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Law Firms Seek, Unsuccessfully, to Keep Associate Disputes Private

Posted May 8, 2008 4:13 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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Once upon a time, associates who were let go by their law firms tiptoed quietly out the door, perhaps after several months spent "working" at their desks to find another position. But today, when the power of the Internet can help them sweeten the terms of their severance deals, many are more outspoken, not only about layoffs but about other once-private firm issues, a law blogger points out.

Associates don't hesitate to send anonymous e-mail complaints to high-traffic sites like Above the Law (which posted today about alleged layoffs of some 22 lawyers at Paul Hastings over the past year or so), writes Carolyn Elefant, in a Legal Blog Watch post. And, although some law firms are fighting back by requiring in employment agreements that workplace disputes be arbitrated instead of litigated—and, in Paul Hastings' case, by reportedly including anti-disparagement and confidentiality clauses in severance agreements—such provisions don't provide complete protection.

The anti-disparagement clause, for instance, apparently didn't prevent one now-former Paul Hastings associate who reportedly refused to sign it from complaining to Above the Law that the firm allegedly terminated her a week after she suffered a miscarriage.

“After my miscarriage, I had discussed my concern with several associates that Paul Hastings may use that opportunity to lay me off quickly before I have a chance to get pregnant again,” wrote the former San Francisco associate, who says she suddenly, for the first time, received a mediocre performance review and was let go. “Those associates thought it unfathomable that a firm would be so callous and assured me that Paul Hastings isn't that kind of a place. What a lesson this has been for them—and for me.”

The law firm told the blog it disagreed with the associate’s description of what occurred, but can't comment in detail because it doesn't publicly discuss such employment matters.

And, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly reports today, a Bingham McCutchen arbitration provision didn't prevent a former associate from filing administrative agency discrimination claims that she had been forced to find another job after the firm didn't respond aggressively to her complaint that she and another female associate had been given date-rape drugs at law firm-related social events. (Further details of her claims are provided in an earlier ABAJournal.com post.)

In a lengthy excerpt of a written statement from the firm published by the Wall Street Journal Law Blog, Bingham says it responded aggressively and appropriately to the associate's concerns.

Another WSJ Law Blog post today focuses on the Paul Hastings discussion on Above the Law, and says that associates, in general, don't hesitate to complain when they feel a law firm has said they have performance issues but in fact the real problem is law firm finances.

Hence, law firms should avoid creating additional difficulties for themselves by blaming associates if there isn't a true performance issue, advises Dan Weiner of Hughes Hubbard & Reed, who co-chairs the firm's personnel committee in New York.

“In the world of inside sources and blogs, everyone knows why you’re doing what you’re doing anyway,” he tells the WSJ blog. “To try and put a false face on it is not going to help you at all.”

It isn't just the new media that associates turn to when they are unhappy with their law firms, however.

The power of negative publicity that traditional media reports of associate layoffs can generate was illustrated a few months ago when Dechert apparently backtracked on plans to let 13 attorneys go after the matter became public.

And in the recent Bingham case, the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly says, copies of an administrative complaint filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination were sent to multiple news organizations.

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