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Is that Lateral Partner a Sexual Harasser?

Vivia Chen

August 13, 2018

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What does Big Law have in common with the Catholic Church and elite prep schools? Apparently, they all recycle sexual harassers and predators to other institutions.

The good (is that the right adjective?) news is that law firms aren’t dumping their bad apples on innocent children. They’re just passing them onto other law firms.

“Rainmakers accused of bad behavior often receive second and third chances,” report Sara Randazzo and Nicole Hong of The Wall Street Journal. And in a time when firms are dependent on business developers, it’s likely that even those with unsavory histories will find a home—at least for a while.

The article cites three partners who allegedly behaved inappropriately at their firms, then moved on to other firms where, in some cases, they were accused of similar conduct.  (All three deny the charges.)

One is capital markets expert James Tanenbaum, who landed at Mayer Brown this year after being forced out from Morrison & Foerster for sexual harassment allegations, and, before MoFo, he was ousted from his longtime firm Strook & Strook & Lavan (where he paid a settlement to a female associate, the Journal reports). “He created an uncomfortable work environment by giving them impromptu shoulder massages, kissing them on the forehead and … asking them to ‘spin around’ for him while commenting on their bodies and clothing,” reports the Journal. He is no longer at Mayer Brown.

The second lawyer is Jeffrey Reeves who left his partnership at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, where he worked for 26 years, in December after an investigation into an allegation that he forced a female associate to perform oral sex in his office in August 2017. Reeves joined litigation boutique Umberg Zipser in January, and then jumped the next month to boutique Theodora Oringher, where he still works.

The third is former Fox Rothschild partner N. Ari Weisbrot, people familiar with the matter told the Journal, which reported that he resigned last year after the firm investigated him about allegations of inappropriate behavior. (It’s not clear what the allegations are, though the Journal reports that he tried to force a kiss on a female lawyer who was interviewing for a job.) In May 2017, he moved to Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, which learned about the allegation when it was contacted by the Journal. Weisbrot is no longer at Bryan Cave.

Weisbrot declined to comment. Reeves and Tanenbaum have not yet responded to requests for comment.

Is your head spinning? Mine was. My first reaction was that I can’t believe this kind of heavy-handed, “Mad Men”-style harassment still happens in Big Law. Granted, these allegations seem to predate #MeToo—but not by that much. Forcing a female associate to perform oral sex in your office or trying to kiss a job candidate is madness. (For whatever it’s worth, Tanenbaum, who’s 70, comes off as the most harmless of the trio—more like an odd, old goat.) That’s not white, male privilege. That’s mega-male stupidity.

So what can firms do to protect themselves from the Harveys of the legal profession? Not much.

Gibson Dunn apparently tried to curb Reeves’ naughty-boy tendencies in 2015 “when co-workers saw him making out with a junior associate at a Las Vegas nightclub during an office retreat,” reports the Journal. The firm instituted mandatory sexual-harassment training and took alcohol off the lunch menu at partner meetings; plus, it demoted Reeves from his role as head of the Orange County’s office.

Asked for comment, the firm’s spokeswoman Pearl Piatt issued this statement:

Gibson Dunn has a strong policy prohibiting sexual harassment, with robust training and vigorous enforcement. We are absolutely committed to a positive workplace culture free of harassment. And in this case, we promptly investigated allegations when they were brought to our attention and acted swiftly and firmly in response. As a result, Mr. Reeves is no longer with the firm.

The “robust training” didn’t seem to do much good with Reeves. The only effective response seems to be booting him out of the firm.

Which means that unsuspecting firms will likely inherit these jerks. (Though firms might ask lawyers about prior complaints against them, firms don’t look that closely, reports the Journal.)

“There’s no lie detector tests for these things,” says Keith Wetmore, a managing director of recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa. “Firms will do background and credit checks, but no firm will call a current employer because that can jeopardize someone’s career.” (Wetmore was the chairman at MoFo at the time Tanenbaum was at the firm, though he declined to comment about that specific matter.) At most, says Wetmore, firms can press harder as to the exact reason someone is leaving: “Jon Lindsey [one of the founders of MLA] always use to ask, ‘Is there anything I should know?’ But sometimes a guy just tells you his name and serial number and keeps you in the dark.”

But what happens to rainmakers with known checkered past? Will no firm touch them? My hunch is that they will find a home somewhere so long as they can retain their clients.

Indeed, Reeves’ new firm seems intent on keeping him. Todd Theodora, the head of Reeves’ latest firm, told the Journal that Reeves has been forthright and understands the boundaries: “Jeff has been living up to his strict and solemn promises to us.”

Good luck with that.

Contact Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com. On Twitter: @lawcareerist

 

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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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