When “Talk to My Lawyer” Seems a Declaration of War

By Jack Limpert

In the stories about sexism and the firing of Jlll Abramson, it’s often mentioned that Abramson hired a lawyer to press her case with the New York Times that she was being paid less than Bill Keller, her predecessor as executive editor. The Times has made a persuasive case that Abramson was not paid less than Keller and the issue of her bringing a lawyer into the conversation also seems to be fading.

In the first Ken Auletta story in the New Yorker, he quoted Eileen Murphy of the Times as saying the lawyer incident “was a contributing factor” to the firing. But then this update from Auletta:

“Bringing in a lawyer, in particular, seems to have struck them as especially combative. Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Times, argued that there was no real compensation gap, but conceded to me that ‘this incident was a contributing factor’ to the firing of Abramson, because ‘it was part of a pattern.’ (Update: Murphy wrote to me after this post went up to dispute this. Her quote is accurate and in context, as I’ve confirmed in my notes. However, she now e-mails: ‘I said to you that the issue of bringing a lawyer in was part of a pattern that caused frustration. I NEVER said that it was part of a pattern that led to her firing because that is just not true.’)”

Is hiring a lawyer to discuss your job situation especially combative? I ran into that situation once in my years editing The Washingtonian. I had hired Jane Doe who was going to push John Doe a notch down the masthead. John was going to keep his salary but would lose some clout and have to answer to Jane. John and I were discussing the change—I had assumed he would stay at the magazine—and he then told me he had decided to leave. When I began to talk about how to amicably work out his departure, he said I could continue the conversation with his lawyer.

If you haven’t had much experience with lawyers and lawsuits, you might think being told “Talk to my lawyer” is no big deal. But over the years I had been sued four times, had sat through many hours of conferences with lawyers, seemingly endless depositions, and one trial. We never lost a case but the legal process burns up time, energy, and resources and I had come away from all the legal battles seeing lawyers as an editor’s worst enemy. Lawsuits can drag on for months, even years, and all that money is being paid to lawyers instead of writers.

When John Doe said talk to my lawyer, I reacted in a way that didn’t happen before or since. I told him to be out of the magazine’s offices by the end of the day.

So Jill Abramson told her bosses at the Times to talk to her lawyer and Ellen Murphy says that wasn’t part of the pattern that led to her firing.

I don’t believe it.


  1. Is there a reason why the pay for newspaper editors should rise? Why should an executive editor, in 2014, overseeing a newsroom smaller than in 2004 or 1994, make more in real terms? For example, The Washington Post circulation apparently peaked in 1993 under Leonard Downie. Newsroom size decreased from “more than 1,000” to “fewer than 640” by 2012. Did his two (so far) successors earn more? Should they? (Source for numbers: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/06/business/media/amazoncom-founder-to-buy-the-washington-post.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 )

  2. From a May 29th Jim Romenesko post—see the last sentence.

    Transcribed from The New Yorker’s “Out Loud” podcast, hosted by New Yorker website editor Nicholas Thompson.

    Nicholas Thompson: So, Ken, you recently set the Internet on fire. You wrote a post that that I believe has had 1.3 million readers so far, about the firing of Jill Abramson of the New York Times. Tell me about the moment it happened, how you heard, and how you went about writing your blog post, which appeared maybe three hours after the news hit.

    Ken Auletta: It was 2:36 in the afternoon. I was sitting in front of my Mac, and I was working on the Hillary piece and there flashed across my screen a notice – I get push notices from the New York Times and other places – Jill Abramson been fired, and I said, Oh, wow.

    Then Amy Davidson, who works for you, emails me literally within minutes. Have you heard about this? Can you do anything? And I was so shocked and curious what happened, so I began to make calls. And I called someone I know who’s extremely close to her, and this person first didn’t want to talk, and I called this person back five minutes later and then this person told me some things about her pay – the pay issue – as one of the issues, and that she had hired a lawyer, which became a bigger issue. …

    If a man you call tough, and a woman you call pushy or bitchy – that’s a form of gender-based attitude, and that may well exist here with her. Certainly Jill Abramson felt that. That’s really a central thing. Clearly it was in Jill Abramson’s mind that she as a woman was being treated unfairly, which is why she hired a lawyer – my God! – and that act, which was not a team-like act, was something that was deeply offensive to Sulzberger.

  3. Darn, Mr. Limpert, you’re too fast. I just read this Auletta interview, through the Romenesko link, and came to YOUR blog post to proudly add it as a comment.

    The statement about Sulzberger’s feelings is unsourced. Or if its attributed kind of to the person close to Abramson, it’s unclear to me why that person would be knowledgeable about SULZBERGER’s feelings. But I trust your judgment about how speaking through an attorney would be seen as a declaration of war by the NYT publisher.

Speak Your Mind