Law Firms

Summer associate—said to be 'like a dude in heels'—was victim of gender bias and bullying, suit says

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A summer associate last year at Howard & Howard's Chicago office alleges in a bias lawsuit that she was subjected to “a culture of gender discrimination and bizarre bullying tactics” by the law firm.

The plaintiff, Jennie Christensen, 26, recently graduated from the Notre Dame Law School. Her Aug. 27 lawsuit says Howard & Howard ended her summer associate position three days early and failed to make a full-time job offer, even though she produced high-caliber work.

Christensen thinks that she was the only female summer associate at the law firm for at least eight years, the suit says. She was one of three summer associates in Chicago in 2019, and the other two, both men, got employment offers. Yet those associates had “received written and verbal admonishments for a range of problems, including unacceptable work and failure to integrate socially,” the suit says.

According to the suit, the partner assigned to be Christensen’s mentor treated her “hostilely” throughout the internship, never bothering to check in with Christensen and offer counsel. In the hallways, the partner often refused to acknowledge Christensen or return a greeting. Emails that Christensen sent to the partner were disregarded, the suit says.

In addition, the suit says, the partner repeatedly provided “bitter, negative and underserved comments, paired with suggestions that Ms. Christensen might not be competent enough to complete the work at hand.”

Christensen says the partner would leave papers on her desk, with no instructions on what to do with them. One time, the partner asked Christensen to review thousands of printed pages with no other instructions. Afterward, the partner expressed disappointment about a typo and pointed at one of hundreds of dates on a page and said the date was a Monday, not a Tuesday.

“I was expecting you to pick up on this stuff,” the partner allegedly said. The date was on a page that Christensen had been told to ignore, the suit says.

Christensen also cited alleged issues with other Howard & Howard lawyers.

The problems began soon after she joined the firm, when a lawyer who had participated in her on-campus interview told Christensen that she liked her much better now. The lawyer said she had initially preferred a male Notre Dame candidate because she feared that Christensen would be “too competitive,” the suit says.

Less than a month into Christensen’s employment, another lawyer allegedly told Christensen that she was a good fit at the firm because she was “like a dude in heels.”

In August 2019, a lawyer took Christensen to lunch and directed her to “take photos of the girls going to Lollapalooza,” so he could send them to a friend, the suit alleges.

When Christensen was told that she was being terminated, she was given reasons that were pretextual, the suit says. Christensen was told that her work was of poor quality, she had incomplete projects, and the firm had no interest in going into data privacy—her area of expertise.

Christensen says she had been given only two examples of poor performance—the typo and the incorrect date—during her time at the firm. Other lawyers at the firm had praised Christensen’s work, the suit says.

Only one of Christensen’s projects was unfinished, and that was because she was told that she had until the last day of her internship to finish it, the suit says.

In addition, the law firm was aware upfront of Christensen’s interest in data privacy but hired her as a summer associate. And the firm’s website said it did have data privacy lawyers.

Howard & Howard provided different reasons for the termination to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to the suit.

The firm said Christensen was not committed to working at Howard & Howard, had shown unprofessional behavior at a firm event, had expected too much from her mentor, had improperly altered treatise citation style, had failed to engage in the type of professional behavior expected of an associate, and was not proactive with respect to work assignments and soliciting feedback.

Christensen says the new justifications were false and pretextual.

The suit alleges sexual harassment, sex discrimination and a hostile work environment.

Mark A. Davis, president and CEO at Howard & Howard, gave this statement to the ABA Journal: “We believe that Ms. Christensen’s claims are meritless, bordering on frivolous, and we will vigorously defend against them.”

Hat tip to Law360, which had coverage of the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in Chicago.

Updated Sept. 4 at 2:20 p.m. to correct Christensen’s age.

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