There’s a saying, usually attributed to journalist Michael Kinsley, that in politics, a gaffe is when you inadvertently say something you believe but didn’t mean to disclose—maybe that taxes need to be raised or Social Security benefits trimmed.
But what if you try to recover from a gaffe by saying something you don’t believe, only to make matters worse? If it’s a gaffe to unintentionally say something you do believe, maybe it’s a reverse gaffe to intentionally say something you don’t believe.
This spring, one of the country’s most prominent law firms, Paul Hastings, was caught in a gaffe—one that found its way onto social media and went viral, making its way to the computers and smartphones of lawyers and law students across the country. The result was bad—very bad—publicity for the firm.
The firm’s response—which might fairly be termed a reverse gaffe—was, perhaps, more intriguing. Was it in fact a reverse gaffe? You decide.
Paul Hastings is one of the largest firms in the country and has a justifiably excellent reputation. Recently, however, a slide titled “Non-Negotiable Expectations” from a presentation given by one of the firm’s lawyers to junior corporate associates was leaked online. That first word in the slide’s title sets the tone.
As indicated by the title, the presentation (or at least this piece of it) purported to state the firm’s expectations of junior associates.
Line No. 1 on the slide declares:
“You’re in the big leagues, which is a privilege, act like it.”
Line No. 2 on the slide states:
“We are in the business of client service—you are the concierge at the Four Seasons, a waiter at Alinea. The client always comes first and is always right. If a client wants a mountain moved, we move it. No questions.
• As a junior, your “clients” are the associates and partners on the deal team.”
Line No. 3 reads:
“You are ‘online’ 24/7. No exceptions, no excuses.”
You get the picture. The presenter assumed the role of an army drill sergeant addressing an assembly of trembling privates. “You new recruits are here to do the bidding of your superiors. You will stand ready around the clock to follow orders without question, complaint or error.”
It’s unsurprising that many of those who saw the presentation slide after it went viral found it was ill-advised, in wording and especially in tone.
Was it because the slides misstated the presenter’s intended message? Because they didn’t mean to portray junior associates as waiters mindlessly taking and filling the orders of those senior to them?
No. It was ill-advised because to the extent it was accurate (more on that later); it was a textbook example of a gaffe: The slide said something the firm—or at least the presenter—believed, but surely didn’t want said out loud to the entire country.
Namely, the slide declared explicitly that the role of a junior associate is limited to mindlessly—or at least uncritically—following the orders of more senior lawyers. It said implicitly that the firm is blind to the demands of an associate’s personal life.
The reverse gaffe
If the presentation slide’s content was a gaffe, the firm’s public reaction after the leak and subsequent virality was a reverse gaffe. The firm threw the presenter to the wolves, disclaiming any knowledge of or responsibility for the slide’s content.
According to Law.com, the firm said in a statement that the material was prepared by an associate (no doubt tempted to add the word “mere” before “associate”), “and the views expressed do not reflect the views of the firm or its partners.”
Translation: “We partners cannot imagine where this rogue associate got such ideas, would say such things, or even give a presentation in the first place. The associate alone is to blame.”
Left unsaid is why a senior associate would prepare and deliver a presentation if it wasn’t ordered or approved by a superior. Did the associate simply wake up one morning and decide to spend a good many nonbillable hours preparing and delivering the presentation? Did the associate somehow deceive a bevy of junior associates into believing they were supposed to attend the presentation and that he spoke for the firm?
Rather, experience suggests the associate was carrying out the order of a superior. From the firm’s perspective, the error was in being too straightforward and hyperbolic with the audience, and of course, in allowing the presentation to be leaked.
More questions than answers
Let’s start with the gaffe, and with an acknowledgement that it’s unfair to judge the presentation from one slide alone. The delivery may have softened the tone of the slides; maybe humor or irony was involved. But there’s no denying that the content and tone are harsh as well as demeaning.
Some of the content is clearly hyperbolic. It’s certainly not literally accurate to say juniors will be available 24/7, “no exceptions, no excuses” What about illness, injury, maternity leave or conflicting assignments?
Worse, in portraying the juniors as waiters who merely take and fill orders, the slide omits—even denies—elements that distinguish law practice from common labor. Law, even law practiced by junior associates, is a profession. It requires the application of critical analysis and judgment. Waiting tables is honorable work (I did it all four years of college), but it doesn’t require much critical analysis.
In short, the slide misrepresents the role of a junior associate at a law firm, especially a great one. It portrays an unrealistically harsh, demeaning environment, and it denies elements that make law a profession.
That brings us to the firm’s statement, which declares that the associate in question did not speak for the firm. If no partner authorized it, who did? Who called the meeting?
And what caused the presenter to describe the firm’s environment and culture in such a manner? Does the content have no relationship to reality? Did the associate simply make it all up?
The firm’s statement is reminiscent of a famous scene in Casablanca. A man approaches police captain Louis Renault (wonderfully played by Claude Rains) in Rick’s Cafe to complain of illegal gambling on the premises. Renault responds, “I’m shocked! Shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.” Meanwhile, the croupier hands him a wad of bills murmuring, “Your winnings, sir.”
The firm’s statement qualifies as a reverse gaffe because (a) it was intentional; (b) it was misleading at best; and (c) it worsened the damage. If the slide provided the firm with a reputation of functioning like a sweatshop, the firm’s response added disloyalty to its charges.
Wouldn’t it have been better for the firm to accept all or at least some of the responsibility? The slide was, after all, prepared by a firm associate on firm time for a group of the firm’s juniors.
Perhaps a lengthier statement reinforcing the firm’s values wouldn’t have undone all the damage caused by the leak, but at least it wouldn’t have compounded the damage.
Norm Tabler is a retired lawyer who focused on health law. He serves on the editorial advisory boards of the ABA Senior Lawyers Division’s Voice of Experience e-newsletter (for which he writes the column “Adventures in the Law”) and Experience magazine. He writes and records a monthly podcast, The Lighter Side of Health Law, for the American Health Law Association’s Health Law Weekly.
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