A ruling that an ex-King & Spalding associate can go to trial on a claim he was fired for raising ethics concerns highlights a critical question for law firms—how to respond to an internal ethics complaint without appearing to retaliate?

On June 8 the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York rejected King & Spalding’s argument that associate David Joffe clearly was terminated for bad performance and “administrative shortcomings,” and not in retaliation for reporting ethical concerns stemming from two partners’ representation of Chinese telecommunications company ZTE Corp. Joffee thought the partners showed “poor judgment” in ignoring...