I don’t blog much about things related to my work life, but I read something on a legal blog that heartily deserved a Boo You! and I couldn’t resist.
In the not-too-distant past, that being June 2011, researchers affiliated with West Virginia University issued a study linking mining with birth defects in the coal fields of Appalachia. This caused a minor furor in the mining industry, and Crowell & Moring, a large DC-based firm which represents various mining interests, including the National Mining Association, decided the topic was ripe for some attorney advertising in the form of a client alert sent to clients and posted on the firm’s website. In the client alert, the Crowell & Morning attorneys — none of them scientists — took it upon themselves to criticize the study on various bases, most notably as follows:
- The study failed to account for consanquinity [sic], one of the most prominent sources of birth defects.
First off, if you are going to accuse people in Appalachia of being inbred, for God’s sake spell consanguinity right.
But more importantly, the stereotype of the inbred hillbilly is one of those horrible slurs thrown at the people of Appalachia in an effort to denigrate and humiliate them. There is simply no greater incidence of so-called inbreeding in Appalachia than in any other U.S. population, yet it’s popularly accepted that people living in the Appalachian Mountains have a high rate of inbreeding. They are the butt of jokes, and worse. This is a highly discriminated against population, yet no one cares and takes up their cause because they are just inbred hillbillies. And in this case, it’s not just being used to denigrate the local population. The slur is being used to dismiss important public health research, blaming the local “hillbilles” and their alleged inbreeding for their own birth defects when those may be caused by preventable environmental contamination.
Not surprisingly, Crowell & Moring pulled the offending client alert from its website and issued a half-assed apology. That wasn’t enough for at least one a law professor who, understandably upset by the conduct of the Crowell & Moring attorneys. filed an ethics complaint against them. That ethics complaint was just recently dismissed, but that dismissal has brought the issue back into the news.
Now do I as a lawyer who has more than passing familiarity with the ethics rules, particularly those concerning advertising, think that this was sanctionable under attorney ethics rules? No. It was an utterly ignorant and frankly hateful statement, but not unethical in that sense. But was this a repugnant appeal to a vicious stereotype, one that is repeated almost daily with respect to the good people of Appalachia? Yes, and these lawyers should be ashamed.
So, Boo You! Crowell & Moring. You should know better. Hopefully now, you do.