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Holland & Knight: One of the last sex harass suits for BigLaw?

Speaking of sanctions, I have a few remarks on the sexual harassment scandal at one of the nation's largest firms, Holland & Knight, after reading Dan Lynch's excellent report. I buy that partner Douglas A. Wright, 44, a tax lawyer, "maybe  had watched one episode too many of 'Ally McBeal,'" in the words of HR consultant John Beane. But the statement by BigLaw consultant Edward Poll that an influx of women attorneys will eventually create a culture where sexual harassment is obsolete, while touchingly optimistic, doesn't reflect reality today or tomorrow.

Poll told Reporter Lynch, "If you look at law school classes, they're more than 50 percent women. When women who can act as women, rather than as clones of men, take power at law firms, the culture will change. It has to." Really? Let's examine the facts. Six months after  nine attorneys filed internal complaints accusing Wright of sexual harassment, managing partner Howell Melton promoted Wright to chief operating partner of the Tampa firm and its 1,250 attorneys. Lynch describes Holland & Knight as "founded in Tampa in 1889, [with] 32 offices. It's the second-largest law firm in Florida and among the 15 largest firms in the country."

Wright's promotion included supervising HR, the same department that had overseen the previous year's private, internal investigation into sexual harassment claims against him. The same department that delivered to Wright "a private reprimand last summer, including orders to stop asking women in the office to feel his "pipes," or biceps. He was also told to stop commenting on their clothes and sex lives and to forgo any retaliation against the women who'd complained."

One of the firm's directors who presumably approved Wright's promotion and knew about the complaints was former ABA President Martha Barnett. This woman is also the person to whom Holland & Knight turned to handle the press when Wright recently resigned the post (but not the firm). According to Lynch, she told the St. Petersburg Times "that the news media coverage of her firm's handling of the case had caused embarrassment, particularly for an institution that views diversity and equality as a core value ..."

Let's give credit where credit is due: As Lynch reports, Barnett is not alone. There are lots of women already at Holland & Knight and the firm sounds as though it's working hard to keep them there. Lynch writes:

"Holland & Knight has made special efforts to advance women in the firm and in general. Among the firm's initiatives are the Rising Star program, which singles out five female lawyers a year for specialized management and leadership training. Last year, 13 of the 24 associates the firm promoted to partner were women. The firm also sponsors Women Executive Leadership, a nonprofit organization aimed at putting more women on corporate boards. "

Obviously the firm is doing something right, because the attorneys who filed their complaints about Wright didn't go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- they stuck to the terms of their confidentiality agreement and worked it out from within. Yet, Lynch reports, "some Holland partners reportedly defended Wright and circulated a petition on his behalf within the firm." 

My 2 cents:  No one should have been surprised when the same, good-girl attorneys who supported the Holland team by playing within the firm's internal rules made sure the Times got wind of Wright's professional reward for bad conduct. In the words of sexual harassment specialist and attorney William Amlong, also quoted by Lynch, Holland & Knight sent "the wrong message, especially after complaints by nine women. That's not a sexual harassment complaint. That's a stampede."

And Holland & Knight should thank their lucky stars that women like Martha Barnett are willing to stay, publicly defend the firm, and work from within. So while I hope Edward Poll is more than just an optimist -- I hope he's right -- in this case of a leading American law firm, one invested in including women in the leadership structure and systematically recruiting more, he appears to be wrong.

What do you think?

Posted by Product Team on April 5, 2005 at 02:10 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)


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