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Lawyers ignore media at their clients’ peril

Attorney and journalist Dan Abrams has some key advice to lawyers who find themselves on the business end of a reporter’s question: No matter what you think about the media, don’t ignore it.

“I have lawyer friends who say to me, ‘I refuse to become a media whore,’” Abrams said. “My response to them is, there’s got to be something between whoring and abstinence.”

Abrams, a legal analyst for ABC News and host of Live PD on the A&E Network, was the keynote speaker at Lathrop Gage’s annual State of Litigation conference earlier this summer in Kansas City. The conference brings together inside counsel and legal decision-makers to explore trends in litigation and how to avoid the risks that companies face.

Abrams reminded the audience that media coverage can affect a client’s reputation, as well as the government’s decision to indict or a civil party’s decision to settle. He peppered his talk with anecdotes drawn from high-profile cases that typify the wall-to-wall coverage that most companies wish to avoid, ranging from the O.J. Simpson criminal trial (which Abrams covered as a young reporter for Court TV) to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation of President Donald Trump’s campaign.

Dan abrams, LegaL anaLyst For abc news anD host oF Live PD on the a&e network, chats with umkc schooL oF Law Dean barbara gLesner Fines whiLe in kansas city as keynote sPeaker at LathroP gage’s annuaL state oF Litigation conference. Photo by scott Lauck

Dan Abrams, legal analyst for ABC News and host of Live PD on the A&E Network, chats with UMKC School of Law Dean Barbara Glesner Fines while in Kansas City as keynote speaker at Lathrop Gage’s annual State of Litigation conference. Photo by scott Lauck

Abrams bemoaned the tendency among some lawyers to blame media coverage for the outcome of trials. While acknowledging that reporters often focus on the salacious and the scandalous, he said close coverage also can encourage jurors to pay extra attention to the standards they’re supposed to uphold. He pointed to famous defendants such as Casey Anthony, who was accused of killing her young daughter, and Robert Blake, who was suspected of murdering his wife. Both were acquitted of the murder charges.

“In high-profile cases, jurors know the world is watching,” Abrams said.

He also disputed the idea that widespread media coverage of cases necessarily pollutes jury pools, noting when O.J. Simpson faced a civil suit following his famous acquittal in the criminal case, prospective jurors still remained unaware of many of the details of the murders of which he’d been accused.

“People like myself who get immersed in these trials find that impossible to believe, and yet it happens,” Abrams said. “Most people have other things to do.”

He did, however, offer a caveat of particular importance to in-house counsel and other lawyers who represent businesses.

“Jurors are unwilling to accept the notion that business leaders don’t know everything about their businesses,” he noted.

Bernard Rhodes, the head of Lathrop Gage’s media law group, seconded Abrams’ advice. He urged attorneys to get to know the reporters who cover the beats that encompass their companies.

With a personal connection established, it’s much easier to take that gulp-inducing phone call about a pending crisis, Rhodes said. When that happens, he said, ask the reporter when his or her deadline is, then ask them to wait an hour while you secure a comment from your client. In other words, he said, do what comes naturally to lawyers and make a deal.

“That’s what we do every day,” he said.