Big Law: Big Bully?

As an attorney myself,  I have occasionally observed that the legal profession seems to attract more than its fair share of snarling, snapping, insecure, socially in-adept and battle-hungry bully bosses (of both genders).

This feeling is not allayed by a 2/15/2011 article in The Toronto Star.

According to the Star,  Jaime Laskis, 34, worked in the  New York office of a major Toronto law firm that she alleges in a sex discrimination suit  is “hostile and demeaning towards women.”

Laskis’ lawsuit claims:

- Kevin Cramer, an American who works as a senior partner at Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt, allegedly made an oral sex joke about a female client, said Harvard University was filled with pretty women “pretending to get a legal education,” and once said he hated working with female lawyers because they get pregnant and leave.

-   In reviewing Laskis’ job performance, Cramer  allegedly told her that she “must be more than a pretty face” and was “not helping herself by coming to work looking well put together.”

- When she asked Cramer  for constructive criticism on how to improve her performance, Cramer allegedly told her to “stop acting like a child that’s been taken to the woodshed and spanked.”

- Laskis lawsuit alleges she was fired in June 2009 in retaliation for complaining about the firm.

-  If being fired wasn’t bad enough, Laskis said another senior Osler partner allegedly tried to prevent her from getting a new job by telling  a prospective employer, a Manhattan law firm, that she would be a bad hire.

“It’s a horrible situation,” Laskis said. “It has been a really difficult process. I’m not this kind of person. I’m not a troublemaker. I’m not even a loud voice. I just keep my head down and do my job.”

In one of the most unsettling responses to a charge of discrimination that I’ve ever read,  Osler, which is a prestigious law firm with 500 attorneys,  issued a statement saying that it  would fight the charges and “regrets” Laskis “felt it in her interest to start a legal complaint concerning her time with us in New York.”

Laskis claims she was discriminated against “on the basis of her sex” in violation of the New York State Human Rights law and that the defendant acted with “malice and/or reckless indifference” and retaliated against her once she complained.

Laskis said she felt confident to take on the big firm because she was single at the time and had some savings to tide her over unemployment. “I was certainly not alone in this kind of scenario. But I was in a position (that) a lot of other women, who have kids, may not be.”

“Some people don’t treat women the same way they treat men. You get a new boss and you can’t do anything right,” she said. “That’s the person evaluating you, and they don’t give you a fair shake.”

Whether or not Laskis prevails in her claims, the situation has resulted in grievous harm to all involved, plus the law firm that hosted this tragedy, which is facing serious liability.  As a lawyer/consultant in this area, I propose that a better way might have been to consider training, monitoring, and, if necessary, effective intervention. However, many law firms do not realize that they also are employers and, like every other employer, have a moral and,  at least to some extent legal, responsibility to treat their personnel with dignity and respect.