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Whatever Happened to Davis Polk's Report on Victoria's Secrets?

Vivia Chen

December 9, 2020

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I hate to say I told ya so. But I will.

Over a year ago, I raised red flags about Davis Polk & Wardwell’s investigation of Leslie Wexner, the CEO of L Brands (better known as the parent company of Victoria’s Secret) and his curious relationship with pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. I wrote at the time: “If I were a shareholder in publicly traded L Brands, I’d be a total pain in the you-know-where about the whole thing—like, why am I paying a firm that appears personally connected to the person under investigation?”

I questioned whether Davis Polk was too damn cozy with Wexner and L Brands to do a thorough investigation. Besides being the company’s outside corporate counsel, the firm has loomed large in Wexner’s personal life: Davis Polk’s former partner Dennis Hersch serves as Wexner’s business adviser, and Wexner’s wife Abigail was a former associate at the firm.

But when I asked around, folks told me to cool my jets. Ethics experts I consulted (New York University School of Law’s Stephen Gillers, Fordham University School of Law’s Andrew Kent and Columbia Law School’s Berit Berger) all assured me that the arrangement was perfectly legal and standard. “Given the reputation of the firm, I don’t think it would do a subpar job,” said Berger.

Well, so much for that logic. While the arrangement might be technically legal, all is not fine and dandy.

Just recently, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz was hired to conduct a separate investigation of the L Brands/Wexler/Epstein connection, reports The New York Times. The new investigation will likely cover broader problems at the company, including “allegations of misconduct and a culture of harassment and misogyny at L Brands and its lingerie powerhouse,” says the Times.

I don’t know how folks will spin this, but it seems quite apparent that Davis Polk didn’t do the job. Indeed, a shareholder lawsuit filed in May “suggested that Davis Polk was too close to L Brands to be truly independent,” says the Times.

So what report did Davis Polk deliver to the L Brands board? No one knows because none of it has been made public. (Also mysterious is who from the firm led the investigation. I’ve asked the firm for comment but have not heard back.) And though the Times did a lengthy investigative article that chronicled L Brands “entrenched culture of misogyny, bullying and harassment” in February, we have no clue how the firm addressed those issues and what it had to say about Wexner’s leadership.

That’s not exactly an exercise in corporate transparency. Nor is it a road map for trust-building. Which brings me back to my original point: Why do we pay such deference to blue chip law firms as if they are somehow beyond reproach? Davis Polk might be a crème de la crème firm, but does that mean it’s immune from client pressures? Common sense would tell you to pick another firm.

It took more than a year (and god knows how much in legal bills), but there’s now a new sheriff on the job.

And here’s what I find really interesting (and fitting): It took two women—L Brands’ independent board members, Sarah Nash and Anne Sheehan—to hire another counsel to clean up shop, according to the Times. And they picked a woman: Wachtell litigation partner Sarah Eddy, a former chief of appeals for the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, with serious chops in investigations.

How glorious that it’s now women who are driving the investigation at L Brands! I, for one, trust women to do a thorough house cleaning.

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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: [email protected]

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