All of the PR and communications experts on our guide to the nation’s best legal consultants have a long track record of advising clients on thorny issues tied to litigation and other controversies. But few have the experience of Harlan Loeb, whose transformative professional turn came as a lawyer with the Anti-Defamation League. In that role, the 1991 University of Minnesota law grad performed a wide array of tasks in litigation, policy and communications – a job he just happened to follow with work on the Enron bankruptcy. The Chicago-based consultant joined Canadian firm Argyle in 2020 to help launch its American operations.
Lawdragon: Out of all the work you’ve done in your career, what would you say is the most interesting matter you’ve worked on for a legal client?
Harlan Loeb: Unequivocally, it was working intimately for over five years with the Enron bankruptcy estate to unwind the nation’s seventh-largest company – hard stop! After Enron’s bankruptcy, I worked with the chairman and president of the Enron bankruptcy estate and legal counsel from numerous firms for over five years.
The Houston-based energy company declared bankruptcy in December 2001 after its massive accounting scandal was uncovered. Working closely with a team of lawyers, we systematically unwound the company. During that period, Enron Chairman Ken Lay died, CEO Jeff Skilling received a 26-year prison sentence and CFO Andy Fastow served five years in prison. Among the most intriguing work were the numerous shareholder lawsuits against banks that led to billions of dollars in settlements. When Enron emerged from bankruptcy, the estate had recovered $14.6 billion from the sale of assets and litigation against financial institutions – more than double a court-appointed expert’s prediction. Ultimately, the Enron estate recovered $3.5 billion from 10 of Enron’s financial banking advisers.
LD: What are some of the trends you are seeing in your field now?
HL: A thousand percent, it’s the dynamic changes in the crisis, reputation risk and corporate transformation workspace. The speed of risk is instantaneous today and has generated imaginative quantitative and qualitative tools essential for our business lines across all verticals. Plus, reflecting the proliferation and ubiquity of digital channels and a “pick your own facts” operating environment, it is essential today to stay in front of both reputational and strategic risk.
Failing trust in institutions and our society’s polarization, especially in the U.S., has spawned an “if you can be outraged you must be outraged” culture. The welcome news, however, is unprecedented activism and engagement on the critical societal and environmental issues of our time, including climate initiatives, ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance), and servant leadership models.
Argyle has grown tremendously the last two years as we commit to a distinct horizontal business model in which we invest heavily in our clients – and they in turn in us – and we place a premium on innovative and inventive spirit.
ESG ambitions, in particular, include significant analysis of supply chains, suppliers, vendors and consultants. This makes our work more interesting and challenging. For companies that have never considered reputation risk management as a priority, we view it as a critical differentiator and a competitive advantage. Managing reputational risks appropriately and dynamically within the context of ESG’s corporate governance principles reassures our clients that their reputational assets are not at risk. Authenticating reputational risk management both qualitatively and quantitatively boosts client value – and our own.
LD: Can you talk about your work with the ADL and what that was like?
HL: After graduating cum Laude from the University of Minnesota Law School, I began my legal career at a large Wisconsin law firm practicing environmental law and compliance. To say how stultifying and boring that group was then dramatically understates its punitive nature. I wasn’t cut out for it and moved two years later to New York to join the Anti-Defamation League. As one of ADL’s three-member legal counsel group, I found the energy of New York and my colleagues to be exhilarating. Within a couple of years, I became its Civil Rights Counsel and my professional world changed forever.
My responsibilities in that role were numerous and scintillating – from authoring hate-crimes legislation, arguing “moments of silence” cases in federal appellate courts, speaking across the country on myriad civil rights and social justice issues and appearing frequently on news shows, which proved to be extraordinary.
Among our biggest challenges was actively combatting the activities of hate-filled white supremacy groups. We closely tracked white supremacist Matthew Hale, founder of the World Church of the Creator, who had quite an impressionable following – including Benjamin Smith from a wealthy suburban Chicago family. On Independence Day in 1999, Smith went on a shooting rampage that killed Northwestern’s former African American basketball coach and wounded six Orthodox Jews. Separately, Asian students at Indiana University were injured and one killed. The ADL mobilized immediately, working closely with local police, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. Ultimately, we at the ADL identified Smith as the gunman, and he killed himself as police arrived. Two years later, Hale was convicted of attempting to kill a judge and is serving a 40-year sentence. As part of a four-part series on the tragedy by Tom Brokaw, I commented on it, maintaining that since “the country is willing to impose responsibility on a bartender for serving drinks if a patron is involved in an accident, a strong position needs to be made on hate in the same way.… When you pump somebody full of hate and venom as Hale did, violence is the inevitable outcome.”
LD: Was there another experience or mentor that influenced the course of your professional life?
HL: Without a doubt, serving on the ABA’s Commission on the American Jury System chaired by Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female Supreme Court justice, was a highlight. The privilege of working closely with Justice O’Connor and others to outline efforts to modernize our U.S. jury service was a thrilling opportunity. The commission developed new and comprehensive principles designed to ease juror service, create more representative panels and move jury trials truly into the 21st century.
Just as exciting were the many stories Justice O’Connor shared. She recognized that “breaking bread together” helps people know each other, and she ensured that her fellow justices showed up for lunch. Her humility, grace and character continue to inspire me, and I am fortunate to know her.
LD: How would you describe your style or philosophy as a communications consultant? What characteristics does it take to thrive in your area?
HL: Agile planning and execution coupled with a servant leadership governance structure truly defines our model. Qualities of bona fide servant leaders include recognizing that every person can add value, and should be trusted, respected and embraced. In our experience, genuine leaders in a crisis are people starters who are actionably thoughtful with how their words and actions drive esprit de corps.
LD: If you could retire now, what would you be doing now?
HL: Move from an adjunct professorship at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law teaching Crisis Litigation & The Court of Public Opinion by petitioning the law school’s dean to “promote” me to a full-time faculty position! Also, as a member of the advisory board of the Journal of International Law & Business, I would lobby to revamp it. I have been captivated by just how dynamic law school students have become. Their varied interests fascinate me. My passion is teaching innovative and purely interactive courses, and the data compiled by the law schools supports and confirms that students overwhelmingly thrive with this teaching model.