You've probably heard about Philip Culhane, the Simpson Thacher & Barlett partner who is part of a group of plaintiffs suing his former school, Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn, New York, for sexual abuse. Recently, the New York Law Journal reported the plaintiffs' suit got a boost when a federal magistrate ruled that they could depose the school's past and current headmaster and review school records and investigations.
What fascinates me about this story is not the legal strategy of the case. It's this: Why would someone in Culhane's position want to expose this painful history? How could this possibly be a career enhancer? And why would any firm want one of its lawyers embroiled in a sexual abuse scandal--even if the lawyer were innocent?
Culhane's story follows a familiar arc: A child molested by an authority figure (a beloved football coach), while the institution turns a blind eye. (Culhane's lawsuit alleges that the school ignored complaints and warning signs for nearly three decades, starting with the coach's hiring in the 1970s.)
It's a sad story we've heard too often lately. So why is Culhane's situation jarring? Because we’re not used to thinking of successful professionals as victims--especially when it involves something as unsavory as pedophilia. Celebrities like Oprah Winfrey can bare their souls about the horrors of their childhoods. They’ve made careers from perfecting the art of personal, and highly public, revelations.
But lawyers who reveal their wounds? That's uncomfortable. We expect lawyers to keep it all buttoned under their button-down shirts. Their job is to dispense well-reasoned advice to clients. They epitomize rationality and control. Revealing a personal mess spoils that illusion.
Culhane says he joined the suit against his school because it's the right thing to do. "As a society, we don't take this kind of abuse seriously," he says, speaking by phone from Hong Kong (he's been based there for ten years). "I'm in a position to fight and I will."
Culhane wasn't always so open about his past. For most of his life, he told no one about the secret that haunted him--not his parents, not his friends, not his classmates. "I started telling my brother and sister just in this last decade," he says.
A model student and lawyer, Culhane also was a master of repression. The complaint filed against the school says that he suffered long bouts of depression as a result of the abuse suffered. At work, however, he was the archetypal driven associate: "I was utterly consumed with trying to be successful. As a lawyer, you can think about nothing except your practice 15 hours a day. If you're trying to be a partner, you can be distracted quite well."
That all changed with the birth of his son, as Culhane told The Am Law Daily's Zach Lowe in April:
Watching my 2-year-old son grow up very much took me back to myself as a little boy, and realizing that as a little boy, I was not able to protect myself from the abuse. Looking at my son, it was intolerable to me that I not do everything possible to make sure he is never abused.
Last year, Culhane learned of a pending lawsuit against his former school brought by eight other alums (six name plaintiffs and three John Does) who are charging the school with covering up decades of sex abuse by the coach. After writing a heartfelt letter to the school's current headmaster in which he recounted his struggle with the abuse and receiving only a curt response, Culhane felt compelled to join the suit. "Litigation was something they initiated by this nonresponse," he says.
"I thought about [joining the lawsuit] for three months," he says. He talked with his wife, family, and colleagues. "No one tried to talk me out of it," he says. The tough part, says Culhane, was going public about the case; the career implications were secondary: "I didn't think it would have an impact on my career. It’s not a story that the Hong Kong financial press cares about."
Would he have sued if he was still an associate? That's hard to answer, says Culhane. He adds, though, that being established professionally helps: "It's a luxury to go public. I feel lucky that I'm in position to do the right thing. I have a good job and a nice family, and the security to tell this story."
And how has Simpson Thacher reacted to Culhane's lawsuit? He says the management is "supportive," though the firm has declined to comment. Does the firm's silence signal an uneasiness about the case? Who knows.
What's clear is that Culhane sees his lawsuit as catharsis. "I've been through a process in the last year and now feel completely relieved," he says. "It feels good to tell the truth."
How many lawyers in his situation would do the same? My guess: Very few. Most would probably lock it away--and pray that it never explodes.
If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.
Photo, courtesy of Philip Culhane.
A version of this story appears in the June 2010 issue of The American Lawyer.