The London law firm Schillings battles in and out of courts for celebrities from Meghan Markle to Johnny Depp and Lance Armstrong, along with other wealthy clients who mostly stay out of the public gaze. They value their privacy and use Schillings to protect it.
So it was a surprise when the firm announced this week that it will add to its legal arsenal a PR and communications agency, starting with two new partners, one being Victoria O’Byrne, who has worked for the Prince and Princess of Wales. The new Schillings will not only fight for privacy, but try to manage publicity.
There is a logic for its celebrity clients: Markle is among those discovering that being victorious in the law courts is not the same as winning in the court of public opinion. But it is an admission of vulnerability: digital media has become too fluid and volatile to try to silence everyone who causes trouble.
It also shows how reputation management is an ever-expanding profession, drawing in people from PR spinners to lawyers, accountants, data analysts, former spies and consultants who specialise in due diligence. Journalists on the receiving end are outnumbered.
Reputation management reaches from the high net worth clients that Schillings attracts to brands that find themselves in the eye of social media storms, such as Bud Light and the UK private bank Coutts. “Crisis management is 5 per cent of our revenue but 50 per cent of our reputation,” says Richard Edelman, chief executive of Edelman, the world’s largest PR group.
Schillings has carved out an intriguing niche, pushing for courts to extend UK privacy law. Keith Schilling, its founding partner, represented the model Naomi Campbell in a 2004 case that broadened UK privacy rights, and it is among law firms that invoke European and UK data protection law to challenge many stories.
But ennui has set in among news groups receiving the latest pre-publication missive from lawyers such as Schillings, Carter-Ruck or Harbottle & Lewis. “I remember being impressed by the speed at which Schillings produced one of their hyper-aggressive letters a decade ago, but the ground has shifted,” says one partner of another law firm.
This is partly because media law firms have suffered bad publicity themselves, with politicians attacking the use of “lawfare” to shield the misbehaviour of oligarchs. The Solicitors Regulation Authority is investigating whether any firms have used “abusive litigation” to silence criticism of clients.
There are also bigger forces at work. It is of declining utility to place heavy pressure on papers to block or alter stories when all manner of damaging and misinformation circulates on social media. Technology platforms that simply host material have much less legal liability than publishers and the internet has no editor.
Information need not be broadcast globally to hurt. Schillings represented the hedge fund manager Louis Bacon in a bitter dispute with Peter Nygard, his Bahamas neighbour. Nygard disseminated a set of false and lurid rumours about Bacon, a judge ruled in May, while Bacon spent $53mn on legal and investigatory fees to defend his reputation.
This accounts for Schillings having an unusual group of partners for a legal practice, including Tim Robinson, a former army major general described as a “proven battlefield leader”. It is the kind of CV that would fit with a risk and security group such as Control Risks.
While regulated by the SRA, it is not purely a law firm but a consultancy with fluid boundaries as to what kinds of professionals it employs. Legally, it is an “alternative business structure”, an entity first created in 2007 to allow accountants and solicitors to band together. That offered an opening through which Schillings and larger firms such as Mishcon de Reya have advanced.
Reputation management of this nature is clearly a growth industry. The expansion of private wealth and private equity put more weight on individual reputations in business transactions. Never mind footballers with private lives that do not bear much tabloid scrutiny, a dodgy image makes it harder for an entrepreneur to raise finance for an acquisition or join a board.
I can see the appeal of Schillings’ latest diversification into public relations. There is power in a PR having facts at their disposal, instead of waiting for a damaging story to break and then trying to rebut it, based on the client’s word. If they can deploy intelligence and investigations experts, as with Bacon, it offers an edge.
It could also be useful to offer an heiress or business owner under scrutiny more than legal redress when things have spiralled out of control. Instead of brandishing a big stick, it may be time to get on the phone and try to put the other side of the story gently to journalists, politicians and regulators.
But there are pitfalls in playing both bad cop and good cop. Lawyers are combative because that is their job. If they turn friendly, it suggests they have run out of other options.