Lawyers are notoriously reluctant to talk about politics – publicly, anyway; the stakes are too high, the risks too great. In today’s deeply politicized world, nothing ends a friendship more than divergent partisan politics. And the last thing lawyer with a goal of 2,000 billable hours wants to do is upset a customer, let alone alienate him.
But 2021, as we know, was a year like no other. When in January an army of so-called Trump supporters stormed the United States Capitol, after steadfastly neutral law firms burst onto the political scene, unable to contain their anger over this which they saw as a blatant assault on the rule of law.
Crowell & Moring was among the first to call for then-President Donald Trump to be impeached by the 25th Amendment, urging other law firms to stand by their side. For some what was at stake was nothing less than the very foundation of American democracy, while for others it might have come across as a leap into partisan politics by professionals who vowed to act. without passion.
However, while Crowell’s decision was deliberate, this month we saw one of his American rivals, Mayer Brown, walk, perhaps unwittingly, and almost certainly with regret, on the frighteningly thin ice. of Hong Kong politics.
Journalists from Law.com International wrote about how former Hong Kong chief executive Chun-ying Leung called for a boycott of the American company, which has been embroiled in a high-profile political controversy. Deeply rooted in the issue of democracy, this is the kind of feud you would expect a law firm to do anything to avoid.
But, as our reporters explain, the company earlier this month published a legal letter to the former Hong Kong Alliance in Support of China’s Democratic Patriotic Movements and its liquidators, ordering that a renowned sculpture which had been on the University of Hong Kong campus for more than two decades will be removed by October 13.
The sculpture, known as the “Pillar of Shame” by Danish artist Jens Galschiøt, commemorates the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing in 1989, in which hundreds of people died after the deployment of the ‘People’s Liberation Army to deal with the demonstrators. Long banned in mainland China, this is not a topic the Hong Kong government recognizes.
When it emerged that Mayer Brown would represent the University of Hong Kong, 28 human rights groups sent him a letter, urging him to stop advocating for the sculpture’s removal.
The letter read: “For the Mayer Brown law firm, to demand that it be withdrawn after all these years when there had been no objection from the university or the student body in the past, shows that Mayer Brown violated his stated mission to make a positive difference in the lives of Hong Kong citizens.
After much pressure, Mayer Brown withdrew his representation from the University, a move that sparked outrage in some quarters.
Calling for a boycott of the firm, Leung wrote on his Facebook page: “The fact that Mayer Brown can turn around to stop providing legal services on the removal of thePillar of Shame ‘ in HKU is itself the result of interference.
We will continue to report on the topic, so keep an eye on the coverage.
Whatever the source of the pressure – whether from states or private actors – the question raises big questions about whether and when it is acceptable for a law firm to withdraw representation.
With less than a year to go before the Qatar World Cup, marred by recurring questions about human rights violations and press repression, I expect to see more and more law firms grappling with the interests often contradictory global politics, public relations, ethics and, indeed, the duty of care to the client.