“Personal attacks are a clear indication of fear and weak position”
Any counsel involved in proceedings inside a former married couple knows how emotionally difficult this process is. The attention of the press only aggravates this difficulty. Helping defend and fairly divide family assets in matrimonial disputes, lawyers often become those on whom the losing opponent takes it out. Philipp Ryabchenko, a managing partner of BIEL, a law firm, tells us about methods of information attacks and a strategy to defend the lawyer’s reputation.
— In all branches of law implying personal defense of the principal, the opponent often perceives the lawyer as if he or she is the continuation of the client, his or her personality and position. Does such an opinion make the counsel vulnerable?
— Such a problem really exists and it relates not only to lawyers specializing in family disputes, like I am. In my opinion, lawyers specializing in criminal cases can be regarded as vulnerability leaders while family and corporate lawyers are rated second and third. In family disputes, spouses as a rule understand that the lawyer can influence decisions of his or her client only partially while the client still has the final word. Moreover, any pressure on the lawyer can cause his or her substitution but will not resolve the conflict reason itself. However, when parties are distressed, which is quite natural when personal issues are resolved, rational assessment of a situation goes into the background and their behavior becomes reactional. As a consequence, lawyers who work in the area of family law are often attacked in the media space by the opponent, especially if the opponent attempts to resolve the dispute by unlawful methods.
— If wealthy or famous people are involved in a family conflict, financial and reputational stakes get higher and gain more attention from the mass media. How can this affect lawyers of the parties?
— High-profile divorce trials are, of course, interesting to many people. Some people are excited to learn that “the wealthy also weep,” some people feel compassion for problems of another person irrespective of his or her status, and for others it is important to know how the division of property can influence family business. Spouses do not always give an interview in such proceedings: their PR units or lawyers often do this instead of them. And sometimes the goal of comments is not the desire to describe the true state of affairs but an attempt to draw attention to “unfairness”, as it is understood by one of the parties involved in the dispute, and to swing the public opinion in his or her favor. Sometimes it happens that in pursuit of the result the lawyer begins to distort facts, which causes a reaction of opponents – this is how quarrels leading to blatant insults in the press or directly in the court begin. Lawyers thereby turn into targets for aggression and unsatisfaction of the opposing party and the media space turns into an arena for a squabble not only between the opponents or former spouses. Divorce proceedings of wealthy people are really difficult breakups and not only the parties but also their lawyers are scrutinized by the mass media.
— Can we say that an attempt to cause reputational damages to the opponent’s lawyer is not only an emotional desire to sting the opponent but also a thought-out step to “crack” the case?
— As a minimum, this is an attempt to influence the team of lawyers who run the case from the other side. It does not always produce any practical result but, unfortunately, certainly affects the image of the counsels. A strong example dominating all the mass media and giving a lot of contents for all the social media on both sides of the Atlantic is a recent proceeding in the defamation case between actor Johnny Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard. We are not going to assess the reasons for which the couple publicly discussed mutual resentments – this has already been done by the court of Virginia. Let’s have a look at how the press and ordinary people verbally attacked Heard’s team of lawyers: the actor’s supporters called her leading lawyer Benjamin Rottenborn a “clown” in the Internet and criticized another case lawyer Elaine Bredehoft stating that they take her as unpleasant and incompetent. Besides, social media users actively discussed a theory according to which Elaine was actually a longtime fan of the actor. According to independent lawyers who commented on the trial on YouTube, Amber Heard’s legal team was “very competent” in it, in spite of large-scale mockery and attempts of the public to damage the reputation of the lawyers. The court made a conclusion on the rightness of each of the parties, but it is obvious that the endless attacks on Heard’s lawyers strengthened by mass media publications created an illusory perception of the determinacy of the dispute outcome and definitely affected the professional reputation of the actress’s counsels.
— How do you think such a behavior can be explained? Does it mean that the other party’s lawyer has run out of arguments or does it evidence that there are some goals outside the proceeding itself?
— I believe that personal attacks are a clear indication of fear and weak position. If you are sure of the result, you don’t need to “get strengthened” by attacks on the opponent and his or her lawyer. As I have already said, information attacks on the opponent’s lawyer can rarely eventually influence the outcome of the proceeding, and such a behavior can more often be explained by blaming grievances from the actual or potential loss of the case. When some issue becomes very personal for a person at the emotional level, the desire to do some very silly thing prevails over logic. Methods of satisfying one’s ego can be very different in this case, ranging from punching wheels to publishing planted articles. The most common scenario is attempting to leak some seemingly compromising materials and unleash an open information war, sometimes with the participation of PR agencies.
— When the opposing party crosses the line of acceptable and lawful behavior already in respect of the counsel as well, which tactics are ethical to choose to repulse the attack?
— I have experienced pressure in a number of cases I had in my practice. The most common method is surveillance expressed in attempts to hack my telephone and e-mail, wiretapping and shadowing. It gives discomfort but is not critical; on the contrary, it disciplines both the client and my team. I would call it a “positive pressure.” There were also attempts to entice me over to the other side in a corporate dispute. In another, family dispute, I was attacked by a blogger, but the PR order was still mainly targeted to the client. Recently, there were a number of planted articles about me in the Internet and I learned about them from the clientess who sent them to me. The goal of the publications of a “medley” of imaginary facts about my professional activity was to force me to give up representing the interests of the clientess, and besides that was an attempt to prevent the disclosure of information compromising her husband. I can say that attacks on me lead to the opposite effect because they give additional internal motivation to obtain justice for the client. That is why I continue to represent successfully the interests of my clientess. As far as tactics are concerned, I recommend not to be like the opponent and act lawfully. If the contents of publications aimed against you are obviously imaginary, they can be ignored because one can find texts in the Internet about any public person with attempts to compromise him or her. If articles are harmful to your reputation, contain insults or apparent distortions of facts, you can and should demand that they should be deleted.
— The issue of information security and protection of reputation remains very sensitive for lawyers but is not well understood in terms of its management. Can there be an anti-crisis plan here?
— The first and most important thing is to rely the information support for protection of your reputation on professionals who will be able to foresee situation development scenarios and get the client’s PR unit correctly involved, choose the right communication strategy and efficiently implement it. Secondly, you should be sure that there are no facts compromising you, whether professional or personal, in all possible databases, sources and registers. Those who are deeply hurt and want to damage you will do their best to find them, so don’t let them find anything. You can draw the attention of the mass media if you are absolutely sure of your position, you have a sufficient support from your client and he or she agrees with the action strategy suggested by you. As far as materials in the press are concerned, attention should be paid to the level of publications. A reasonable person will take apparently planted articles aimed at defaming you as a biased negative paper and a serious potential client will also be able to check the facts contained in them. If your reputation is clean, there will be no evidence for such publications. I recommend that attention should be paid to reputable publications, your company’s website and social media: materials about the cases you ran and covered in the mass media, and feedback and recommendations of your clients should be there. It is important to aggregate and supplement regularly the information about your legal activity so that a potential client can compare defaming publications with the real state of affairs.