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Jones Day Smears Its Prized Hires—Is That Smart?

Vivia Chen

September 4, 2019

220px-Goneril_and_Regan_from_King_Lear-1
Oh, how sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!

Maybe that's how Jones Day and its leader Stephen Brogan felt about Mark Savignac's January 16 email to the firm. How else to explain Brogan's and the firm's harsh handling of Savignac and his wife Julia Sheketoff, both one-time star hires at the firm (they clerked for the Supreme Court), who are now suing Jones Day? 

In the email, Savignac, then an associate, reiterated his belief that the firm’s leave policy was discriminatory, adding: “Give me the treatment that Jones Day gives all women with new children—18 weeks of paid leave and six weeks of unpaid leave—or else I will file a charge with EEOC and then a class-action lawsuit, and the matter will be decided in the D.C. Circuit and in the court of public opinion.”

Maybe not the most politic email, but Savignac believes the law is on his side. In any case, Jones Day wasted no time. Three days later, he was fired. Bam!

In a way, it’s understandable why Jones Day was bitter. Here was this highly paid associate whom the law firm treated like a prince (like all its high court hires) who threatened legal action.

(Jones Day did not respond to inquiries seeking comment for this column.)

Among the fascinating tidbits in Savignac and Sheketoff’s complaint against Jones Day (she also claims she was paid unfairly when she worked there) is the coddled treatment enjoyed by these clerks:

- Obscene starting pay: Savignac's compensation for 2017, fresh out of his Supreme Court clerkship and a stint at the Federal Reserve, was a staggering $755,000. (Last year, the firm hired 11 clerks. Do the math.)

- Exemption from dull work: The complaint says clerks were promised interesting work with no billable requirement.

- Virtual certainty of partnership: The complaint says that since at least 2014, every Supreme Court clerk that stayed at the firm became a partner.

- Life in a gated community. The complaint hints that the clerks hung out with each other, referencing the "male Issues and Appeals associates' table in the Jones Day cafeteria."

And what did Savignac do with this largesse? He thumbed his nose at it and threatened legal action.

In response, it looks like Jones Day got rough. According to the complaint, “Minutes after the termination was sent [via email], as Julia and Mark cradled their newborn son and absorbed the news that Mark was now unemployed, a Jones Day representative knocked on their door and delivered the same by hand.

Then, after Savignac and Sheketoff filed their complaint, Jones Day issued a statement, with managing partner Brogan’s name and photo at the bottom, lambasting the two former clerks.

Savignac was fired, according to the statement, because “he showed poor judgment, a lack of courtesy to his colleagues, personal immaturity, and a disinterest in pursuing his career at Jones Day—all of which are apparent in an intemperate email he sent to a member of our professional staff and in the complaint itself.” Jones Day also writes that Savignac “exhibited open hostility to the Firm, demanding that he be given what he wants ‘or else’ and claiming hardship under circumstances that no reasonable person would view as anything but exceptionally generous.”

Talk about an ungrateful child!

As for Sheketoff, the firm essentially dissed her as a lawyer: “Ms. Sheketoff was a highly paid associate who made more than her husband despite the fact that her reviews from multiple partners were mixed, her contribution to billable client representations was below expectations, and her attention was focused on idiosyncratic concerns.”

Moreover, adds the statement, Sheketoff’s claims also reflected “frivolousness,” citing her allegation that the firm altered her website photo “to conform to the firm’s Caucasian standards of female beauty.”

Oh, where to begin to parse Jones Day’s handling of this whole debacle?

First of all, it sure looks bad to fire someone three days after he makes a legal complaint. (Isn’t this Employment Law 101?) Worse, according to the complaint, the firm was vengeful, thwarting Savignac’s effort to get a decent job recommendation. (The complaint says that Jones Day forbade partners who worked closely with him to vouch for his work to prospective employers).

This might be a minor point, but wasn’t it overkill to send a firm envoy, as the complaint says, to personally fire Savignac at his home after he had already been axed via email? Was that an extra scare tactic? Or was it meant as gratuitous humiliation?

As for Jones Day’s statement, why trash two luminaries that the firm spent so much time and money to recruit? Isn’t Jones Day undermining itself when it talks about how it ended up with two duds?

“They are attacking two highly accomplished lawyers; it’s hard to believe that they aren’t excellent lawyers,” says Peter Romer-Friedman, counsel at Outten & Golden, who represented plaintiffs in two similar lawsuits involving CNN and JPMorgan Chase that resulted in settlements in which the companies agreed to implement gender-neutral leave policies. “It takes courage to bring this kind of lawsuit,” says Romer-Friedman, adding, “To me, it’s clear that Jones Day has an illegal policy, and it’s a straightforward legal question.”

What also pops out for Romer-Friedman is Jones Day’s slash-burn tactics. “I was surprised that they would be that aggressive. I sue a lot of companies and most are sensitive to optics.”

Indeed, Jones Day seems to be throwing optics to the wind, particularly when it comes to the audience it’s worked so hard to cultivate over the years: Supreme Court clerks.

“This is on the higher scale of personal attacks, and it’s pretty rare,” says Romer-Friedman about Jones Day’s tactics. “Most firms don’t do this kind of vitriolic attack on their former all-stars. Most would handle it discreetly because it can hurt recruiting.”  He adds, “I’d think twice about joining this kind of law firm.”

Related post: Meet the Former Supreme Court Clerks Suing Jones Day.

 

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

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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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