You know what’s the mark of a good lawsuit against a law firm? The ability to polarize. Sure, it’s fun to laugh at the wacky ones, like Berry v. Kasowitz Benson or Morisseau v. DLA Piper. But the true classics are cases in which half the people think the plaintiff is a crusader for justice, and half the people think the plaintiff is an extortionist.
Take the 2007 lawsuit of Charney v. Sullivan & Cromwell, brought by a young M&A lawyer claiming anti-gay discrimination. That was a great lawsuit. Some readers saw it as a Philadelphia for the 21st century, while others saw it as a shameless shakedown of a top law firm.
By this standard, Levinson v. WilmerHale is a good lawsuit. Readers can’t seem to agree on this one. Let’s check out the sharply divided opinions — and also hear more about Pamela Levinson, from former colleagues at the firm….
(For the record, by “good” we mean “fun to cover,” not “meritorious.” We take no position on the validity of Pamela Levinson’s claims.)
Pamela Levinson, who graduated first in her class from the University of Miami School of Law in 2001, joined WilmerHale in 2004, as a fourth-year litigation associate. She was 45 at the time and pursuing law as a second career. She worked diligently in the firm’s D.C. office, receiving positive reviews along the way. In 2011, she adopted a 22-month-old child from China and took four and a half months of paid parental leave, consistent with firm policy. While she was on leave, she was stiffed on her bonus, then fired.
Levinson is now suing the firm, alleging that she was discriminated against based on age, sex, and family responsibilities (among other claims). She seeks $5 million in compensatory and punitive damages. The firm, meanwhile, denies Levinson’s allegations. According to co-managing partner Susan W. Murley, “Ms. Levinson’s claims are completely without merit and we will vigorously defend the firm.” (We reached out to firm spokespersons again in advance of this story, to see if WilmerHale had anything to add, but they did not get back to us.)
After our initial story, several sources contacted us with additional information. Some sided with Levinson, alleging a discriminatory culture at WilmerHale and describing specific incidents involving women, LGBT, and Asian-American associates. Here’s a representative comment, on the gender discrimination front:
I spent 5 years at WH and I can say from experience that they systematically discriminate against women, whether those women have children or not. They often make personality attacks because such criticisms don’t need to be based in fact. I wish I had sued them — for gender discrimination, hostile work environment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violation of the family medical leave act…. The discrimination is firm-wide, although NYC has some of the worst offenders, in my opinion.
Now let’s hear from former colleagues of Levinson at WilmerHale. Here’s a funny little tidbit:
I worked with Pam Levinson [at WilmerHale]. Ironically, she once criticized my “email responsiveness” by saying it had to do with me being a man — she told me she thought women were much better at responding to email than men. I didn’t think much of it, but it struck me as odd. Funny to think she’s now claiming gender discrimination.
Are men not sufficiently responsive to email? CHECK YOU BILL URQUHART.
This source provided a gender-neutral, discrimination-free reason for Levinson not making partner:
[Pam] had a reputation at the firm of being good at managing the document-review / production side of big cases, but she was also in the Investigations / Criminal Litigation group, where there’s almost an unwritten rule that you need government experience (preferably as an AUSA or something like that) to make partner. It’s very rare for someone with her skills to make partner without having been a prosecutor (and working on the right cases, with the right partners, and showing the right business-development potential). I would have been shocked if she made partner — and even a little shocked if the firm just let her stay anyway.
This certainly seems plausible. We’ve written before about how much WilmerHale values government service. And it would explain why Levinson didn’t make partner despite good reviews (i.e., good reviews are a necessary but not sufficient condition for partnership).
One tipster was tickled by how Levinson’s complaint, in paragraph 19, touts her successful participation in the firm’s “New Associates Working Group”:
[S]he must be the only person to ever brag about “graduating” from Wilmer’s first-year training.
This source also objected to Levinson’s ominous characterization of Craig Goldblatt as hatchet man, aka the partner “known at WilmerHale for delivering career-altering news to attorneys”:
[T]he line in the complaint about Craig Goldblatt is hysterical. He’s one of the nicest guys in the building, and highly regarded both by firm management and the younger lawyers who see him as a very good mentor. He might not have the official title (not sure if it exists), but he’s basically the hiring partner. If anyone were to be “counseled out of the firm” (how the firm puts it), Craig would be the best person to deliver the news, not only because of his role at the firm, but because of his gentle demeanor.
So that’s the information we received from WilmerHale insiders — some of them pro-Levinson, and some of them pro-Wilmer. The commentariat is similarly divided. From Team Levinson:
So depressing. It’s always the same formula. Excellent performance reviews until you have a kid and they want to get rid of you, then all of a sudden you are a moron. I hope you take them to the cleaners, Pamela. Let this be a message to BigLaw. . . .the lady in-house lawyers are watching, and we are not impressed. The tide is changing.
And from Team Wilmer:
“This lawsuit is an absolute f**king shakedown, but this kind of s**t is why firms do not want female partners.”
“[She] took four and a half months of paid leave…. [while] her colleagues get to work nights and weekends, away from their own families and for NO EXTRA MONEY, to do her work while she is on this journey of personal discovery.”
“She didn’t ‘have’ a kid, she adopted one. Then voluntarily left for four months. How critical [to the firm] is anyone who can leave for four months? How much extra work must other lawyers do to prop up her newest career? What about the lawyers who missed their kid’s Christmas plays working to keep doors open, and the Bentleys paid for? Four months? Why not go part time if you’re going to voluntarily miss 33% of the year?”
In defense of Pam Levinson:
Is anyone reading the Complaint? The leave is a paid benefit. Anyone can take it upon birth of a child or adoption. Grow up people! She paid her dues and was taking her benefit to bond with her child. You all suck. Life is about more than working 24/7.
And in defense of WilmerHale:
If you’re going to judge everyone by the black letter of things, then consider the fact that it’s at-will employment and she can be fired without cause. And that her complaint fails to allege much of anything to support discriminatory intent.
Readers, what do you think? It’s an intriguing case, with valid points on both sides. Flip to the next page to vote in a reader poll about this lawsuit (and to read the entire complaint if you haven’t done so already).