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Davis Polk: Racist? Or Just Another Cold Law Firm?

Vivia Chen

November 10, 2019

Catering-2970213_1280I found it unnerving to read Kaloma Cardwell’s complaint against Davis Polk & Wardwell for racial discrimination. It wasn’t because Cardwell unveiled the esteemed firm as some sinister establishment populated with bigots.

Quite the contrary. Cardwell depicts a firm that prides itself on being aware of racial and gender inequities in the workplace and strives to address them. At the same time, though, the firm comes across as a club in which some people are admitted and others quietly frozen out—for whatever reason.

Like many firms, Davis Polk seems to operate on a vague set of unspoken rules. For me, the complaint brought back unpleasant memories of how confusing and demoralizing it is to be an associate—particularly if you’re a young minority member or a woman. And at a place like Davis Polk, with its veneer of understated civility, the rules are arguably even more opaque.

But before I go on, let me be clear that it’s premature to say whether Cardwell was a victim of discrimination. So far, only Cardwell has told his side of the story. In response to my request for comment, the firm issued this statement: “Mr. Cardwell’s termination had nothing to do with his race. He was terminated for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons. The claims lack merit, and the firm will defend the case vigorously.”

That said, Cardwell’s complaint is richly detailed. To say that the firm comes across as a cold, arrogant institution would be an understatement. If nothing else, Cardwell’s complaint offers a roadmap of how firms shouldn’t treat minorities (or anyone) in their workforce. Some examples from the complaint:

- Early in his career, Cardwell was left out of email chains and calls on deals that he was working on

- Cardwell gets dumped from substantive assignments but never told why.

- Cardwell drafts research memos but never hears back from the assigning partner, despite repeated entreaties.

- Cardwell's billables reach alarming lows: 2.2 hours in January 2017, 1.9 in February 2017 and 1.8 in March 2017, but no one addresses the issue.

- Cardwell gets assigned two partners as his "career advisors" but they never contact him.

Yet, Cardwell claims that he never received a negative review until after he had informed the firm that he had hired a law firm and made a formal complaint to the EEOC.

The complaint describes the treatment almost as a type of psychological terrorism: “Week after week, for months, Davis Polk partners isolated Plaintiff with the knowledge that otherwise routine daily interactions—such as constantly being asked what type of legal matters one is working on—would become a form of harassment and humiliation that almost always leads to isolated associates feeling like they have no other choice but to so-called voluntarily leave their law firms.”

I don’t know if these facts are complete or accurate, but on many levels they ring true from my own experience and from years of covering Big Law—particularly about how chilling the partners can be and how he was often left in the dark about his work. (How many times have associates stayed up all night or worked through the weekend drafting memos or documents that go into a black hole? Is it because the work was so subpar that it didn’t deserve a response? Or did the matter simply die?)

What’s ironic, of course, is that Davis Polk had all the right bells and whistles in place to ensure that biases were addressed. The firm has an assignment coordinator to make certain that work is distributed fairly. Moreover, it had an active diversity/inclusion committee (though Cardwell claimed that none of its members contacted him during his ordeal), it brought in experts to talk about unconscious bias, and it hosted open discussions on gender and race.

In fact, Thomas Reid, Davis Polk’s managing partner at the time, even invited Cardwell and an unnamed senior black associate to dinner back in January 2016 for a frank discussion on diversity. (In the complaint, Cardwell says he told Reid that blacks felt excluded, but there was no followup to the discussion.)

Which brings up an interesting question: Did Davis Polk think that it was too progressive, too smart, just too superior to be discriminatory?

Reid hinted that his partners thought so. According to Cardwell’s complaint, Reid stated during their dinner that “there are a significant number of Davis Polk partners who hold seemingly contradictory views on bias at the Firm”—meaning that many “(i) believe that existing research confirms Black and other minority attorney groups experience bias in the workplace and at Davis Polk while they also (ii) believe that they themselves are fair and would never act with bias against attorneys from those groups.”

The complaint goes on to say that “Reid expressed frustration about the difficulty of getting Davis Polk partners to accept objective and reasonable evidence related to racial bias and minority attorneys.”

So the issue of bias was put out there—but never addressed, at least in Cardwell’s claims.

Also left unanswered is why Davis Polk took such a passive-aggressive approach with Cardwell. It almost seems as if the firm expected him to take the hint that he ought to leave graciously. Perhaps that’s a remnant of its WASPy culture.

The big question, of course, is whether the coldness and isolation he experienced are typical of the way Davis Polk deals with all lawyers it wants to get rid of. Or was Cardwell treated this way because of his race?

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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