Crisis Management at Law Firms

From The Practice September/October 2021
An emerging practice area becoming institutionalized

In the last two decades, crisis management has emerged as a distinct practice area for many major law firms. Today, a quick survey of their public websites reveals that over half of the top 50 AmLaw firms now boast practice areas with “crisis” in the title—some, like Sidley Austin and WilmerHale, call their group “Crisis Management and Strategic Response.” Others add “risk” or “compliance” or “privacy” to the name. DLA Piper has even created an app, Rapid Response, which allows clients to request legal assistance in cases of a cyberattack, natural disaster, or government investigation, while Kirkland & Ellis says it will deploy a SWAT team approach. (This does not mean a team of Kevlar-vested, armed lawyers show up to your door but instead means lawyers will abide by the SWAT acronym: 1. Solutions, 2. Worldwide, 3. Advantages, 4. Teamwork.) The boutique firm Davis, Goldberg, & Galper advertises that its founding team pioneered the practice of crisis management and strategic response within global law firms; moreover, the small firm cofounded a sister public affairs agency, Trident, with a well-known journalist so that client crises are handled internally by a multidisciplinary team from the get-go.

What is a crisis management practice group, and why is it necessary? In “Beyond the Comfort Zone,” Brescia and Stern argue that a crisis for the client is not always a crisis for the lawyer. If a client’s home faces foreclosure, the veteran housing lawyer (ostensibly and hopefully) knows what to do. Lawyers, on the other hand, face crises when emergencies upend traditional operations. Crisis management practices within law firms aim to provide a semblance of institutionalization to an emerging arena so that there is a playbook in place when the lawyer is called upon to act. According to White & Case’s crisis management page, “preparation is key” as “crises can take many forms.” In other words, crises are dynamic—in this complex moment, a crisis management practice area might stave off the crisis for the lawyer, if the client is lucky.

Many law firms advertise that they will work collaboratively with boards, public relations, leadership, and others. As “Communicating Clearly” shows, a multidisciplinary team is crucial for handling such matters; this might mean partnering with external communications firms as Davis, Goldberg, & Galper does, employing lawyers who are specifically trained to be “media-savvy” as Gibson Dunn advertises, or drawing crisis management attorneys from a variety of intersecting practice areas. Indeed, the crisis management practice group in many law firms emerges out of several other specialties, including areas such as white collar, internal investigation, labor and employment, and privacy and cybersecurity.

Who are these crisis management lawyers? Holland & Knight describes their team as comprised of:

  • Former members of Congress
  • A former deputy chief of staff to the U.S. attorney general
  • Former U.S. attorneys
  • A former Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) chief trial counsel
  • A former acting general counsel of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security
  • A former National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) general counsel
  • Former in-house chief privacy and compliance officers
  • Former military officers
  • Seasoned practitioners and experienced professionals in litigation, crisis management, government relations, and transportation

A 2019 cover story in The American Lawyer interwove the narratives of Karen Dunn, partner at Boies Schiller Flexner, and Jamie Gorelick of WilmerHale, both of whom head up crisis management practice groups at their respective firms. In the story, Gorelick, who was recently a panelist at CLP and EY Law’s joint event, The New Legal Function: 360 Degree Insights for Law Leaders, said when asked what her practice area was, that if she could put “big messes” on her business card, she would. Many crisis management lawyers and practices are based in firms’ Washington, D.C., offices, and practice area attorneys frequently flout their deep government experience.

In the last year, crisis management in the legal field has become even more institutionalized. Chambers and Partners now maintains a list of rankings of firms specializing in crisis & risk management. Likewise, in 2020, National Law Review began publishing an issue featuring trailblazers in crisis leadership. Published in September 2020, the first edition of the trailblazer awards focused on lawyers who had pivoted quickly to help clients or firms rally in the wake of COVID-19. Awards and rankings are always to be taken with a grain of salt, but increased attention to individual attorneys’ and firms’ excellence in this area does mark a shift in the practice area going from “novel” to expected.

More recently, the September 2021 edition of National Law Review featured stories of lawyers responding to congressional inquiries for their clients and those advocating for racial justice internally at their firms. Included in the 2021 trailblazers were notable names, like Sally Yates, who, after serving as the acting attorney general under Trump, joined King & Spalding to found and lead their Crisis Practice group. When asked about the future for responding to the fast-paced world of 21st century crisis, Reginald Brown of Kirkland & Ellis predicted: “The need for strategic advisors, who can see around corners and effectively move between forums with very different risks and rules is going to continue to grow.”


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