Law Firms

Bias suit by former BigLaw associate claims retaliation caused 'drastic drops' in his billable hours

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A black former associate at Davis Polk & Wardwell has filed a lawsuit alleging that the law firm gave him so little work after he complained about racial bias that he billed only 5.9 hours over a three-month period.

The plaintiff, Kaloma Cardwell, was one of four black associates in Davis Polk’s 2014 associate class of more than 120 associates, according to the Nov. 4 lawsuit. He was the only black man. He is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley School of Law.

During the recruitment process, Davis Polk told Cardwell that the law firm had struggled in the past to recruit and retain black law students. But it was implementing policies and practices to make sure that black associates did not “fall through the cracks,” the suit says.

The promise was not upheld, Cardwell says. He was excluded from work and isolated from partners in his M&A group, who did not email him “on multiple occasions,” according to Cardwell.

Bloomberg Law and have coverage of the lawsuit.

“The evidence indicates that plaintiff didn’t merely slip through so-called cracks in Davis Polk’s staffing system; rather, defendants repeatedly dug a hole that would be almost impossible for plaintiff to climb out of,” the suit says.

Cardwell says his problems began early on, when he was left off email communications and meeting invitations. In one instance, a white associate was invited to listen in on a conference call with high-level clients. He was working on the same deal as the white associate, but he wasn’t given the learning opportunity, according to the suit.

Cardwell says he pointed out bias on three early occasions:

• In May 2015, Cardwell pointed out that Davis Polk lawyers weren’t making eye contact with or speaking to summer associates and junior associates of color in meetings. The firm did not address the problem. Instead, he was told: “Hopefully if this happened to you, you showed them how to live in polite society(!) and introduced yourself.”

• In September 2015, Cardwell answered in the affirmative when asked during a diversity meeting whether he had ever experienced bias and exclusion.

• Cardwell and a senior black associate had dinner with then-managing partner Thomas Reid, at his invitation, in January 2016. Both associates relayed concerns about “interpersonal and institutional discrimination at the firm.”

The law firm retaliated by creating “a pretextual record” against him, the suit says. In one instance, Cardwell says, he was told that he had a pattern of missing deadlines, even though Cardwell knew of no deadlines that he had missed. He was given no specific examples.

Cardwell was assigned to fewer M&A deals, and he was given research-related assignments that someone with fewer skills could perform. He was isolated and ignored, causing “drastic drops in billable hours,” the suit says.

The problems worsened after Cardwell suggested in an email that the firm distance itself from a “client with a terrible reputation. That did not go well,” Cardwell’s suit says.

Cardwell’s monthly billable hours dropped to 2.2 hours in January 2017, 1.9 in February 2017 and 1.8 in March 2017, the suit says. Less than a year before that, in May 2016, he had 101.1 billable hours.

In addition, several white partners in his M&A group did not email Cardwell for months at a time. Seven M&A partners did not send Cardwell “a single email in all of 2017,” his suit says.

Two partners designated as Cardwell’s “career advisors” in January 2017 didn’t contact him about their role and didn’t speak with Cardwell to provide long-term career advice. To make matters worse, these advisers were “some of the ring leaders driving plaintiff’s isolation,” the suit says.

Cardwell was finally given M&A work after he told Davis Polk in late May 2017 that he had engaged legal counsel. He filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint in August 2017.

Cardwell was told in February 2018 that he would be fired, the suit says. His last day at the firm was in August 2018.

Davis Polk issued this statement about the case: “Mr. Cardwell’s termination had nothing to do with his race. He was terminated for legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons. The claims lack merit, and the firm will defend the case vigorously.”

Story updated at 2:30 p.m. to include statement from Davis Polk.

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