Legal sector responds to Israel-Hamas conflict with caution
Law firms globally have had to measure their response, striking a careful balance between employee needs, public opinion and reputational risk
As news of the atrocities occurring on the Israel-Palestine territory continue to emerge and thousands globally are taking to the streets to call for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and the freeing of Israeli hostages, law firms have had to take stock of recent events and carefully devise a response strategy.
In an environment where companies and corporates worldwide have been pressured to take a stand and show support for one side of the conflict or the other – or in some cases, both – the legal sector has faced the struggle to balance the need to satisfy public opinion and meet employee needs against the risk of making a faux pas and causing reputational damage.
For international law firms, the issue has been further compounded by the need to consider sensibilities and political leanings across the many countries they operate in.
“As far as I recall, we have not made a public statement, and that's because we're probably more prudent due to our international footprint,” said a spokesperson at an international law firm. "Our approach has been dictated more by being a global law firm than an American law firm. American law firms tend to have taken a more defined and stronger position on the situation.”
Although most firms have stopped short of commenting publicly on the ongoing conflict, many have adopted internal policies and offered employee support internally, particularly in places where people may have been affected personally.
“We have offered support to our staff – our global managing partner recently came to New York especially for this, and is currently in the Middle East,” the spokesperson said. “Internally, there have been many discussions and messages of support to people. We have condemned terrorism and our leadership has made a conscious effort to name both regions involved in the conflict – even where there were expectations to focus on just one.”
Another conundrum for law firms has been the pressure from prominent voices in the financial sector to stop recruiting graduates who have shown support for the Palestinian cause in any shape or form.
Citadel CEO Kenneth Griffin, for instance, has already declared that he would never hire such students, echoing a similar move from billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman. Meanwhile, Berkeley University law professor Steven Davidoff Solomon published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which he urged law firms not to hire “my antisemitic law students”.
This wave of reactions was sparked by the publication of a letter authored by the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee and co-signed by 33 other Harvard student organisations, which held the Israeli “apartheid regime…entirely responsible for all unfolding violence”.
“We are not changing our approach to recruitment or the way we are bringing people on board,” said the head of communications at a global law firm. “We always run background checks through an external provider, but at this point, there is no additional targeted research.”
Others, however, have taken heed of these calls. Davis Polk, for instance, recently rescinded job offers for three law graduates from Harvard and Columbia universities who led student groups that had issued statements condemning Israel – although there are signs the firm could come back on its decision.
Reputational risk for law firms can also come in the form of employees making comments or statements that may not align with their clients’ views, and as such, could harm the business or cause further damage.
“Our firm tends to offer a more open space in terms of employees being able to freely express their views, but based on the professional environment in New York, and probably in Washington DC, people who have sympathy for the Palestinian side may not feel as comfortable voicing it,” the head of communications said. “This is not because of anything the firm has said, but because that's just the general environment in the professional world in urban cities in the US.”