Sanford Heisler's Turbulent Summer

By Anna Sanders
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Law360 (November 15, 2020, 10:02 PM EST) -- Javier Alvarez began working as a legal assistant at civil rights firm Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP in September 2019. A few months later, he says, white partners there began to direct racist comments at him.

San Diego partner Charles Field told him in February that his "Yale Latino" shirt "makes you look like you're in a gang," said Alvarez, who was based in California. The next month, Field told him that he wasn't copied on an email because Field didn't know if Alvarez' name "spooks" a client, according to a copy of the message, which was obtained by Law360.

In May, managing partner Ed Chapin asked him if a hometown friend who was recently shot and killed had been "dealing" when Alvarez requested the rest of the day off to grieve, he said. And during a call on June 8, Alvarez said Chapin repeatedly referred to George Floyd as a "thug."

Alvarez was one of more than two dozen legal assistants who alleged numerous instances of racial, ethnic and sexual discrimination and inappropriate behavior from high-level Sanford Heisler attorneys in a blistering letter sent to firm leadership in June and later shared with Law360.

D.C. partner Paul Blankenstein "repeatedly pried" into one legal assistant's personal life, "asking her if she has a boyfriend, joking to her about reading Playboy magazines, and commenting on her outfits almost daily," the letter said. In a meeting with white male clients, Blankenstein didn't intervene when they openly stared at a legal assistant and asked if she had a boyfriend, instead joking to them that she "cost the cheapest but was worth the biggest bank for her buck," the June 25 letter said.

Two female legal assistants said Blankenstein also singled them out when he tried to force them to violate coronavirus restrictions by making them go into the D.C. office during this year's pandemic, even after people in their building had just tested positive for COVID-19; the letter said this amounted to gender discrimination.

Blankenstein, Field and Chapin did not respond to requests by Law360 for comment. Blankenstein was moved to part-time work on July 16, and his last day at the firm was Sept. 30, according to emails obtained by Law360.

The legal assistants' letter set off a back-and-forth that roiled the firm and resulted in an internal investigation. Emails and documents shared with Law360, as well as interviews with nine current and former firm employees over the last month, suggest behavior deeply at odds with the firm's reputation. Sanford Heisler has made a name for itself suing BigLaw firms like Jones Day and Morrison & Foerster LLP for discrimination, but leaders there struggled to address their own in-house complaints of racism, sexism and harassment, according to legal assistants and attorneys.

"The leaders at the firm have continued to resist allegations of wrongdoing even though they continue to prosecute other companies and institutions for the same problem," said Alvarez, who quit in September over how the firm handled his and others' complaints.

Sanford Heisler told employees in an August memo that an investigator the firm hired ultimately found little evidence that racial, ethnic or gender animosity was a factor in the conduct described in the June letter.

Firm Chairman David Sanford told Law360 the firm had "good reason to believe that many of the letter's allegations were false or misleading" but "took the letter seriously and acted immediately."

"It is a particularly powerful experience for us collectively to face issues like this, given the civil rights work that we do," Sanford said. "We have done our best to rise to the occasion with the response we would wish to see from any firm or other entity facing these issues."

Current and former Sanford Heisler legal assistants and attorneys said they want clients and job prospects to know how the firm handles the very same issues they take to court.

"Most of our work had to do with taking on clients that dealt with sexual discrimination, harassment, racial discrimination in the workplace," said Maliha Jahangiri, another former legal assistant who said she was discriminated against and has since left the firm. "It was just very startling."

The firm's handling of the complaints is also emblematic of deep-rooted bias that even affects clients, current and former employees said.

"I don't want Black clients contacting this firm because I don't want them to get subpar representation," said one current Sanford Heisler attorney who, like many employees, asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. "It cannot call itself a civil rights firm."

Another attorney still at the firm said "it was such an upsetting and demoralizing experience."

"There was this very powerful, willful refusal on behalf of leadership to actually hear what anyone was saying," that attorney said.

The unrest at Sanford Heisler boiled over this summer after the Black Lives Matter movement spurred a national conversation about systematic racism and barriers to diversity and inclusion in the legal industry.

The June 25 letter from 29 legal assistants outlining "sexist and racist" comments and behavior they experienced at Sanford was sent by other employees to the career offices at Harvard, Yale and Stanford law schools, according to current and former firm staff. 

"It lauds itself as one of the nation's premier civil rights firms, waging battles against BigLaw titans, large pharmaceutical companies, and prominent universities — and winning awards in the process," the letter said. "However, while the firm may succeed in holding other powerful institutions accountable, it fails to hold itself to the same standards."

Among some of the incidents laid out in the letter: Firm name partner and vice-chairman Jeremy Heisler, who is white, told a client that another client's "English wasn't so good." Chapin ridiculed Asian names as hard to pronounce by saying "Bing bong bing bong!" and Field remarked to a male legal assistant about "how exciting it was to grow up as a young man during the sexual revolution." A male San Diego partner told a female legal assistant her native people "don't have a problem" with erectile dysfunction, the letter alleges. Heisler has also commented on female legal assistants' bodies and weight and jokingly compared discrimination to porn, saying, "I'll know it when I see it," according to the letter.

Heisler did not respond to a request for comment.

David Sanford acknowledged in a officewide email July 1 that the firm received the letter, promising a "neutral third-party investigator" would be hired, according to a copy of the message obtained by Law360. The firm tapped Jeffrey Robinson of Lewis Baach Kaufmann Middlemiss PLLC on July 3 to investigate the complaints, emails show.

But Sanford criticized the legal assistants when Alvarez forwarded the entire firm a copy of the letter on July 6, the day before the investigation began.

"We have reason to believe that, in fact, some allegations are false and others are incomplete and therefore misleading. The investigator will be charged with determining the extent to which allegations are true, false and/or incomplete," Sanford wrote in a firmwide email. "We also have reason to believe that some allegations are motivated by anti-Semitic and anti-white-female animus."

Sanford offered no evidence to back up his claims. He also noted that "retaliation is strictly prohibited" against anyone who raises concerns. But he added in the same email that he put Alvarez on paid leave pending the outcome of the investigation and didn't say why.

One attorney still at Sanford Heisler said the firm tried to undermine the allegations by singling out Alvarez and minimizing the number of legal assistants who complained as a group.

"Leadership kept referring to it as 'Javier's letter,'" the attorney said. "It was a choice by the firm to erase the collective effort."

The group of legal assistants largely remained anonymous in the letter, though Alvarez emailed the message to leadership and the firm also knows Jahangiri signed. In an August email, 19 other legal assistants who had signed the letter revealed their names to the executive committee, aiming to illustrate widespread support of the letter's contents. Law360 doesn't know the identity of eight other legal assistants who helped draft the letter, which was originally signed as from "29 current legal assistants."

At least 12 of the 29 legal assistants are still at the firm, according to Sanford Heisler's website.

Sanford's response to the letter spurred other employees to speak out. Twenty-six attorneys and soon-to-be attorneys at the firm wrote to Sanford and other leaders on July 13 that they were "deeply concerned" that Alvarez was placed on leave, and that Sanford's email was "troubling."

"These comments, which were made before the independent investigation had begun, create the impression that the Firm has prematurely reached conclusions about the allegations," they wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by Law360.

Sixteen of the 26 people who signed the July 13 letter are still at the firm, according to Sanford Heisler's website, including staff attorney Albert Powell and senior litigation counsels Meredith Firetog, Inayat Ali Hemani, John McKnight, Katie Mesner-Hage and David Tracey. None of them responded to requests for comment.

Robinson finished his investigation on Aug. 6 after interviewing 45 legal assistants and attorneys, the firm said.

"He concluded that the incidents, as alleged, were isolated 'one-offs' and represented 'insensitivities' that need to be addressed," the firm executive committee wrote to employees on Aug. 10. "He concluded that the alleged behavior did not reflect intentional bias."

Robinson also determined the firm "appropriately remediated the concerns" and "noted that many facts are not in dispute, but that there are some facts in dispute and there are disputes regarding the intent underlying various statements," the committee said.

Sanford told Law360 that Robinson "found no evidence that bias played any role in the firm's decision making."

The firm has still pledged to implement both "unconscious bias and diversity" and "management" training, as well as a formal internal dispute resolution process, attorney evaluation system and other measures. Alvarez was also reinstated before he quit. The firm wouldn't say whether any attorneys, partners or others accused of harassment were penalized.

Current and former firm employees said the firm never released a detailed report on Robinson's findings — just one reason why they said the investigation was a sham.

Employees questioned whether Robinson's investigation was truly independent, because a third-party neutral cannot have an attorney-client relationship with any party in a dispute. Sanford wouldn't tell Law360 who hired Robinson to conduct the investigation.

While Sanford told Law360 the firm didn't influence the investigation, he initially warned employees they shouldn't reach out to Robinson "until he first contacts you" before changing course a week later, emails show.

"The entire investigation was tainted from the beginning," said one former attorney.

The firm's Aug. 10 memo summarized general conclusions from Robinson's investigation and addressed some specific allegations made by legal assistants in the June 25 letter, concluding "the comments/behaviors were not motivated by bias or animus based on race, ethnicity, or gender" but "do in some instances demonstrate insensitivity."

Several of the assistants said they brought their concerns to HR before sending the June letter. Jahangiri contends she filed a complaint with HR in January 2020 after she said she was publicly humiliated when she returned to work from sick leave. Senior litigation counsel Melinda Koster, who is white and was pregnant at the time, screamed at her for putting her fetus "in jeopardy" when Jahangiri brought a tissue into a meeting, according to the letter.

"There's a history of employees of color and their sicknesses being racialized in a way that are perceived to be more scary," said Jahangiri, who was ordered to go home after the incident.

Koster did not respond to a request for comment.

Jahangiri said she told HR it wasn't the first time she experienced discrimination as the only South Asian and Muslim legal assistant at Sanford Heisler. Jahangiri said New York managing partner Russell Kornblith told her Indian airports were "shitty" and Sanford said "Palestinian camps" he visited on a trip to Israel were "beautiful." She said the firm didn't take her complaints seriously.

Kornblith did not respond to a request for comment.

"For a firm that does this type of work, there were no real avenues to address what was going on or to find some sort of solution," Jahangiri said. "There's a one-woman HR team that's incredibly ineffective."

Alvarez also said he filed a complaint with HR in late May and was met with stalling and non-apologies. In one call arranged by HR, the June 25 letter said, Chapin told Alvarez he needed a "thick skin" and asked, "Do I need to walk on eggshells and worry about offending you all the time? Or can I be myself?"

Alvarez said, "Whether it's racialized, sexist or even sexual harassment — it's happened to so many people for so many years at this firm."

Alvarez and his attorney, William Most of the Law Office of William Most in New Orleans, wouldn't say whether he plans to sue the firm. His attorney declined to comment further.

David Sanford told Law360 new training and other measures will "minimize the likelihood of future insensitivities." He said the firm "committed considerable resources and time to the investigation and its aftermath."

But current and former employees said Sanford's handling of the complaints was particularly disheartening because of the work the firm does.

"It's not a good place to work," a legal assistant who is still at the firm said. "We're walking on eggshells."

Added a current attorney at the firm, "I was so appalled and angry about the way that everything had played out."

One former legal assistant said their intention was to make the firm "a better workplace" because many of them would be staying there for another year or two.

"All of a sudden it was, 'You hate white women and are anti-Semitic,'" said the former legal assistant, who took a pay cut to leave the firm. "Almost point by point this was the exact situation most of our clients had been in."

--Editing by Brian Baresch.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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