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Lawyers, Publicity, & Lessons from the Shooting of Walter Scott by Officer Michael Slager

  • David Aylor, Michael Slager, Walter Scott

As a lawyer in Charleston, South Carolina, I’ve spoken to the press on many occasions and I’ve appeared on TV interviews. More often than not, I’m commenting on some case or legal issue, but not about my own clients.

When fellow Charleston attorney David Aylor took on the high-profile case of North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, Aylor wasted no time speaking to the news media. In his first statement, this young lawyer said, “This is a very tragic event for all of the families. I believe once the community hears all the facts of this shooting, they’ll have a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding this investigation.” Speaking to NBC News, Aylor stated that Slager followed appropriate procedures. Lastly, speaking to the Post and Courier, Aylor said Slager “felt threatened and reached for his department-issued firearm and fired his weapon.”

Overall, Aylor’s comments suggested that Aylor knew the facts, and that facts would show that Slager was innocent. Three days later, Aylor publicly dumped Slager after a video came out showing Slager shooting Walter Scott in the back 5 times. Again, Aylor wasted no time publicly announcing that he dumped Slager. Aylor announced his withdrawal on his website. What’s more, Aylor actually made a public statement strongly suggesting why he dumped Slager. In an interview with the Daily Beast, Aylor said, “I can’t specifically state what is the reason why or what isn’t the reason why I’m no longer his lawyer. All I can say is that the same day of the discovery of the video that was disclosed publicly, I withdrew as counsel immediately.

Because Aylor swiftly dumped Slager, the internet and social media began buzzing harshly about whether Slager lied to Aylor and whether Aylor acted unprofessionally by suddenly, and very publicly, dropping his client. This article examines the lessons lawyers can learn from the way Aylor dealt with the news media in this high-profile case.

Lawyers, the Media, and Self-Promotion

For any lawyer dealing with a client or case that is newsworthy, there’s a temptation to engage in self-promotion by talking to the news media. Many lawyers see a high-profile case as a “marketing opportunity.” After all, you can’t buy the front page of the newspaper. In fact, many lawyers have seen their careers propelled forward by becoming household names after getting in front of the camera or talking to the press. However, before speaking to the news media, lawyers need to carefully consider their ethics, the facts of the case, their client’s interests, and what to say, if anything, publicly.

Publicity & the Lawyer’s Ethics

Under the South Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct, a lawyer can’t reveal information about a client unless the client consents. So, before a lawyer appears on camera or talks to news reporters, the lawyer must talk to the client to get his or her permission. Even if the client consents, the attorney must follow Rule 3.6 which deals with publicity. Under that rule, a lawyer shouldn’t make a statement that may have “a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing” a case. The lawyer may state:

(1) the claim, offense or defense involved and, except when prohibited by law, the identity of the persons involved;

(2) information contained in a public record;

(3) that an investigation of a matter is in progress;

(4) the scheduling or result of any step in litigation;

(5) a request for assistance in obtaining evidence and information necessary thereto;

(6) a warning of danger concerning the behavior of a person involved, when there is reason to believe that there exists the likelihood of substantial harm to an individual or to the public interest; and

(7) in a criminal case, in addition to subparagraphs (1) through (6):

(i) the identity, residence, occupation and family status of the accused;

(ii) if the accused has not been apprehended, information necessary to aid in apprehension of that person;

(iii) the fact, time and place of arrest; and

(iv) the identity of investigating and arresting officers or agencies and the length of the investigation.

A lawyer may make a statement that a reasonable lawyer would believe is required to protect a client from the substantial undue prejudicial effect of recent publicity not initiated by the lawyer or the lawyer’s client. A statement made pursuant to this paragraph shall be limited to such information as is necessary to mitigate the recent adverse publicity.

Whether Aylor violated his ethics isn’t the point of this article. Having said that, every lawyer should familiarize themselves with their state’s code of conduct regarding the ethics of dealing with the news media before they give an interview.

Know Your Facts (Not Just Your Client’s Version of the Facts)

If a lawyer gets the facts wrong in a courtroom, the result can be humiliating and potentially damaging to the client’s case. If a lawyer gets the facts wrong in a news interview, the results can be PUBLICLY humiliating and damaging.

Unfortunately, clients don’t always tell their lawyer the precise facts. Some clients forget important details. Some clients “confabulate” facts, particularly in a traumatic situation. Some clients simply don’t tell the truth. Whatever the circumstances may be, a lawyer would be wise to follow the words of former President Ronald Regan – trust but verify.

In the Slager case, Aylor spoke about the shooting when the investigation was barely under way. When the video surfaced, it showed a different set of facts than those Aylor alluded to in his statements. In the end, Aylor’s initial statements were undermined by the video of the shooting and his sudden withdrawal signaled publicly that his client lied to him.

Weigh the Benefit to the Client of Speaking Publicly

In some cases, speaking to the news can be a huge benefit to a client. For example, in one of my cases, my client was run off of a highway by an 18-wheeler that left the scene of the accident. I quickly contacted every local news agency and asked them to run a story on the accident and to ask viewers to call in with any information to identify the truck and its driver. Another example would be speaking out regarding some legal injustice and urging the public to contact their state representatives to change the law. Having said that, speaking publicly about a potential criminal investigation isn’t necessarily in the client’s best interest. For example, when a lawyer speaks to the news about a criminal defendant, they are helping to keep the news story alive. Most criminal clients would rather stay out of the news instead of making headlines.

No matter what the circumstances may be, a lawyer must give careful consideration as to what, if anything, the client has to gain by having his or her lawyer speak publicly about the case. As for Aylor’s dealing with the press, his client had absolutely nothing to gain when Aylor spoke to the Daily Beast about dumping Slager. Rather, his statement simply reinforced the public’s perception that Aylor dumped him because Slager hid the truth.

Don’t Give an Off-the-Cuff Interview

As lawyers, it is important for us to try to maintain some sort of control, in or out of the courtroom, on how our client is presented to the public. Lawyers must realize that what gets printed in a newspaper or broadcast on TV is largely out of the lawyer’s control. Specifically, news reporters edit comments, splice and cut interviews into sound bites, and sometimes put their particular “spin” on the news. So, even if a lawyer has a well-crafted statement to make on a client’s behalf, there’s no guarantee as to what the public actually reads or hears. Additionally, nothing a lawyer says is “off the record.” Therefore, a lawyer should carefully prepare what the lawyer will say. If you’re a lawyer who is going public on a client’s behalf, think of your statements in terms of the “sound bites” they will eventually become. In other words, craft a few concise, one-sentence messages that are no longer than 20 to 30 seconds. Also, never make a statement publicly that you wouldn’t say in court. If you get caught off guard by a news reporter who catches you walking out of your office or on the courthouse steps, ask the reporter to contact you later for an interview so that you have time to prepare your statement. In the end, figuring out what to say (and what not to say) in advance and sticking to your key messages is one way to keep some control over whether the interview is a balanced account of the situation.

Involve the Client Before You Speak Publicly

It’s the client choice whether the lawyer speaks publicly. Before a client consents, the lawyer should explain to the client all of the the pros and the cons of making, or not making, any public statement. Additionally, the client has the right to know what the lawyer will say on the client’s behalf. The decision to speak publicly should not be made lightly or quickly. Once the lawyer makes a public statement, it can’t be taken back. One wrong message can make a client (or the lawyer) look like a buffoon or, even worse, damage the client’s case.

As for Aylor speaking publicly AFTER he dumped Slager, we may never know whether Slager gave Aylor consent to speak to the Daily Beast about his withdrawal. In any event, the ethical rules regarding publicity and the professional considerations I laid out in this article apply equally to both current and former clients. Based on the backlash stemming from Aylor’s interview with the Daily Beast, perhaps it would have been wise to keep silent.

Remember that Pride Comes Before the Fall

Taking on a high-profile case doesn’t mean you’re ready to be a high-profile lawyer. Before you “go it alone,” always remember that overconfidence typically leads to errors of judgment. If you’ve never dealt with an onslaught of media attention, especially the NEGATIVE attention in a criminal case such as the Slager matter, consider getting help. At the very least, talk to an attorney who has experience dealing with the news media to get guidance on how to handle the publicity. Better still, consider associating the experienced lawyer as co-counsel in your case. In other words, ensure that you’re protecting the client’s interests instead of focusing on the “marketing opportunities” that come with a high-profile case.

By | 2016-12-24T11:36:53+00:00 April 11th, 2015|Categories: General Practice|0 Comments
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