Small Business

Disaster Leads to Law Firm Marketing Coup


Imagine this scenario: You are a partner at a prestigious law firm, and you've just returned from pitching a prospective client on using your firm's services as a very small piece of a nearly $15 billion project. You report to your colleagues, "I've got some good news, and some even better news. The good news is we're getting the business. The better news is we're not being paid."

I can't know whether that scenario actually occurred, but chances are something similar to it took place at the law office of WilmerHale, the successor to the blue-blood Boston firm Hale & Dorr.

WilmerHale was recently designated as the legal representative of Massachusetts Governor, and likely presidential aspirant, Mitt Romney, against the head of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, Matt Amorello. This is the high-profile case over the collapse of a ceiling that killed a motorist in a connector tunnel—part of the nearly $15 billion Big Dig. A governor engaging a law firm isn't big news, except that WilmerHale is providing its legal work on a pro bono basis.

NO UNDERDOG. Pro bono legal assistance is generally thought of as something that law firms provide as part of their civic duty, to help indigents charged with a crime or nonprofit organizations with miniscule budgets. In fact, WilmerHale says on its Web site that its pro bono program is "based on the belief that there is more to our professional mandate than advocacy for the most powerful and successful members of society."

Maybe I'm missing something, but the governor of Massachusetts going after another state public official doesn't strike me as a David-and-Goliath confrontation. That may help explain WilmerHale's refusal to say anything about this particular example of its civic largesse "due to client confidentiality," despite describing details of nearly a dozen other pro bono cases on its Web site.

What's really happening here is more about marketing than helping the underdog. In the murky world of legal marketing, where opportunities for publicity and access to influential decision-makers are key to a firm's success, this nonpaying assignment is a marketing coup for WilmerHale.

NO CONFLICTS. Gov. Romney's office says the work is being done pro bono "because WilmerHale generously offered to provide these services to the people of Massachusetts without charge." I can almost hear the WilmerHale partner telling Gov. Romney: "No, we don't want any part of the $20 million in appropriations you are requesting for this new Big Dig audit. Don't you worry about our $750-an-hour charges. This one's on us."

Left unstated is that because the firm is willing to work pro bono, the whole matter needn't go out for bid. (The governor's office says other firms weren't asked to consider the same arrangement as WilmerHale because "there are very few law firms in Boston that aren't conflicted because of their Big Dig work.")

Also left unaddressed is the quid pro quo that is inherent in a situation where a top-notch law firm is donating a minimum of several hundred thousand dollars of legal services to a state that can well afford to pay its way.

WARM, FUZZY LAWYERS. Nor are WilmerHale's competitors, most of them with fewer than the 1,000 lawyers WilmerHale has, complaining. That would be unseemly in the genteel world of prestigious law firms. "Marketing is not why you do pro bono," says Jasmine Trillos-Decarie, president of the New England chapter of the Legal Marketing Association and director of marketing at Goodwin Procter, a 650-attorney competitor of WilmerHale. "You do pro bono because it is above marketing, beyond marketing."

Well, maybe, but I guarantee WilmerHale's competitors won't get a wonderful feeling of "giving back" when they watch the firm's partners bask in the spotlight of media attention likely to result from the legal proceedings against Turnpike CEO Amorello. Nor will they get a warm and fuzzy feeling knowing WilmerHale is building up chits with a likely presidential aspirant.

And it will be difficult to take comfort in knowing that WilmerHale is adding to its prestige in the legal community, likely increasing its referral traffic from others seeking the litigation services it is donating to the governor. All those benefits will accrue to WilmerHale, the do-gooder. You have to give the firm credit. By making its services pro bono, it's showing its marketing to be pro-fessional.


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