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Would Law Firms Boot Bill O'Reilly?

Vivia Chen

April 28, 2017



How many of you did a happy dance when you heard that Bill O'Reilly was getting booted from Fox News?

I did.

Look, it's been a brutal year for women—and, sadly, a fabulous one for male chauvinists of the Mad Men sort. I won't revisit all the indignities, but let's just say that electing a man to the presidency who boasts about grabbing women's genitals wasn't exactly uplifting.

Hence, it was a delicious treat that O'Reilly, who's been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment, is finally getting his comeuppance. Even if we can't nail Donald Trump (remember at least 18 women accused our prez of sexual harassment or assault), it's nice that his kindred spirit O'Reilly is getting his due.

I was cheery for five whole minutes, but then I remembered that accusations of O'Reilly's loutish behavior have been out there for over ten years. (The New York Times reports that he settled a suit brought by former Fox producer Andrea Mackris for $9 million in 2004.) All told, Fox has coughed up a total of $13 million to settle suits by five other women.

Of course, there's a simple business reason why O'Reilly didn't get the old heave-ho much earlier: He was a huge cash cow (oops, I meant "bull") for Fox, bringing in more than $446 million in advertising revenues from 2014 to 1016, according to the Times. He'd be sitting pretty at his anchor chair right now, if the Times didn't break the story about the $13 million payout and advertisers didn't abandon him as a result.

I'm pretty sure there's no O'Reilly equivalent in Big Law. Nor is there a major law firm that's runs like Fox News (remember, Roger Ailes, Fox's former chairman also harassed women).

But here's my question: Would firms be equally reluctant to get rid of a top rainmaker who behaved badly?

You betcha. I mean, can you imagine pushing out a rainmaker who's responsible for a quarter of the firm's billings just because he (or she, for those who are p.c.) is a nasty, abusive and predatory piece of work?

Most firms, like entertainment enterprises, are dependent on individual stars to keep the money pumping. Which means they would would bend over backwards to keep such a vital player. And like media companies, they'd probably turn their guns on the complainer rather than one of their power brokers.

So what would prompt a firm to finally oust the offending partner? Bad publicity—the same thing that spurred Fox to fire O'Reilly.

"Unless some truly egregious situation finds its way to the press, big law firms can fly under the radar," says former Kirkland & Ellis partner Steven Harper, who's an American Lawyer contributor. "If clients don't know, they can't react."

 That said, Harper says sexual harassment is not the problem it once was in law firms or corporations. "Things are better than they were 20 years ago. A prior generation of leaders would have turned a blind eye, or given a wrist slap, to sexual misconduct, especially by rainmakers."

I agree that firms can't turn a blind eye anymore, certainly not to egregious forms of unacceptable behavior. And for better or worse, most lawyers are too smart, cautious or repressed to commit blatant acts of offensive behavior (at least the sexual sort). Which means the gender inequality that most women face in firms and corporations is a lot trickier to prove.

Is O'Reilly's ouster a hopeful sign for women? While it's heartening that he was publicly chastened, it's jarring that it's taken over a decade. And let's not forget that he's now licking his wounds with a purported $25 million in severance.

If you see the silver lining, tell me about it.




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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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