Biglaw, Kasowitz Benson, Lawsuit of the Day, Pro Se Litigants, Ridiculousness

Lawsuit of the Day: Ex-Kasowitz Associate With ‘Superior Legal Mind’ Sues the Firm for $77 Million

Gregory Berry: the $77 million man.

This morning we mentioned a lawsuit filed against litigation powerhouse Kasowitz Benson and two Kasowitz partners by Gregory S. Berry, a former first-year associate at the firm. Berry’s 50-page complaint, filed in New York state court, contains 14 causes of action, including wrongful termination, fraud, and breach of contract. Berry seeks a whopping $77 million in damages — $2.55 million in estimated lost income, and $75 million in punitives.

After working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley for several years, Gregory Berry matriculated at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He graduated from Penn Law in 2010 and was admitted to the New York bar in 2011. He summered at Kasowitz in 2009 and started working at the firm full-time in September 2010. Less than a year later, in May 2011, he was fired.

According to Berry’s complaint, he “immediately began doing superlative work” at Kasowitz. Alas, the law firm was unable to accommodate his “superior legal mind.” After he began seeking greater responsibility in a way that rubbed some colleagues the wrong way, he got canned.

“There’s simply no room in a big law firm for an intelligent, creative lawyer with real-world experience,” Greg Berry told Thomson Reuters News & Insight. “I had to find that out the hard way.”

Let’s have a look at his interesting allegations, plus hear from some tipsters….

Gregory Berry is proceeding pro se. Unlike some other attorneys who have gone up against their former firms, Berry is not represented by a high-powered, plaintiffs-side employment lawyer — like Anne Vladeck, counsel to Patricia Martone in Martone v. Ropes & Gray, or Daniel Alterman, counsel to Aaron Charney in Charney v. Sullivan & Cromwell.

Greg Berry’s pro se complaint — filed against Kasowitz and two of its partners, Aaron Marks and Kim Conroy — is quite a read. Here’s how he describes his pre-law-school career:

17. From 1997 to 2007 Plaintiff Gregory Berry had a distinguished career as a software engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Within five years he held the title of Director of Technology, managing a team of engineers. His career culminated when he founded and was the creative force behind an internet company whose impact on online entertainment services can still be felt today.

18. After conquering Silicon Valley, he decided to take his talents in a new direction, and in 2007 began law school at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia, PA.

Ahem. If Berry had “conquer[ed] Silicon Valley,” I think he’d be employing Kasowitz Benson, not suing them. Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg — these are men who have “conquered” Silicon Valley. Gregory Berry? You probably never heard of him until today.

Berry went through on-campus interviews, summered at Kasowitz Benson, and returned to the firm as a (not so) permanent associate in September 2010. He claims he went to Kasowitz because it falsely represented itself as non-hierarchical, a pure meritocracy:

3. After on-campus interviews in the Fall of 2008 and subsequent in-house interviews, Mr. Berry was offered a job at Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman. Relying on KBTF’s representations that it was an aggressive and creative firm that values intelligence, ambition, and drive, and eschews the artificial hierarchical structures of traditional law firms, Mr. Berry accepted the offer, forgoing other opportunities….

5. Upon arrival at the firm, Mr. Berry immediately began doing superlative work. During his time at KBTF, he repeatedly found ways to improve the efficiency of the work, or even the outcome of cases.

6. Mr. Berry quickly discovered, however, that virtually every representation the firm had made about itself was false. It had told Mr. Berry it eschews artificial hierarchical structure, then refused Mr. Berry an assignment because it would be “unfair to the other associates.”

I’m not terribly sympathetic. Look, Greg, it’s nice that you’re old compared to the other first-year associates, and it’s nice that you had a career in an unrelated field before law school. But you still need to pay your dues. That’s just the way large law firms work. If you think you’re so awesome and don’t need training from your senior colleagues, then go out and start your own shop.

The next part of the complaint describes disagreements that Greg Berry had with senior colleagues. They’re summarized over at Am Law Daily:

Over the course of his time at Kasowitz, Berry had two run-ins with [partner Aaron] Marks, according to the complaint. In the first, Marks reprimanded him for refusing to help [then-associate and now-partner Kim] Conroy with a document-review assignment.

The second incident came a few months later when Berry, who claims he was light on work assignments at the time, sent e-mails directly to a dozen partners asking for projects to manage.

The email, which Gregory Berry quotes in his complaint, is priceless. Read it for yourself (emphasis added):

I am writing to see if you have any small cases I could manage for you. It has become clear that the only limiting factor on how much value I am to a case is how much responsibility I am given: the more responsibility I am given, the better the outcome. I am in kind of an uncomfortable position at the firm because although I am a “first year,” I have 15 years business and real world experience, as much as many senior associates. When I first got here I did not know what to expect, but after working here for several months now it has become clear that I have as much experience and ability as an associate many years my senior, as much skill writing, and a superior legal mind to most I have met.

There is a natural skepticism that someone without a lot of formal legal apprenticeship can do the job of a senior associate, but the truth is much of the learning and experience an associate acquires is parallel to any business experience — negotiating contracts, negotiating settlements, writing, analysis. If you will allow me to manage some cases for you I can guarantee without reservation that you will get a better result than you get now with many of the official resources you have available to you.

I’m sorry, Greg, but who do you think you are? Everyone has to start somewhere. Even David Boies toiled for years as a Cravath associate (under the legendary Tom Barr), before he became a Cravath partner, and before he founded Boies Schiller. If you prove yourself as a junior associate, you can certainly get responsibility at an earlier stage than some of your colleagues — but nobody is running cases as a first-year at a large law firm.

Not surprisingly, this email, which Berry sent to about a dozen partners, was not well-received. It reinforced what we’ve heard was an existing sense at Kasowitz that Berry was not a team player and that he didn’t work on matters he saw as beneath him.

Not long after the infamous email, partner Aaron Marks summoned Berry to his office. According to Berry’s complaint, Marks told him that partners were upset by the email and that Berry had “burned bridges” by sending it.

Shortly thereafter, Berry was fired. He signed a separation agreement, pursuant to which he received severance payments in exchange for releasing claims against the firm. (In his complaint, Berry now claims that the agreement — which he signed after retaining outside counsel for himself — was “unconscionable” and should not be enforced to bar his lawsuit.)

This paragraph, “Damages,” is one of the more interesting parts of the complaint (emphasis added):

By terminating his employment after only eight months, KBTF has made Mr. Berry unhirable. Upon information and belief, he has too much experience to get a first-year position, yet not enough to get a lateral-hire position. Upon information and belief, recruiters will not even work with first-year graduates. As a consequence, it will take Mr. Berry years to build the experience to put him back in the position he had been in, if indeed it will ever be possible.

Experience? Who needs experience? Greg, I thought that you were ready to manage cases from the get-go, thanks to your “15 years business and real world experience” and your “superior legal mind,” which give you “as much experience and ability as an associate many years [your] senior.”

In fairness to Gregory Berry, he’s now putting his money where his mouth is. He thinks he’s ready to run his own cases, and now he can prove it.

After being fired from Kasowitz, he founded his own law firm, right here in New York City. Here’s what he says about himself on the firm website (emphasis added):

Before his career in the law, Mr. Berry worked for several years as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law and began his legal career at the “big-law” firm of Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman. He quickly discovered that the emphasis in “big-law” firms on generating billable hours rather than on applying creativity and intelligence to devising unorthodox and cutting-edge legal strategies left Mr. Berry wasting his talents. Mr. Berry became a lawyer to fight for justice and to use his powers for good.

Will someone please give Berry a cape and some tights?

Also check out this portion of his disclaimer:

Any information sent to the Firm via Internet e-mail or through the website is not secure and is done so on a non-confidential basis. The transmission of the Skadden site, in part or in whole, and/or communication with Skadden, Arps via Internet e-mail through this site does not constitute or create an attorney-client relationship between Skadden, Arps and any recipients.

A “superior legal mind” should demonstrate greater proficiency at customizing boilerplate.

UPDATE (8/18/11): It appears that Berry has corrected his disclaimer and removed the Skadden references.

Okay, perhaps I’ve been too hard on Greg Berry. In fairness to him, here are some supportive words from someone who knew him at Penn:

My interactions with him in and outside of the classroom have generally been positive. In class, he was definitely always enthusiastic in sharing his thoughts frequently and often (I believe the term used by the kids is “gunner-ish”).

[W]hile what happened to him [at Kasowitz] is unfortunate, I can’t say it’s surprising. He was overall a nice, smart dude and a go-getter. Just a bit aloof and considered to be somewhat socially awkward by some (again, I never had issues with him). I can see how he might rub others the wrong way with his self-confidence, opinionated personality and general demeanor.

Maybe those things played a factor in the termination, I don’t know. I knew he was a non-trad with several years of work experience prior to law school. Combine that with a desire to advance quickly, and he probably wasn’t a good fit for the rigid nature of Big Law firm life. I’d say he’s more cut out for some smaller litigation boutique or as a solo practitioner where he can move up at the pace he wants and get more flexibility.

Still, it’s unfortunate the situation ended up this way. Suing your former law firm is not the [best] move and doesn’t bode well for his future career prospects at large law firms…. Hopefully he’ll land back on his feet right away.

What does the firm have to say about this litigation? Kasowitz managing partner Mitchell R. Schrage called the lawsuit “meritless.” Schrage told Am Law Daily that Berry “received a substantial severance payment and signed a release and . . . subsequently threatened the firm with a lawsuit unless the firm paid him even more.” When the firm refused, this litigation ensued. (Word on the street is that Berry’s threats of litigation arose almost immediately after the last severance check cleared.)

The ATL readers we’ve heard from so far seem skeptical of Gregory Berry’s claims. As one tipster emailed us, “Doesn’t this self-entitled, arrogant [tool] realize that no one cares about his ‘real world experience’?”

(Random aside: sometimes you see such behavior in law school from “non-traditional students,” or people pursuing law as a second career. They think that their many years of “real world experience” in between college and law school should give them a huge leg up. Such experience can certainly be helpful, especially if it’s in a field related to their area of practice — e.g., in the case of a jockey’s agent turned horse racing lawyer. But it doesn’t exactly entitle you to leapfrog over your fellow associates or to run your own matters, at least at a large law firm like Kasowitz.)

Said a second source about Berry v. Kasowitz Benson:

Have you read this complaint? It is hilarious! …. The whole thing reads like he’s God’s gift to the legal profession. Meanwhile, the complaint makes me envision him as an annoying know-it-all who is a pain in the @ss to deal with and no one wants to work with him.

And from a commenter on today’s Morning Docket:

As a 20-year veteran attorney, the $77M lawsuit doesn’t surprise me. It does highlight the problem that most newly minted attorneys are delusional in thinking they are “superior” legal minds. The fact is, while admissions standards have increased in the past 10 years, law grads are becoming dumber due to blind greed and a sense of self-entitlement. The UPenn grad in the lawsuit will never work in Biglaw again and it is fitting that he is now a solo, much like many thousands of other “brilliant” legal minds that have been defecated from law schools in the past couple of years.

Readers, what are your thoughts on Berry v. Kasowitz Benson? You can access the full complaint here. In the comments to this post, please feel free to mention any additional gems you come across. And if you know Berry personally and can shed light on what he’s like, please do email us (subject line: “Gregory Berry”). Thanks.

P.S. Some Kasowitz associates we’ve heard from expressed unhappiness with the lack of spring bonuses (or by now “mid-year bonuses”) at the firm. Many KBTF associates bill in excess of 2100 hours, and a fair number joined Kasowitz from firms paying NYC market rates — which Kasowitz claims to be. With profits per partner in excess of $2 million, the Kasowitz partnership can surely afford to payout mid-year bonuses. Perhaps they’re saving up funds for that $77 million judgment?

Berry v. Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman LLP: Complaint [Supreme Court of New York]
Fired lawyer sues N.Y. firm for $77 million [Thomson Reuters News & Insight]
Fired Associate Sues Kasowitz, Claims Firm Made Promises It Didn’t Keep [Am Law Daily]
Associate Claims He Was Fired for Exhibiting Intelligence and Creativity [WSJ Law Blog]
Law Office of Gregory Berry, Esq. [official website]
Kasowitz Launches Corporate Real Estate Practice with Skadden Hires [Am Law Daily]

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