Kanye West's lawyers cut ties amid hate speech storm

Rapper Kanye West smiles during a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump to discuss criminal justice reform at the White House in Washington, October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

(Reuters) - As corporations including Adidas AG end multi-million-dollar deals with the artist formerly known as Kanye West following anti-Semitic comments, his lawyers are following suit.

Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan partner Alex Spiro told me that despite recent reports that the rapper now called Ye was his client, he is not representing him.

Ye “asked me to be his attorney but the representation never formalized,” Spiro, whose other clients include Elon Musk, said via email. “I do not represent Mr. West.”

A Ye representative did not respond to a request for comment for this column.

Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft said it had ended its work for Ye. “We are not presently providing any representation and have no intention of providing any future representation,” a firm spokesman said.

Cadwalader partner Nicholas Gravante penned a letter on Ye’s behalf to The Gap Inc last month, notifying the retailer that his then-client was terminating the partnership because the company allegedly failed to live up to contractual obligations.

Brown Rudnick also “no longer represents Kanye West,” a spokesman confirmed. The firm is home to high-profile litigator Camille Vasquez, who represented actor Johnny Depp in his defamation suit against his ex-wife Amber Heard.

And Ye’s most recent divorce lawyer (he’s had several), Robert Cohen of Cohen Clair Lans Greifer Thorpe & Rottenstreich, also told me by email, “We are no longer representing Ye.” Cohen previously represented Melinda French Gates in her divorce from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

The moves come after Ye on Oct. 3 wore a “White Lives Matter” t-shirt at Paris Fashion Week — a phrase that the Anti-Defamation League says is a white supremacist slogan.

Five days later, he tweeted “I’m a bit sleepy tonight but when I wake up I’m going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE.”

The professional repercussions have been swift and severe. My Reuters colleague Uday Sampath Kumar on Tuesday reported that the musician has been knocked off the Forbes list of the world's billionaires as a result of Adidas terminating its deal with him.

"Adidas does not tolerate antisemitism and any other sort of hate speech," the German company said on Tuesday.

European fashion house Balenciaga has also cut ties with Ye, Kumar reported, and Gap has removed Yeezy Gap products from its stores and shut down YeezyGap.com.

In addition, Reuters reported that Creative Artists Agency no longer represents Ye, and that film and television studio MRC Entertainment has scrapped a documentary about him.

If there’s one thing Ye could probably use about now, it’s a good lawyer. Still, it's clear why his A-list counsel no longer wish to be associated with him.

I’m not saying only saints deserve lawyers. But attorneys are not taxi cabs, obligated to take on anyone who can pay the fare. They make choices about who they want to represent. And I don’t fault those who would prefer not to devote themselves to protecting the bank account of someone who spews hate speech.

“The prevailing rule is that lawyers can drop a client for virtually any reason — including that they don't like being associated with the client — as long as the representation ends ‘without material adverse effect on the interests of the client,’” Bruce Green, a professor at Fordham University School of Law, said via email.

To be sure, lawyers can’t simply terminate a representation in the midst of litigation. The client and generally the court must give permission to exit, and that can take time.

For example, Greenberg Traurig partner Justin MacLean is currently defending Ye in a copyright suit brought by Ultra International Music Publishing in Manhattan federal court, according to PACER. MacLean did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But for legal work that’s not before a tribunal, ethics expert Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law, told me told me Ye’s lawyers are free to quit “so long as they do so in an orderly way.”

“It should not be a problem for him to get new counsel,” Gillers said. “In the presumably short interim until new counsel is on board, they have to protect his interests.”

Since Ye remains rich (albeit less rich) and famous, I'm sure he'll find lawyers willing to go to bat for him. But almost certainly, that list will be much shorter than it used to be.

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Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, faces behind the cases, and quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime chronicler of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Reach Greene at jenna.greene@thomsonreuters.com