Lawyers Behaving Badly – Are there any lessons to be learned?

Jeremy Pitock, a former partner in charge of the IP department at Kasowitz Benson Torres and Friedman, is suing his former firm for wrongful termination.  As reported by the WSJ Law Blog and at Above the Law the firm is defending itself in part by filing a separate lawsuit against Pitock alleging that Pitock was a serial harasser. You can find a copy of the firm’s complaint at Above The Law by clicking here. Also at Above The Law  a statement about the lawsuit by Pitock’s lawyers – click here for a post that includes the statement.

For background information about the Kasowitz Benson v. Pitock mud wrestling contest, see posts at the WSJ Law Blog here and here.

One could put the whole saga down as an example of a turbo-charged, male, in-your-face, egotistical, expensive food fight that is now and for the foreseeable future will be a matter of public record, which ought to be and will be for the most part ignored.  But perhaps there are lessons to be learned that might be of general application.

First, the firm alleges that Pitock harassed 12 female associates over a period of a year and but that the firm had no clue because the women were afraid to come forward.  Obviously I have no idea what happened.  But is the allegation by the firm that 12 women were harassed and were too scared to complain an indirect admission by the firm that something is (or was) wrong with the firm culture.  How can it be that a partner could harass 12 female associates over the course of a year and (a) the women be afraid to report and (b) the firm leadership have no clue what’s going on?  

Second, if, as has been suggested, Pitock had a drinking problem, one option (which, for all I know, may have been tried) might have been an anonymous referral to lawyers concerned for lawyers.  As it is, the impression one gets – or at least the impression I get – from reading the news articles and complaint is of lawyers not being concerned about lawyers at all.  The lack of regard for others, and the  breakdown in basic civil behavior reflected in the news accounts and allegations are actually depressing.  

Third, why didn’t someone say something sooner?  Surely people at the firm knew what was going on, people other than the “victims.”  I put “victims” in quotes because in this day and age do women have a choice not to be victims of this kind of conduct?  They ought to.  As difficult as it surely can be to talk about inappropriate behavior, there ought to be a way for everyone to do it that is fair, that is private and that works.  Of course maybe someone did say something.  Maybe there was a system in place.  But if so, it seems fair to conclude it didn’t work.

In making reference to a process at a law firm to handle inappropriate behavior, I don’t mean to skip over step one.  Step One is that the people involved to talk to each other if at all possible about what happened. Very difficult to be sure, but perhaps more likely if both know that there is an effective alternative available.  Where appropriate, a private apology should be given.  Again, more likely if firm culture emphasizes civility and will not tolerate insults and threats especially from those in positions of relative authority.  Punishing social rejection or even just a polite, “please don’t” with an explicit work-related threat by a person in authority to a subordinate should be understood as unacceptable – as something that will not be swept under the rug.  Other people will know about it and they will disapprove of it.  Of course there will be questions about who is telling the truth, but the matter should be addressed even if the evidence is conflicting and insufficient to assign fault and formal consequence. Better to deal with a messy situation as honestly and fairly as possible under the circumstances even if the result is far from perfect and layered in uncertainty than to turn a blind eye to it.  In the absence of clear evidence about what happened the message might be simply this:  something happened that isn’t good for anyone.   Do better from now on.  

Civil behavior ought to be part of every firm culture (I can hear people scoffing or worse).  For an understanding of what civility is and why it is important to one’s physical, mental and emotional well being (and, therefore, to one’s profitability and to the firm’s profitability as well), see Choosing Civility by P.M. Forni available from Amazon here.  Once one has a basic understanding of all that civility encompasses and begins to put it into practice (a life long pursuit), then turn to Forni’s  The Civility Solution:  What To Do When People Are Rude available from Amazon here.  

I can hear some derisive laughter, but remember:  we are all imperfect, we can all do better and we do have choices.