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Stop Picking on Mr. Kamala Harris!

Vivia Chen

September 2, 2020

Kamala_Harris_takes_oath_of_office_as_United_States_Senator_by_Vice_President_Joe_Biden
I’m all for outing hypocrisy and holding folks accountable but sometimes I feel like I’m getting purity fatigue. Why, oh, why do we expect such innocence — particularly from lawyers and law firms?

Recently, I got this email from a lawyer who’s representing a former female partner at DLA Piper who is suing the firm. The email’s author, Jeanne Christensen, a partner at Wigdor, starts:

“Today I wrote to Sen. Kamala Harris about DLA Piper’s refusal to release our client, former DLA Piper partner Vanina Guerrero, from forced arbitration regarding her allegations of sexual assault at the hands of another DLA Piper partner, Louis Lehot. Senator Harris’ husband Douglas Emhoff is a DLA Piper partner who has earned millions of dollars there, including from clients likely billed by Mr. Lehot.”

The email also notes, “Harris’ brother-in-law Tony West, general counsel for Uber, did the right thing and eliminated forced arbitration for women alleging harm from sexual assaults.”

Christensen’s demand: “Mr. Emhoff needs to step up and demand similar action at DLA Piper or otherwise completely sever his association with the firm.”

And in the letter to Harris, Christensen asks that the California senator take action as well: “We hope you and your husband follow in Mr. West’s path and demand that DLA Piper rights this senseless wrong.”

Lordy. Where to begin?

Well, let’s start with the gossipy stuff: Hey, I didn’t know Harris’ sister Maya is married to Tony West! (They both graduated in the class of 1992 from Stanford Law School but didn’t start dating until years later, according to Wikipedia.) In my circle, West is practically royalty. Not only is he GC of Uber, but he’s also served as an associate attorney general of the United States, GC of PepsiCo and partner at Morrison & Foerster. I mean, this guy was already hot stuff and now he’s sizzling.

Another tidbit: Christensen’s partner is Douglas Wigdor, who represented Joe Biden’s accuser Tara Reade for about five minutes earlier this year. (You’ll recall that Reade had accused Biden of sexually assaulting her.)

But back to that email. As a litigation strategy, I guess it’s clever. Why not use the klieg lights that are now blasting on Harris to push her client’s position? And I don’t disagree with Christensen’s broader principle that corporations and firms shouldn’t force women who allege sexual harassment into arbitration. In fact, I’d go even further: Victims of alleged discrimination of all sorts shouldn’t be subject to forced arbitration. I think it’s in society’s interest that we be as transparent as possible on such vital issues.

That said, I’m uncomfortable with the idea that Harris’s husband is somehow tainted and has an obligation to take a do-or-die stand. More ridiculous is Christensen’s call for Harris to intervene in DLA Piper’s affairs.

First of all, there’s no indication that Emhoff is in any position to demand that DLA Piper drop the forced arbitration (the firm has about 4,000 lawyers and over 1,200 partners). While he’s a partner, he’s not a titan there, as far as I know.

As for quitting the firm to show his purity? Please, can we get over that? What major law firm exists that’s free of policies or clients without controversy? It’s an awful lot to ask that people jeopardize their livelihood to make a statement.

Look, I know we are at a sensitive moment, particularly on gender and race matters. Of course, we should set high standards for ourselves and call out wrongs at workplaces. And, yes, it would be terrific if DLA Piper and all other law firms free employees from forced arbitrations and nondisclosure agreements.

But use Harris’s choice of spouse to get at DLA Piper? That’s guilt by association separated by too many degrees. And it’s cheap. Really cheap.

vchen@alm.com

Twitter: @lawcareerist

Comments

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Good job. I support removing discrimination cases from mandatory arbitration, but this demand goes too far.

Here here!

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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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