Media law firms have long received a profile far outranking their small size thanks to their close proximity to celebrity clients and headline-friendly stories. For once, that brand visibility has disastrously back-fired as it emerged this week that entertainment boutique Russells Solicitors was responsible for revealing the fact that its client JK Rowling had penned the crime novel The Cuckoo’s Calling under a pseudonym.
Commercial and corporate partner Chris Gossage disclosed the crime novelist’s true identity to his wife’s best friend Judith Callegari. It is understood that Callegari then disclosed the information to a Sunday Times journalist through Twitter earlier this month.
The Soho-based firm on Thursday (18 July) issued a statement: ‘We apologise unreservedly for the disclosure caused by one of our partners, Chris Gossage, in revealing to his wife’s best friend, Judith Callegari, during a private conversation that the true identity of Robert Galbraith was in fact JK Rowling. Whilst accepting his own culpability, the disclosure was made in confidence to someone he trusted implicitly. On becoming aware of the circumstances, we immediately notified JK Rowling’s agent. We can confirm that this leak was not part of any marketing plan and that neither JK Rowling, her agent nor publishers were in any way involved.’
The leak led the Harry Potter novelist to publicly criticise Russells in a statement reported by the BBC, saying she felt ‘very angry that my trust turned out to be mis-placed’.
The revelation of the book’s true author shot up sales within hours of the world-famous writer’s name being disclosed. The book, which previously sold just 1,500 copies, now tops Amazon’s sales list while Rowling’s publishers have reprinted 140,000 copies to meet demand.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) said it could not comment on individual cases but added: ‘Chapter 4 of the SRA Code of Conduct 2011 makes it clear that solicitors owe a duty of confidentiality to their clients. They should not divulge confidential information without the express permission of their clients or where there is a legal obligation to do so.’
Russells is a widely used entertainment adviser and is described as well respected for its music practice in The Legal 500. Key clients include Cheryl Cole, Coldplay, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group.
Richard Moorhead, professor of law and professional ethics and director of the centre for ethics and law at University College London, commented: ‘The firm will be embarrassed and its clients will be concerned. The firm’s statement seems to be shifting the blame and fails to take full responsibility. It should re-think on how it proposes to persuade the SRA.’
The episode vividly underlines the greater risks facing law firms due to the impact of modern communication tools and social media which mean that confidential material can far more easily find its way into the public domain.