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Large U.S. law firms mostly quiet on abortion ruling, are walking a 'tightrope'

World Jun 26, 2022 08:45PM ET
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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Abortion rights demonstrators protest the day after the United States Supreme Court ruled in the Dobbs v Women's Health Organization abortion case, overturning the landmark Roe v Wade abortion decision, in Washington, U.S., June 25, 2022. REUT
 
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By Karen Sloan and Jacqueline Thomsen

(Reuters) -The largest U.S. law firms did not take a public stance following the U.S. Supreme Court's reversal of Roe v. Wade on Friday, diverging from the approach of some major companies that have made statements on the closely watched abortion case.

The high court's 6-3 Dobbs decision upheld a Republican-backed Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Many states are expected to further restrict or ban abortions following the ruling.

Reuters on Friday asked more than 30 U.S. law firms, including the 20 largest by total number of lawyers, for comments on the Dobbs ruling and whether they would cover travel costs for employees seeking an abortion.

The vast majority did not respond by Saturday afternoon, and only two, Ropes & Gray and Morrison & Foerster, said they would implement such a travel policy.

Morrison & Foerster, with nearly 1,000 attorneys, was the only large firm to issue a public statement by Saturday afternoon.

The firm's chair, Larren Nashelsky, said Morrison & Foerster would "redouble our efforts to protect abortion and other reproductive rights."

The Dobbs decision has been expected since a draft opinion was leaked in May.

Several major U.S. corporations, including The Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) Co and Meta Platforms said on Friday they will cover travel costs for employees seeking abortions.

Industry experts say law firms could speak out on Dobbs in the future if employees and clients push them to take a public stance. For now, firm leaders appear to be carefully weighing the advantages and disadvantages of commenting, including the possibility of alienating clients, experts said.

“This is a tightrope to walk for firms,” said Kent Zimmermann, a law firm consultant with the Zeughauser Group. “They have a diversity of views among their talent and clients.”

Some firms have issued internal communications to employees about the decision. Ropes & Gray Chair Julie Jones said in an internal memo viewed by Reuters that the firm will hold several community gatherings to discuss the ruling and offer "comfort."

“As a leader of Ropes & Gray, I am concerned about the effect of this decision on our community,” Jones wrote, while acknowledging that her memo may cause “offense to portions of our community."

A Ropes & Gray spokesperson told Reuters Friday that employees enrolled in its medical plan are eligible for financial assistance to travel out of state for an abortion.

Another large U.S. law firm, Steptoe & Johnson, offered its U.S. workforce the day off on Friday, a spokesperson confirmed. The spokesperson did not immediately respond to further requests for comment.

Despite a dearth of public statements, a number of law firms publicly signaled ahead of the ruling that they planned to provide free legal support to women seeking abortions if Roe was overturned.

Both the New York Attorney General Leticia James and the San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu, with the Bar Association of San Francisco, have convened pro bono initiatives that rely on law firm volunteers. Paul Weiss, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher and O'Melveny & Myers are among the participants.

Paul Weiss Chair Brad Karp called the Dobbs decision a "crushing loss" in an internal message to the firm on Friday provided to Reuters. Paul Weiss and O'Melveny, which both represented Jackson Women's Health Organization, respondents in the Dobbs case, deferred comment on the ruling to their co-counsel, the Center for Reproductive Rights.

The center said in a statement that the court had "hit a new low by taking away – for the first time ever – a constitutionally guaranteed personal liberty."

Gibson Dunn did not respond to request for comment.

Robert Kamins, a consultant with Vertex (NASDAQ:VRTX) Advisors who works with law firms, said firms will be "very cautious" about taking early positions on the ruling.

“They have to make sure that they are being thoughtful about it," he said. "What is the business impact? What is the client impact? What is the recruiting impact? There are lots of things to think about.”

Large U.S. law firms mostly quiet on abortion ruling, are walking a 'tightrope'
 

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