Law Firms

Ex-partner's bias suit alleges he was told Black lawyers left because they can't handle BigLaw

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A former Black partner at K&L Gates alleges in a lawsuit that he was terminated for his complaints about discrimination and then harassed by private investigators hired by the law firm.

Willie Dennis is representing himself in the lawsuit, filed Monday in Manhattan federal court. His suit says he was “the victim of systemic racism and discriminatory barriers to equal treatment” at the law firm.

Bloomberg Law and Law360 have coverage.

Dennis says he was essentially expelled from the law firm when he was denied access to his office and email. The expulsion happened after Dennis complained in an email sent to more than 300 partners about male partners dating women at the firm and then determining their compensation.

After Dennis’ expulsion, the suit says, the law firm “engaged third-party armed individuals to follow plaintiff to yet further intimidate and bully him, including at a conference of Black attorneys in Chicago in September 2019.” The private investigators also harassed Dennis’ family, according to the suit.

K&L Gates released a statement to the ABA Journal.

“Mr. Dennis’ pro se complaint is not only meritless, it is rife with false and defamatory allegations,” the statement said. “Mr. Dennis was expelled as a partner of the firm pursuant to a May 2019 vote of the partners because of an extensive and documented record of erratic, offensive and improper behavior, which he refused to stop despite repeated warnings.”

After Dennis was fired, he sent “thousands of disturbing emails, texts, faxes and voicemails to firm lawyers—at all hours of the day and night,” the statement said. “In response to his prolonged misconduct, the firm has taken appropriate measures to protect its lawyers’ security and well-being.”

Dennis says in the suit his complaints at the law firm addressed discrimination against Black lawyers and sexual harassment of women, including summer associates.

“At the firm, African American attorneys faced minimal career opportunities, limited training and development opportunities, a denial of access to substantive and high-profile legal work, and significant roadblocks to partnership,” the suit says.

The suit claims that Black lawyers at K&L Gates are paid less than their white counterparts; Black partners are denied origination credits; and Black lawyers are denied training opportunities, access to clients and billable hours.

In a short period of time, five Black male lawyers and 13 Black female lawyers left the firm, according to the suit. The firm’s public explanation was that the lawyers left for better opportunities, but the reality was that they left because K&L Gates “did not foster an equitable work environment,” the suit says.

When Dennis raised concerns about attrition, he was allegedly given excuses that included, “African American lawyers cannot handle BigLaw,” they don’t fit in, and they “can’t cut the mustard.”

In one incident in a hallway near the elevator, the suit alleges, New York managing partner John Bicks pushed Dennis, yelled at him and spit in his face.

A K&L Gates spokesperson said that allegation is among the many false and defamatory claims in Dennis’ suit.

Dennis was a partner at K&L Gates for 17 years. He previously worked at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and Thelen Reid and Priest.

Dennis told the ABA Journal that his emails to the firm, before and after he left, were about sexual harassment and diversity.

“If you asked them for the emails, what they will show you is hundreds of emails relating to sexual harassment, hundreds of emails talking about ways to improve the process,” Dennis says.

Dennis points to a Wall Street Journal article reporting that Microsoft and other corporations were asking their law firms to supply more information on how many diverse lawyers they employ and whether they are getting meaningful work. Microsoft is a client of K&L Gates, Dennis says.

Dennis says the article bolsters his point that there is a business case for diversity. He also advocated for a best-practices sexual harassment policy that could be used as a recruiting tool. K&L Gates “expelled me on not valid grounds but on a pretext because I was talking about sexual harassment and diversity,” he says.

Asked about the law firm’s claim that he had been behaving erratically, Dennis says the claim made no sense.

“After 17 years all, of a sudden I lost my mind, is that what they were trying to say? It’s crazy,” he says.

Dennis rejected the claim that the law firm perceived him as threatening.

“I’m 5-feet-6, 58 years old, I don’t own a gun, never shot a gun,” he says.

Yet he was visited by police officers and armed investigators.

“Who’s really being threatened here?” he asks. “Who really is scared? I am.”

Updated Nov. 11 at 2:25 p.m. to include information from interview with Dennis.

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