Biglaw Firm’s Bold Pro-Oppression Stance

(Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

Mayer Brown’s been on the receiving end of some negative attention. The firm is representing the University of Hong Kong — they’ve apparently been clients for a while — and they’ve demanded the removal of artwork. But it’s not just any piece of art.

The Pillar of Shame is a sculpture by Danish artist Jens Galschiøt designed to commemorate the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre in Beijing. The sculpture was unveiled in 1997 and is reportedly the only memorial to the massacre still on Chinese soil. But the historical significance didn’t stop the demand letter.

And it’s true that Biglaw firms like Mayer Brown have tons of representations every year, but this isn’t the sort to just get swept under the rug. Indeed, 30 NGOs have signed an open letter asking the firm to bow out of the problematic representation:

The Mayer Brown law firm stated as their mission to “contribute when and where we can have a great impact. We encourage and enable our lawyers and business services to play a role in making a positive difference in the lives of others.”

The sculpture has been at the University of Hong Kong campus for over 20 years. For the Mayer Brown law firm to demand that it be removed after all these years when there had been no objections from the university officials nor from the student body in the past, shows that Mayer Brown has violated its stated mission to make a positive difference in the lives of citizens in Hong Kong.

We therefore expect Mayer Brown law firm to safeguard their reputation and their integrity in defending the right of freedom of expression by rescinding their agreement with the University of Hong Kong.

While others have gone even further to condemn the Biglaw firm’s actions.  Galschiøt, the artist, condemned the act as an “attack on art.” Dennis Kwok, a former member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council and an opposition leader to China’s rule, told Bloomberg Law’s Viva Chen, “This is a U.S. firm that’s complicit in the suppression of human rights. It’s not good enough for them to say that they’re just acting as lawyers.”

And, as Chen went on to note, this is not the first time Mayer Brown has found itself in a disturbingly similar situation:

What’s weird is that Mayer Brown has been in similar hot water before. In 2014, I wrote about the firm’s “uncomfortable” clients—deniers of the existence of “comfort” women—Korean, Chinese, and other Asian women who were forced into sexual slavery by Japan during World War II. The plaintiffs, who were of Japanese descent, had sued the city of Glendale, California to remove a statue commemorating the women. The plaintiffs said they were “offended” by the statue, calling it “an unfairly one-sided portrayal of the historical and political debate surrounding comfort women.” (The firm eventually withdrew from that case.)

The firm’s media messaging has been a bit muddled:

Asked for comment on this current engagement, a Mayer Brown spokesperson emailed [Chen]: “The University of Hong Kong is a long-standing client of the firm. For many decades, lawyers in our Hong Kong office have represented the University in numerous areas, including real estate matters. In accordance with our policy of not discussing private client matters, we have no additional comment.”

But in an exchange with Hong Kong Free Press, the firm said that its role is to “help our clients understand and comply with current law.” It added, “our legal advice is not intended as commentary on current or historical events.”

But even more confused is the firm’s position on human rights. Sure, they came out and said the right things when George Floyd was murdered, and the firm’s website states: “An effective human rights compliance program is emerging as essential to effective risk management, regardless of sector. Drawing on the best of the policies and procedures that many businesses have already adopted and our experience, knowledge and global reach, Mayer Brown guides clients through this increasingly complex, evolving and international aspect of doing business.” But representations like these, well, they tell a different story.

Kathryn Rubino is a Senior Editor at Above the Law, host of The Jabot podcast, and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. AtL tipsters are the best, so please connect with her. Feel free to email her with any tips, questions, or comments and follow her on Twitter (@Kathryn1).