Monday, May 05, 2008

Take this Severance and Shove It

Over at Above the Law an email from a laid-off Paul Hastings associate has been posted. Here's the first paragraph of the email:

"The circumstances surrounding my departure from Paul Hastings have been deeply disappointing. It is one thing to ignore an email sent as a colleague is waiting to have her uterus scraped after a miscarriage, but it is wholly another level of heartlessness to lay her off six days after that. [Partner X] is the only one who expressed any sympathy after my miscarriage, and I am grateful to him for that."

And that's just a start, so head over to ATL to read the whole thing. This makes Paul Hastings look really bad (as it should), and no doubt they'll take a bashing in the blogosphere and perhaps even in their recruiting efforts on some campuses. But let's be honest--this could have been any big law firm. Oh sure, all the other firms will assure their associates that this type of thing would never happen at their law firm, where associates are so highly valued! But the truth is that every firm has some type of story like this lurking in a closet--Paul Hastings was just unfortunate enough to have it broadcast all over the Internets. The question to me isn't so much, What the hell is wrong with Paul Hastings? The question is, What the hell is wrong with a profession that has long tolerated this kind of thing?

One other note: Paul Hastings is obviously laying people off, but they are not alone. Most of these lay-offs will be couched as associate performance-related, instead of Firm performance-related. But 2Ls should be quietly watching this issue during the Summer and into next Fall.

33 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Totally agree with you MP - most firms, no matter how nice they seem to be, will do this. All in the name of moving up the AmLaw 100/Vault 100. Sadly, employee loyalty is for suckers. 2Ls - your firm screws with its employees this way, do 3L OCIP.

5/05/2008 10:59 PM  
Blogger Armen said...

Max, I was thinking about this as well. Good points all.

5/05/2008 11:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the two partners referenced in her letter (unfortunately not the one she points to at the beginning as being the good one, but the "stone faced" woman and the other male partner) are both boalties in the SF office.

and we held ourselves better than the rest...

5/06/2008 9:26 AM  
Anonymous Colleen said...

The saddest thing is I doubt this story will hurt recruitment at all, except to the extent 2Ls may worry that the firm will fire them. In most law firms, women hide not only the fact that they a planning to get pregnant, but the fact that they are pregnant for months out of fear of how management will react. It's obsurd that the legal profession thinks the bottom line is only affected by production, and not worker satisfaction.

Just a head up to female 2Ls: your firm will spend quality time this summer you in the face and saying they don't understand why they can't retain female associates.

5/06/2008 9:36 AM  
Blogger tj said...

Mr. Power: nice job on the ATL shout out in Lat's follow-up.

5/06/2008 9:43 AM  
Anonymous Linus said...

With all respect to the opinions above....I think the very strong reaction to this story is some indication that this is NOT normal behavior by a law firm. Yes, other firms have done some bad things as well. But in my experience (I've worked at two large firms in four different offices, and have dozens of close friends and several more acquaintances at big firms), I've never seen or heard about anything this bad. A lot of people think this could happen anywhere but aren't providing much to back up those claims. And I think you guys are sort of letting PH off the hook by implying that they're not any worse than anyone else for doing this.

5/06/2008 10:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think it is fair to say that everyone does what PH does and just doesn't get caught. I got an offer from PH and didn't accept it because I heard a lot of bad things about them. Maybe I am naïve, but I don't think the firm I am going to in the fall is this bad. In particular, one of the women who just made partner had recently come off of working part-time and was 6 months pregnant with another child. My firm has the highest percentage of women partners in that legal market. There is also a fairly decent amount of men that take paternity leave too. I am not saying that it isn't difficult to balance work and family there, but surely it is better than PH.

5/06/2008 10:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Farella is an outlyer.

5/06/2008 10:46 AM  
Blogger tj said...

10:33 - while I am not going to speak to the events that led up to the associate's letter, I do want to caution you from judging your new firm by the "here's this one female who just made partner" stories.

PHJW in SF (where the associate had been working) has one of those stories as well - as recently as a couple months ago in a different work group. So it'd be tough to say "surely better than PH" if that's all you're going off of.

And this whole discussion assumes PHJW is an entire firm all comprised of partners of identical quality and compassion - a statement that certainly can't be said for ANY firm. Every office in a firm is unique, and most offices have sub-cultures that distinguish themselves even further.

As bad as you think the PHJW decisions in this matter were, I'm sure there are other partners elsewhere in the firm (and likely even in the same office) who would NEVER stand for treating their own associates in such a manner.

The whole thing kind of strikes me as sad. Hopefully all will work out for the best - both for the woman, as well as the firm in hopefully addressing how to avoid situations like this in the future.

5/06/2008 11:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who cares if other firms do it or not? The reprehensibility of PH's actions (assuming the associates allegations are true) is not measured by reference to how other firms act.

5/06/2008 11:17 AM  
Blogger Armen said...

I really don't understand how or WHY people are reading MP's post as excusing or justifying PH's conduct. It's not. I certainly don't want to speak on MP's behalf, but I read the post as a condemnation of the entire profession that has for a long time, tacitly if not explicitly, condoned such conduct. Who cares if everyone else does it? I sure as hell do.

5/06/2008 11:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To follow up on tj's comment - it seems that each firm I've ever looked closely at has their token part-time-woman-who-made-parter. I went to lunch with my firm's token part timer this summer and she was not a happy person. She worked about 50-60 hours per week (at reduced pay) and was bullied by other partners on the weekends to drop everything and play closer on deals when she was needed. Part time is a joke.

5/06/2008 11:27 AM  
Anonymous colleen said...

Farella is an outlyer. So is Hanson Bridgett, who has a lot of moms and men who take paternity leave. And part-time partners who really work part time. I think these firms have this culture because they are smaller and regional and aren't controlled by the home office.

Last summer, the general manager of Hanson Bridgett had an all-associates meeting and basically said they weren't going to match the big firms' salaries because they didn't have the work to sustain such a leap and he didn't want to lay people off. So instead he created a tiered payment scale and asked for suggestions for other incentives. And as I watch other firms lay people off, it seems to me that was a very smart move on his part; not just for the firm's bottom line, but for employee morale.

5/06/2008 11:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fact: H. Rodgin Cohen wears David Lat pajamas.
Fact: Before he goes to bed Jim Sandman checks his closet for Kashmir Hill.


Fact: Fear is not the only emotion David Lat can smell. He can also detect hope, as in "I hope I don't get profiled on Above The Law by David Lat.”


Fact: A study showed the leading causes of death among partners in the AmLaw 100 are: 1. Heart disease, 2. David Lat, 3. Cancer.

5/06/2008 12:03 PM  
Blogger Max Power said...

A quote on ATL--my dreams have come true!

Anyway, I'm not saying every firm does this--just that there's a lot of NIMBYism when it comes to Firms. We think Firms, as a general matter, do bad things, but we often think OUR Firm doesn't do it. Maybe PH is particularly bad, maybe it's not--but would it have been any more surprising to see Gibson or Latham or O'Melveny or Mofo or 100 other Firms instead? I don't think so.

Point is, if we focus solely on what PH has done, it takes other Firms off the hook. Better to use PH's failings to take a hard look at how all Firms treat such matters.

5/06/2008 12:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If we don't focus solely on what PH has done and attribute it to a broader practice among law firms, we let PH off the hook.

Is there any evidence that other firms have been doing this? From what I hear, other firms have been doing typical layoffs (Cadwalater, for example). Although layoffs always suck, at least they're honest.

5/06/2008 12:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interestingly, I think there might be another angle to this. Commentors on ATL have said that the PH associate was a 9th or 10th year associate. I have no idea if this is true, but assuming that it is true, and assuming that the facts in the ex-associate's email are also true, this is a story about (not) making partner. The PH associate seems to have been led to believe that her future was bright, and having survived this much of the partnership tournament, she probably had good reason to believe that she was close to making partner. That would make this case all the more unfortunate.

I know that the path to partnership is not as clear as it once was, but the prospect of making partner is often a key inducement for remaining at a firm during one's senior associate years instead of pursuing other opportunities. Assuming we have the right facts, it seems that the implicit bargain of senior associate life (you're on the partnership track--just keep up the good work) is a chimera at PH.

5/06/2008 2:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a female 2L, and when I did my callbacks, I asked very specific questions about how the firm treated women, whether it took part-time seriously, etc. Granted I haven't done my summer at my chosen firm yet, but I advise rising 2Ls to ask very specific questions when doing their interviews because you might be surprised with how honest the associates will be (particularly mid-level to senior associates). One flat out told me that no woman in the firm had ever made partner while working part time. That's when I knew I wouldn't accept my offer with that firm. Of course, some will probably lie to you, but if any of them tell you things like that, you know it's firm you can check off your list. So ladies, don't be afraid to ask, because women often watch out for fellow women.

5/06/2008 3:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is no way I would ever ask questions like before I had an offer. Ask those questions AFTER you have an offer. -3L with a job (with a transcript not good enough to ask those questions before I got the offer)

5/06/2008 7:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can ask all the questions you want during OCIP, but you will not get an honest answer. You might get more honest answers during call backs since you can read body language when you ask them work balance questions. That said, I don't think you can really know for sure until you summer at a place and see how the women are treated first hand. (3L woman with a firm job)

5/06/2008 7:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm amazed by how some here are willing to simply assume the facts as related in the email are the complete picture.

To start with, it doesn't make any sense to fire a "stellar performer" because she might get pregnant. If you have a stellar performer, you want to hold on to them as much as you can, even to the point of being overly accomodating. But you certainly don't fire them because they might take some maternity time off.

So, there must have been another reason. The email itself says that she wasn't meeting her billables.

Firing someone a week after they had a miscarriage? Cold, but certainly not illegal.

Firing someone who may have gotten the impression that they were safe? Certainly bad paople management, and certainly bad lawsuit avoidance. But also not illegal.

I think it's a personal tragedy that she got fired, particularly given her miscarriage. And I think it shows incredibly poor judgment on PH's part. But I doubt it had anything to do with her desire to get pregnant again.

5/07/2008 12:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

2L female at 3:57 here....

I don't think it hurt me at all to ask questions like that during both OCIP and callbacks. I had a lot of callbacks and a lot of offers. Just don't be rude and on the offensive when you ask them. It also helps to ask open-ended questions, because then the associates or partners will just keep talking for awhile and you can sort of read-between-the-lines of what they're saying.

Again, I don't think you will get 100% accurate information just from answers in your interviews, but you will occasionally get someone who tells it like it is, and that can be very helpful in knowing which firms to cross off your list. I never even thought to wait until I had an offer to ask questions like that, but I'm sure that could work, too. I just don't think people should be scared of asking questions like that.

5/07/2008 9:24 AM  
Anonymous colleen said...

12:54 - I think your attitude is the problem this woman and the posters here have with PH. "Cold, but not illegal." Let's talk about the miscarriage for a moment. She had gotten married in December, so the pregnancy was planned. She also told people about the miscarriage, which means it was relatively far along, probably the 3rd or 4th month. So we know we have a woman who wanted this pregnancy, who was probably really happy, buying clothes and a crib, painting the extra bedroom. She's excited and happy.

Then one day one of 2 things happens. (1) She starts bleeding. A lot. Bright red and thick. So she goes to the hospital and they tell her she's had a miscarriage. Or (2) she goes to her monthly MD visit and they cannot find a heartbeat. And her doctor tells her the baby has died inside her. The most common reaction when a woman has a miscarriage is self blame: that they did something wrong, that somehow they couldn't carry their baby to term.

Plus, the fetus didn't fully expel [if it is the second type, it doesn't expel at all] so they told her she needed to have the same procedure done to her as for abortions: they needed to vacuum her uterus. Which is an extremely unpleasant experience by all accounts. So here's a woman who has lost the baby she has been planning for, who is blaming herself, and who needs to go in an get a painful procedure done.

And PH knew all of this.

Of the many friends of mine who have had miscarriages, not a one of them rebounded the next day. One refused to have her uterus scrapped for 2 weeks, telling me she was sure the doctors were wrong and her baby was alive and that the procedure would kill it. Another friend of mine would not leave her house and cried constantly for months on end. All of my friends got really, really depressed.

So I don't really give a rat's ass if what PH did was legal or not. It was callous and inhuman. And that is the problem.

5/07/2008 10:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll add my thoughts on screening out bad firms during the job hunt. I agree that it is difficult to get good information from lawyers about work/life balance or the treatment of women--they are often vague in their answers or misleading.

So, here's some tips from a male 3L. First, there is at least one very good piece of objective data for determining the quality of a firm environment--the percentage of female lawyers at the firm. I think that woman are simply less willing to put up with a lousy work environment than men (or any lousy environment for that matter). There was a good New York Times article a few months back about how the New York's parks service tabulates the ratio of female to male persons hanging out in a city park as a measure of the overall safety and quality of a park. The idea there is that as a park declines in quality, females are the first to stop visiting. I think that kind of phenomenon is present in the law firm context.

The second data point I used was the fitness level of the attorneys at the firms. This factor points more to hours worked than to humanness of the lawyers. But bodies don't lie and people without a life outside work don't make it to the gym too much.

I got lucky--the big firm with the highest ratio of female to male lawyers in my region also happens to be a leader in my practice area. But I did end up screening out some other tempting possibilities.

5/07/2008 12:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

12:54 here...

You gave voice to exactly what I pointed out, Colleen: cold, but not illegal. And in saying that it was not illegal, pointing out that there is nothing solid here indicating that this is a case of discrimination.

Should PH be held to acount for their poor management of the situation? Of course they should.

My point was simply to note that before we all jump to the conclusion that PH hates women, particularly pregnant ones, that perhaps PH is simply incompetent.

As for my attitude: you seem to imply that I should have more empathy for her, and not treat this in a detached and lawyerly fashion. Frankly, I think that is our job as lawyers. The consensus around here seemed to be that this was somehow indicative of a disposition against women at PH. I was trying, through the use of reason, to point out that that may not be the appropriate concern. I apologize if that seems callous to you. However, in a world where a hundred thousand people are killed within minutes by a cyclone, limiting our empathy is an important tool in allowing us to make rational choices. We all fall somewhere on the insensitivity scale, and the difference between you and me is a matter of small degree.

5/07/2008 12:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is the reason that this is so upsetting to many Boalt students the fact that the actions of PW (as alleged in the email) are despicable? Or is it the rather uncomfortable realization that this could happen to THEM?

12:54 is right. Far worse things happen to other people, all the time. The upsetting thing isn't that this story took place, but that it took place so close to home.

That doesn't make any of what this woman is going through less awful, and it doesn't make the individuals involved any less abhorrent. But come on. As a lot, people suck. Lawyers at big firms are no different.

5/07/2008 12:57 PM  
Anonymous colleen said...

12:54

I just read your post to a group of women. We all agree that PH seems to be insensitive to women, regardless of whether their decision was rational or legal, and that empathy is important in the work environment, regardless of the career. Yes lawyers must be rational for their clients. She was not a client. She was an employee. And in the employer/employee situation, empathy goes far.

And I totally disagree that we need to be insensitive and turn off our empathy to be rational. I think we need to learn to live with and balance both. That is what PH did not do. Maybe the firm had decided to lay her off before the miscarriage, and nothing says the firm did not have the authority or legal right to lay her off. But knowing what she was going through, one would have hoped they would have considered a human being's emotional well being before their own bottom line and either taken more time or a different approach. PH didn't.

As for discrimination: we don't know the full story, it's true. From the facts we know, we have a well-praised senior associate of ten years with excellent annual reviews, who, within 6 months, gets married, pregnant, and fired based on a sudden shift in performance. Until other facts come out, that smells awful fishy to me.

5/07/2008 1:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

12:54 again...

"...[O]ne would have hoped they would have considered a human being's emotional well being before their own bottom line"

Yes, one would have hoped that. But they didn't, much like all of us. I don't know about you, but I walk by homeless people all the time on my way to my fancy lawyer job, and truly fail to consider the emotional well being of a human being over my own bottom line.

5/07/2008 1:15 PM  
Anonymous colleen said...

12:54

That is where we are different. I do stop and give money. And I am still a student; I don't have a fancy lawyer job. But I know that the homeless need that dollar a lot more than I do. That is empathy, and empathy is a choice. You could choose to empathize more too, and not end up like the partners at PH.

5/07/2008 4:18 PM  
Blogger tj said...

I just read your post to a group of women. We all agree that PH seems to be insensitive to women, regardless of whether their decision was rational or legal, and that empathy is important in the work environment, regardless of the career.

Colleen: I respect your opinion and appreciate your perspective, but it's comments like this one that indicate to me you're either speaking from a perspective that is either irrational/emotional or merely ignorant.

To say that "PH seems to be insensitive to women" is a ridiculously broad generalization to make from an extremely limited perspective you have of the firm. You read ONE woman's account of what happened to her in ONE office, while working under ONE partner (who also happens to be a woman).

I'm not going to say that PH treated this woman very well. I'm also not going to say what happened to her was even defendable. But I will say that to characterize an entire firm of more than a thousand people with 20+ worldwide locations so easily as "insensitive to women" does your credibility a disservice.

If you're that emotionally charged on this issue, I recommend you do something more productive with your time than slam an entire firm for one particularly egregious example - especially given you'll never hear the other side of the story.

I think you need to scroll back up and re-read MP's original comments that began this thread. Then sit back, reflect a little bit, and realize that the unfairness and coldness characterized by this one example may be more symptomatic of the entire industry than you're making it seem. Maybe later we can re-discuss.

5/07/2008 4:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

12:54 here...

Giving change to a homeless person is not choosing their emotional well-being over your bottom line, it is choosing your emotional well-being over your own bottom line. You get utility out of relieving yourself of some guilt. But it doesn't do much for them besides buy cigarettes or drugs. Homeless people don't use change to buy food, since food is often freely available, unlike other necessities of the homeless lifestyle.

My point was that the requirement of putting other people's well being over your own self interest is an impossible mandate. Where is the appropriate marker? Mother Theresa? George Clooney? Public interest work? Big firm but pro bono work? Giving change to alcoholics? Refraining from kicking homeless people in the head when you walk by? I certainly don't know what the appropriate standard of empathy is. I do know that the law attempts to work out some semblance of a balance.

Here we have a case of a person who was assumedly given millions of dollars to provide economic value to an organization. She probably did so for some time. Somehow, and perhaps even through no fault of her own, she stopped providing economic value to the point that the organization, despite the even larger millions that it had invested in getting her to this point, decided it was no longer getting a return on their investment. Believe me, that is not an easy decision. Not out of concern for the emotional well being of the affected employee (which is always a part of it... it is never easy to fire someone), but because you must really believe you will not be getting future results out of an employee to sacrifice that level of investment. And so, they let her go. They certainly handled it poorly: in addition to risking civil and PR liability, PH demonstrated poor management skills, and most probably reduced morale of the rest of their employees (and probably their partners, to boot). But did they really do anything all that morally reprehensible? It sucks that she was fired after going through trauma like that. But is there ever a good time to get fired? Should companies schedule firings in all cases around convenience to the "firee"? After a miscarriage is apparently out for you. But what about after the death of a sibling? Grandmother? Pet? Favorite plant? Or maybe it's a matter of the time elapsed. Is a month later acceptable? A year? If she fell into a depression, should they wait until the depression is over? And how might this responsibility for others emotional well-being play out in other areas of economic interaction? Do I have a responsibility to keep on using the services of my personal solo-practioner attorney if she fails to perform, but had a miscarriage recently? What about my dry-cleaner? What about someone in Asia who made my shirts? Do I need to keep on buying those shirts?

When we join a firm, we are entering into an economic relationship. We provide a highly valued service for which we are very handsomely rewarded. VERY handsomely. It would be a fallacy to premise the relationship on anything other than economic self interest on both of our parts. You are not hired because of your sparkling personality, or your love of bums and small animals. You also did not take a job there because you really like what they do. No one volunteers for firms, oddly enough. Firms are not a family, nor are they our friends. It's an economic relationship.

Lawyers are incredibly fortunate in that they have other options than pursuing purely material rewards in their day to day lives. Many people do not have that option. Yet, most Boalt grads are pretty happy to take the giant wads of cash. But let's not pretend that money falls out of the sky to reward people for getting into good schools, or because they give money to homeless people. It's paid for by creating economic value, and nothing more.

5/07/2008 5:54 PM  
Blogger tj said...

ATL update here.

Choice quote: "She said she isn’t considering suing the firm, and said she doesn’t feel she was discriminated against because of her pregnancy."

Interesting...

5/08/2008 10:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

She really needs to sue the bastards. She may not think she was discriminated against because of her pregnancy but, as she alluded to in her email, it seems very possible she was discriminated against because of the pregnancy Paul Hastings fears is coming next. With facts this bad and a San Francisco jury, she could definitely at least get a settlement of way more than the severance offer!

5/09/2008 4:43 PM  

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