Bottom line: An attorney should never waste an opportunity to publicly tell a client’s side of the story—even when a reporter calls them seeking comment mere minutes before the reporter’s deadline.

What to do when a reporter calls you for comment at 5:00 pm regarding a new complaint or other court document that was just filed against your client but that you haven’t even had a chance to review? 

It is not uncommon for a defense attorney to receive a call near the end of the business day from a reporter who is going to publish an article about that attorney’s client and a lawsuit or other court paper that was just filed against that client. 

The reporter calls the attorney, seeking comment from the attorney, because the reporter is just about finished writing his or her story and will soon be sending the story to an editor for final review before it is published.

This scenario is understandably frustrating for defense counsel. It is not unheard of for a reporter to call an attorney at 5:00 pm and say, “I’d like a response by 5:15.” 

That obviously gives a defense attorney very little time to dive into the allegations in the complaint against the client, let alone actually speak with the client and come to a consensus about what to say and how to say it. 

While there’s really not much that defense counsel can do in a situation like this, here are two tips that will help any defense attorney get through this difficult situation. 

First, the attorney should make an effort to respond if he or she is in the office and otherwise available to do so.

I realize that sometimes, attorneys are out of the office and simply unable to get back to a reporter in time. It stinks, but it happens.

If the attorney IS in a position to get back to a reporter in time, I highly recommend that the response focuses on framing the legal dispute in a certain way as opposed to trying to provide a substantive response to the allegations. 

For example, let’s say a client is involved in some kind of business dispute with a business partner or other co-owner. In that case, the most effective response would be one that frames the legal dispute in a way that portrays the business partner who’s suing the client as having sour grapes or being jealous that the client took the business in a new and more profitable direction. Said another way, the former business partner wants to reap the benefits of the client’s work without actually having done any work him or herself.

Framing the dispute is the way to go in this situation because the attorney probably would not have had the opportunity to analyze in depth the substantive allegations before he or she has to get back to the reporter. (In some instances, the attorney might not have even had the opportunity to see the substantive allegations before the reporter’s deadline.)

The second tip is to consider whether there is a need to go back to the reporter after the story has run. 

If the attorney wasn’t able to respond in time but he or she spoke to the client soon after the article ran, and everyone agrees that a statement should be crafted and sent out to the reporter, the attorney should reach out to the reporter and ask him or her to update the story with the statement.

Attorneys can absolutely do this. I’ve done it before.

The same thing goes even if the attorney was able to get back to a reporter in time and the comment made it to the first version of the online story or the printed story, but the attorney and the client now want to say something in a more substantive and more fulsome way.

(The question here will be whether there is enough new information to justify updating the story. If the attorney is just adding a comma or wants to change a word, he or she shouldn’t make the “ask.” It’s not worth it.)

When a reporter calls a defense attorney at 5:00 pm seeking comment mere minutes before his or her deadline regarding allegations, or court documents that have been filed, against the attorney’s client, the attorney doesn’t have much time to work with.

The attorney should, however, respond. And he or she should try to make the client’s case as forcefully as possible. 

In a court of law, an attorney wouldn’t think twice about skipping an opportunity to respond to the other side’s filing or the other side’s actions. 

When it comes to the Court of Public Opinion, attorneys shouldn’t think twice either — even if they don’t have the most robust, most well-thought-out statement ready to go. 

The reason why it’s important for defense attorneys to respond even if they can’t respond with as robust or as fulsome of a response as they would like, is because defense attorneys and their clients as defendants so rarely have an opportunity to tell their side of the story outside of court — and even in court. 

If you think about it, with most litigation, defendants are not getting a chance to tell their side of the story until typically a motion for summary judgment. 

Sure, a defendant might be able to sprinkle some things into an answer or motion to dismiss, but in terms of the substance, it’s rare for defense counsel to get an opportunity to tell their side of the story early in the case. 

That’s why engaging the Court of Public Opinion like this, even when there is little time to work with, is important for a defense attorney.

Defense attorneys should take advantage of every opportunity they get to tell their clients’ stories in the Court of Public Opinion. 

Responding to a reporter on a short deadline certainly qualifies as such an opportunity.

Bottom line: An attorney should never waste an opportunity to publicly tell a client’s side of the story — even when a reporter calls them seeking comment mere minutes before the reporter’s deadline.

Wayne Pollock is the founder and managing attorney of Copo Strategies in Philadelphia, a national legal services and communications firm. Attorneys, law firms, and their clients enlist Copo Strategies to ethically, proactively, and strategically engage the media and the public regarding those clients’ cases (to help resolve those cases favorably), and to engage the media, referral sources, and prospective clients regarding their firms (to help bring new client matters in the door). Contact him at waynepollock@copostrategies.com or 215–454–2180.