What The French Can Teach Us About Slander, Gossip, And Airport Conversations By Newbie Law Students

When you reflect on stereotypes about the French culture, you might consider behavior to include sarcastic greetings by French waitstaff, over-confident glimmers in an eye glance, or various non-verbal cues that signal the French people just know something you don’t.

These verbal and non-verbal gestures and secret meanings may have something to do with the seriousness with which the French treat slander violations.

Only last week, Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin was acquitted by an appeals court of charges accusing him of taking part in a slanderous smear campaign against his archrival, President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The case involved a mysterious list, which surfaced in the hands of de Villepin and named prominent clients with secret, suspicious accounts at a Luxembourg clearing house. Sarkozy was one of the clients named, and associated with the crooked accounts purportedly holding dubious income and bribe money.

Villepin asked a retired general to investigate the origin of the list, which was later deemed phony, but his indictment claimed de Villepin should have alerted judicial authorities earlier. He was accused of slander.

But, the French courts sided with de Villepin last week—confirming his innocence.

“After six years of unprecedented fighting tooth and nail, after six years of difficulties for my family, the justice system has recognized my innocence for a second time,” the Former French Primer Minster told journalists outside the courtroom (via The Washington Examiner).

The French court systems can teach us a lot about slander, gossip litigation, and verbal and non-verbal statements.

And, these lessons would have been especially important for a few nameless law students at the University of Virginia (UVA).

According to premier law-gossip site Above The Law, an anonymous tipper overheard a group of gossipy UVA Law students on their way back to Charlottesville from New York City. While waiting on their flight out of LaGuardia, the group started talking about how their callback interviews went.

The tipper wrote to ATL, “One particular student mentioned interviewing at a firm, and specifically named a ‘screener’ at said firm. His description of the individual and his interaction with him was less than flattering…”

Although it is natural for law students to discuss their callback interviews, discussing any sort of sensitive case- or work-related information in public spaces is inappropriate. Unfortunately, students are not the only ones victim to this type of behavior.

Law firm employees can get equally carried away discussing case information or criticizing a supervisor to a colleague. However, remember that not only is it impossible to predict who will be in the vicinity of your conversation, but it is also impossible to retract the conversation once it is overhead.

In the case of the UVA Law students, not only were they called out via online forums, they will most like suffer consequences in terms of a future (or lack thereof) with the firm in question.

Above The Law blogger Elie Mystal responds to the incident frankly, “Why are these kids talking crap about any hiring partner at all in this economy? And having that conversation in an airport would be the dumbest thing ever, except they also decided to refer to this guy by name. Absolute, total, idiots.”

As a firm, it’s never redundant or too late to remind your employees (and potential candidates for employment) about the importance of decorum, confidentiality, and appropriate professional conduct and conversation, both at and outside the firm.

If it doesn’t get through the first time, feel free to use UVA Law students as a contrast example for best practices. The French also serve as a warning for the seriousness of slander as a crime.

-WB

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