ago, I followed a trail she had helped blaze starting a year earlier.

I know bits and pieces about Reed Smith, too. For one, I wrote a piece for The American Lawyer several years ago about an innovative technology initiative it spearheaded. Until I read Denise's post this weekend, my sense of Reed Smith was similar to my impression of Denise -- of a smart firm somewhere on or ahead of the curve. Denise, herself, described the firm's managing partner Greg Jordan as a "phenomenal and visionary individual."

Now I no longer know what to think. I've been around long enough to know there are always at least two sides to every story. From immediate appearances, however, Reed Smith handled this situation in way that demonstrates a startling lack of PR savvy and lack of understanding of blogging's place in the legal industry. Its move raises significant questions on multiple levels about lawyers, law firms, careers, innovation, management, marketing and PR. They are questions not just for Reed Smith but through Reed Smith as proxy to all mainline law firms.

Let's start with the firm's leaders in management, marketing and PR. We have to wonder:

  • What does this firm know and understand about blogging?
  • Did the firm grasp and give any value to Denise's international prominence?
  • Did the firm foresee and somehow prepare for the PR wallop this move would deliver?
  • Did the firm anticipate or give any weight to bloggers' reactions?
  • Did the firm understand the positive marketing Denise brought it and the potential negative marketing implications of this move?
  • Does this firm care about the message it sends to clients in technology, new media and similar leading-edge industries?
  • What does this tell us about firms' sense of the PR and marketing value of blogging?

Then there are the disturbing questions this move raises for individual lawyers at mainline firms everywhere. Again, we have to wonder:

  • Was gender bias a factor?
  • Was parenting bias a factor?
  • Was blogging bias a factor?
  • Do cutting-edge, creative lawyers have a place in mainline firms?

In that very first blog post of hers, Denise also cited James Thurber for the proposition, "Better to fall flat on one's face than to lean over too far backward." For Denise, this latest turn of events is perhaps a stumble but certainly not a fall. She will quickly regain her balance and end up all the better and happier. But what of Reed Smith? Is it leaning over too far backward? Didn't anyone in management or marketing or PR see that this would be a public-image nightmare?  How many other mainstream firms are leaning too far backward? Are any of them the place for lawyers who seek careers of innovation, creativity and personal fulfillment?

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on July 18, 2006 at 01:09 PM | Permalink | Comments (10)


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