When crises occur — wherever that may be — it’s important to navigate through them with an ethical approach. That’s the advice legal experts offered at a discussion panel hosted Monday by the Michigan State College of Law.
Law students who attended the panel – titled “The LifeCycle of a Crisis: Strategy, Response and Management" — heard from three professionals. Panelists David Jaffe, Barbara McQuade and Bradley Dizik fielded questions from about 30 attendees. A focus was on insight into the Larry Nassar crisis and its legal consequences.
The first thing to do when taking on such a case is to determine how deeply rooted the issue is, according to McQuade, a University of Michigan law professor and former U.S. Attorney for Michigan’s Eastern District. She said it’s crucial to investigate if something is an isolated problem, or if it’s possibly part of an organization’s larger misconduct on the whole.
Examining an institution's culture of ethics is everything, McQuade said. Her involvement with investigating Detroit ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s political administration informed her on that.
“One of the things that was really evident there was that there was a culture of corruption in his administration,” McQuade said. “A big part of it was the culture he created there.”
A culture of corruption was evident at MSU in 2016 as well, said Jaffe, a Michigan lawyer and the principal of Jaffe Counsel.
He gave students a hypothetical situation at the panel: if they had found out in 2016 how The Indianapolis Star would go on to publish a piece about Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse, what would they do?
“You’ve got to understand the culture that you’re coming from,” Jaffe said. “Michigan State in 2016, we can all say now there was a culture of letting things slide if an important person did them.”
Dizik, a graduate of MSU’s law school, posed a similar question. What role did attorney public relations play in January 2018, as survivors gave public testimonies about Nassar and MSU?
“Lawyers are usually really bad at it (public relations),” Jaffe said."They’re thinking like lawyers, they’re thinking about the case.”
Jaffe said students might try their hand at being openly empathetic to survivors and to people with similar cases. In his mind, holding back every document and making sure no one ever says anything that might be an admission won’t work.
“Understand that what goes on in the world will reverberate in the courtroom and will have consequences in the world that may be bigger than costs of litigation,” Jaffe said.
McQuade's time as a legal expert taught her to expect full cooperation from her clients.
“We expect full cooperation,” McQuade said. “There was a time when the Department of Justice policy required a full waiver of attorney-client privilege. That was changed to not require a waiver.”
A conversation around attorney-client privilege is ongoing at MSU. The university has withheld more than 6,000 documents from Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s investigation into the Nassar scandal, claiming attorney-client privilege.
Jaffe advised the students to refrain from protecting facts that could emerge through news reports or other investigations.
The important thing, Jaffe said, is for any law student with hopes of entering the legal field to recognize their ethical limits. He said legal experts have to build an ethical culture if they want a shot at succeeding.
“People will lie to you,” Jaffe said. “You’ve got to know when is the time to say, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”
The panel was organized by Dizik and Emily Seeling, the president of MSU law student group Business and Securities Law Institute.
“He (Dizik) reached out to us and thought that we’d be the best organization to put on the event just because we’re the only business-related society here at the law school,” said Seeling, a second-year law student.
The panel wasn’t the first time Dizik, McQuade and Jaffe offered their advice to students. Dizik organized a similar event in 2014, with corruption in similar focus.
“We felt that with the situation on campus and the crises Michigan State had just gone through, a conversation about how to manage crises was an excellent conversation to start on this campus,” Dizik said.
Seeling said she had followed the Nassar crisis closely and was more than ready to collaborate with Dizik to put together the panel to address how to handle that sort of crisis.
“This is a crisis that should have been prevented and it just goes to represent the culture that even a nonprofit or a public company can have,” Seeling said.