Biglaw, Labor / Employment, Litigators, Partner Issues, Weirdness

A Partner’s Bizarre Departure Memo

Over the years, we’ve seen some strange and surprising law firm departure memos. They come not just from associates but from partners as well. See, e.g., this famous (or infamous) Skadden partner’s departure memo.

Today we bring you another weird farewell message penned by a partner. It’s strange because it burns bridges in a big way, making all kinds of incendiary allegations against the Am Law 100 firm involved.

You’d think that a leading employment lawyer would show greater discretion on his way out the door. Well, think again….

We’ve alluded before to the noisy withdrawal of Don Prophete from the partnership of Ogletree Deakins (which just joined the Am Law 100; congrats). The prominent employment litigator and former VP at Ogletree moved over to Littler Mendelson, where he has been joined by six other shareholders.

Around the time of his departure in March, Prophete sent out what Thomson Reuters has described as a “scathing” email to clients and colleagues. From the Reuters write-up:

Partners who defect from one law firm to another usually keep any hard feelings about their former firm to themselves. But when a top employment lawyer recently jumped ship, he sent a scathing email to clients and colleagues that accused his old firm of a “completely unacceptable” response to a lawyer who complained she had been “harassed and discriminated” against by [a managing partner].

“I cannot be part of a firm that treats its diverse lawyers the way they treated the complaining shareholder,” wrote Don Prophete, 45, who resigned from Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart’s Kansas City, Missouri, office in mid-March.

The 750-word email, dated March 20, was provided to Reuters by a source on the condition of anonymity. Its authenticity was confirmed by Prophete and Ogletree Deakins.

Prophete’s message, which is odd and rambling, doesn’t identify the alleged victim, the managing partner, or even the office involved. But the allegations are salacious. Here’s a taste (the full email is reprinted on the next page):

Simply, as both a member of the firm’s executive committee and its Vice President, as well as the largest originator in the firm, I opposed what i believed to be improper conduct by the firm’s leadership, which ultimately led to our separation. In sum, one of the members of my extended team was being harassed and discriminated by the managing shareholder of one of the offices that I supervised. When she brought her concerns to me, I began investigating the managing shareholder’s conduct. My preliminary finding was that this individual managed the office in a tyrannical manner. An even closer look revealed that this same individual had intercepted emails between the complaining shareholder and me in which she discussed her concerns with me. I also discovered that he had attempted to intercept another lawyer’s emails in the same office whom he deemed “disloyal.” He later began to retaliate against the complaining shareholder by excluding her from office decisions, calling her a “thug,” alleging marital infidelities and disparaging her excellent work product and reputation to the office associates.

I brought the matter to the firm’s full executive committee suggesting that this individual was unfit to be a shareholder in our firm, let alone to be office managing shareholder. For economic reasons – and perhaps unstated others – the firm decided to turn a blind eye to this misconduct because it “would not be in the firm’s best interest to risk losing him” and because they did not want to “offend him.” This response was completely unacceptable to me, and I began to vigorously oppose the firm’s laissez-faire attitude towards the complaining shareholder. I asked the executive committee to at a minimum require the individual to step down as managing shareholder and to require him to issue in-person apologies to the complaining shareholder, the office and me. Again, the rest of the executive committee refused to make these simple and appropriate accommodations.

Is something missing from this story? If Prophete was, as his message claims, the largest originator of business in the firm, one would expect his concerns, if valid, to be taken more seriously.

Anyway, here’s what happened next, per Prophete:

When the firm failed to take appropriate and decent action, I told the rest of the executive committee that I would trigger an expulsion vote of the individual under our firm shareholder agreement, which provided for a special meeting under urgent circumstances. Per the shareholder agreement, I asked the firm to schedule the meeting. I received no responses from the firm. In the interim, appalled by the firm’s inexplicable lack of action, during individual exchanges with the executive committee members, I told the firm that I would resign and take my team if the firm was unwilling to properly remedy the matter. The firm then ceased upon this statement to claim that I posed a danger to the firm’s clients and asked me to leave.

Again, it sounds like we’re missing a lot of detail here. We reached out to Ogletree Deakins, which provided us with a statement on behalf of managing shareholder Kim Ebert. We’ve reprinted it in full on the next page, but here’s the core of it:

Don Prophete’s letter constitutes an attack on our firm by someone whose larger motives are incomprehensible to us. Two indisputable facts provide critical context: the shareholders of the firm voted overwhelmingly for him to leave, and he never made any allegations of harassment, discrimination, or retaliation prior to his departure. Further, when we learned of his after-the-fact allegations (upon receiving a copy of the email he sent to others, not the firm), a full investigation was conducted and his allegations could not be substantiated.

The fact is that all of this occurred well more than a month ago, and we have moved on. Just six shareholders have chosen to follow Prophete to his next firm, and those that worked with him the longest have chosen to stay with our firm. His departure will have a minimal effect on our firm, its continued success, and its commitment to providing outstanding service to our clients.

Based on this response, the situation seems even more bizarre than it did before. According to the firm, after Prophete was “voted overwhelmingly” out of the partnership — for what reasons, we don’t yet know, but there’s surely a story there — he decided to make these allegations. As we previously observed, it sounds like a situation of “Can’t fire me, I quit.”

There is clearly a lot more going on here. If you have information you’d like to share about the Ogletree Deakins drama, feel free to email us or text us (646-820-8477). In the meantime, flip to the next page to read Don Prophete’s complete email and Kim Ebert’s full response.

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