I came across this great story about Penzeys Spices, a family-owned, national spice retailer that has spent over $700,000 on Facebook ads supporting President Trump’s impeachment. At a time when businesses face backlash even over a celebrity spokesperson’s views or donations to certain causes, company owner Bill Penzey’s bold statements have likewise cost him business and alienated more than a few long-time customers. But according to the article, Penzey can afford to take these positions because “he founded and owns his namesake company and has no shareholders or franchisees to answer to.”
When it comes to law firms, ownership cuts two ways when it comes to free expression. On the one hand, some law firm owners have built successful practices based on expression of strong views – like Marc Randazza, an outspoken advocate of First Amendment rights, Carrie Goldberg, who doesn’t mince words when advocating for her clients who have been the targets of revenge porn and online harassment, or Michele Rayner-Goolsby, a national go-to lawyer when African American men are killed by police. On the other hand. many law firm owners believe that adopting controversial views or representing unpopular clients may lose them business – and as a result, they self-censor or turn down polarizing cases.
Though I’m sensitive to solo and small firm owners – particularly those in smaller communities – who avoid taking a side on hot button issues for fear of losing business, I also feel sorry for them because for me, speaking my truth is one of those priceless benefits of law firm ownership. When I worked for the government and then a law firm, my views were always subject to oversight – and when I started my firm, I often watered down my more controversial views because I thought I might lose business. Ultimately, however, I learned that some clients were simply not going to hire me, irrespective of my views and so I decided to start speaking my truth. For me, that involved fighting for landowners’ property rights and exposing the downside of natural gas pipelines which at the time, most environmental groups supported. And I learned that vocal expression of my opinions attracted exactly the kinds of clients I wanted – and somewhat counter-intuitively gained me respect of the opposing side (eventually leading to referrals).
In law school, no one wants to stand out, and even-handed discussion of both sides of an issue is rewarded on exams (as it should be, because it’s important to understand both sides of a case to advocate effectively for your own). But those law school skills stick with lawyers too long, deterring them from speaking out when doing so can help them stand out.
What do you think? Are you vocal about your position on political or legal issues? How have your clients reacted? Please share your thoughts in the comments, or on our Facebook page.