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How One Paul Hastings Associate Burned 1200 Bridges With One Email

by Carolyn Elefant on May 6, 2008 · 18 comments

in Biglaw Practice and Issues, Law Practice Management, Leaving A Firm

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Update (5/10/08) – I have changed my position on this and updated it here.

Update (5/7/08) – a commenter points out that the associate did not send the memo to Above the Law, but instead, that it was circulated by another attorney.  This makes the story more unfortunate, because the associate may not have wanted so much widespread publicity.  On the other hand, in an Internet Age, most of us have to assume that any inflammatory emails that we send are destined for broader publication.

Make no mistake, mega-law firm Paul Hastings acted insensitively, boorishly – and possibly even unlawfully – in terminating this associate six days after she suffered a miscarriage and then pretending that the firing was merit based.   But by publicly venting about about her termination at the heavily trafficked Above the Law website, the associate made her own situation far worse than the firm that let her go.  Here’s why.

According to its website, Paul Hastings has 1200 lawyers, some of whom might have tried to help this associate find a new job.  Some might have sent her referrals had she gone to another law firm or started her own, thus helping her build a porfolio of business which could advance her career.   And while the work might have come because of a belief in her merit or out of guilt for having done her wrong, what’s the difference?  In any event, this associate will never find out what could have been, because she burned those contacts with her incendiary post.


In fact, so intent was this associate on lashing out that she rejected the firm’s offer of three months of severance pay – probably around $50,000 with her biglaw salary biglaw dollars – to avoid signing a non-disparagement agreement that would have precluded her from posting the email about the firm.  Imagine the kind of law firm this associate could have started with a $50,000 nest egg.

Now, as I said at the outset, it’s true that the firm may have acted unlawfully.  As some commenters at Above the Law suggested, the firm may have decided to fire the associate quickly after her miscarriage to get rid of her before she could get pregnant again.  And the associate claims that her previously stellar reviews were downgraded in her last months at the firm, which might also suggest that the firm used her alleged lack of merit as a pretext for termination.   If that’s the case, the associate should retain competent employment counsel and file a lawsuit, because law firms won’t change their conduct otherwise.  But even if she has a viable claim, she [needs to stop blogging - redact] should not air it publicly – which will only cost her good will and most likely to hurt her case rather than help it.

However, most associate terminations aren’t the result of unlawful conduct.  In most cases, firings are based partly on economics (the firm could afford to keep an around if it had money) and partly on merit (let’s face it, when economics dictate terminations, the firm dumps the lower performers first).   And for most lawyers who are accustomed to easy success, rejection hurts.

I feel sorry for the associate because I’ve been in her shoes.  As I reveal in Solo by Choice, my law firm gave me my walking papers which eventually lead me to start my own firm.   I’m sure that she’s smart and talented, but frankly, I’d never hire her.  If a public “f-you” to her former employer represents her best way of dealing with adversity, how is she going to help clients solve their problems?

As a final note, if you find yourself in the same position as this associate, go ahead and write that email and cleanse the anger and hurt and frustration from your system.  Then hit the delete key and move on with your life.

  • http://wanderingbell.blogspot.com Bill

    The $50K would be nice to set out on her own, but in a situation like this, it might have been worth more to her integrity not to accept that money. Yes, its going to hurt her when she goes to look for a new job, but on the other hand, agiven what has happened in her life, maybe she needs a break for a bit.

  • http://wanderingbell.blogspot.com Bill

    The $50K would be nice to set out on her own, but in a situation like this, it might have been worth more to her integrity not to accept that money. Yes, its going to hurt her when she goes to look for a new job, but on the other hand, agiven what has happened in her life, maybe she needs a break for a bit.

  • http://www.gulbransen.net/ Dave!

    Admittedly, the public airing of grievances probably wasn’t a wise choice. It’s something that I suspect someone would do if this was their first “real job” after having gone straight from college to law school. Which happens to fit the bill for a lot of young, BIGLAW associates.
    That said, if the environment at her firm *was* that bad, she didn’t burn 1200 bridges. There will probably be a percentage of people who secretly are cheering, because she did something they wanted to, but never could.

  • http://www.gulbransen.net/ Dave!

    Admittedly, the public airing of grievances probably wasn’t a wise choice. It’s something that I suspect someone would do if this was their first “real job” after having gone straight from college to law school. Which happens to fit the bill for a lot of young, BIGLAW associates.
    That said, if the environment at her firm *was* that bad, she didn’t burn 1200 bridges. There will probably be a percentage of people who secretly are cheering, because she did something they wanted to, but never could.

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    Bill, Dave, thanks for your comments. Dave is correct that there probably will still be some PH lawyers who help this woman out, but not as many as she might have otherwise found. To Bill, I don’t know if this is really about integrity or martyrdom. I think that her integrity could have been served without career suicide – such as a lawsuit (if she had a case) or a face to face conversation with the various parties involved.
    Finally, my own post makes reference to the associate blogging – that is inaccurate. I should have said venting on blogs, as there is no evidence that she is blogging herself.

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    Bill, Dave, thanks for your comments. Dave is correct that there probably will still be some PH lawyers who help this woman out, but not as many as she might have otherwise found. To Bill, I don’t know if this is really about integrity or martyrdom. I think that her integrity could have been served without career suicide – such as a lawsuit (if she had a case) or a face to face conversation with the various parties involved.
    Finally, my own post makes reference to the associate blogging – that is inaccurate. I should have said venting on blogs, as there is no evidence that she is blogging herself.

  • anon

    I just wanted to point out that the associate did not publicly air her grievances. She sent the email to other attorneys at her firm, one of whom sent it to Above the Law. She even declined to comment to the website.
    Admittedly, she may have known that it was likely to get forwarded. I personally respect her courage.

  • anon

    I just wanted to point out that the associate did not publicly air her grievances. She sent the email to other attorneys at her firm, one of whom sent it to Above the Law. She even declined to comment to the website.
    Admittedly, she may have known that it was likely to get forwarded. I personally respect her courage.

  • http://kevin.lexblog.com Kevin OKeefe

    If she was wronged by the firm, I could see why she would not take the blood money and burn the bridges.
    It’s possible what she was then seeing from large law was so repugnant she wouldn’t want anything to do with it.
    Sad or proud, I’m not always sure what I should feel, but there have been many times in my life where I have burned bridges because of principals I stood for. Principals that I could not let go for what may be practical reasons.
    May be the case here.

  • http://kevin.lexblog.com Kevin OKeefe

    If she was wronged by the firm, I could see why she would not take the blood money and burn the bridges.
    It’s possible what she was then seeing from large law was so repugnant she wouldn’t want anything to do with it.
    Sad or proud, I’m not always sure what I should feel, but there have been many times in my life where I have burned bridges because of principals I stood for. Principals that I could not let go for what may be practical reasons.
    May be the case here.

  • http://disgustedbeyondbelief.blogspot.com/ Disgusted Beyond Belief

    I’d hire her in a second. She’s got guts and is not afraid to speak up in pursuit of righting a wrong. I’d certainly want her as my attorney if I were a client.
    I frankly find it despicable that people are expected to meekly take it when some powerful organization screws them over. She told them to take their money and shove it. The firm is the one in the wrong, not her. I’d certainly never use that firm after seeing this. If you as a firm don’t want someone saying this about you, there’s a simple way to accomplish that – DON’T ACT LIKE THIS FIRM. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. Trying to “punish” her for speaking out by not hiring her is just sending the message that you will protect and encourage this type of despicable behavior by firms, and frankly would make me wonder what sort of treatment you give your own employees.

  • http://disgustedbeyondbelief.blogspot.com/ Disgusted Beyond Belief

    I’d hire her in a second. She’s got guts and is not afraid to speak up in pursuit of righting a wrong. I’d certainly want her as my attorney if I were a client.
    I frankly find it despicable that people are expected to meekly take it when some powerful organization screws them over. She told them to take their money and shove it. The firm is the one in the wrong, not her. I’d certainly never use that firm after seeing this. If you as a firm don’t want someone saying this about you, there’s a simple way to accomplish that – DON’T ACT LIKE THIS FIRM. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. Trying to “punish” her for speaking out by not hiring her is just sending the message that you will protect and encourage this type of despicable behavior by firms, and frankly would make me wonder what sort of treatment you give your own employees.

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    Disgusted – You are absolutely right that the firm could have avoided this, and that it brought this problem on itself. For the record, I would never treat an employee this way and for the record, I do understand, fully, the gravity of this associate’s loss on a very personal level. Also, as I said in the post, I do think that she should investigate a lawsuit – because the conduct appears actionable on its face.
    However, sending that kind of email just doesn’t do much good in the long run. The firm may reconsider how it terminates people if it’s sued, but if there’s no suit, it will breathe a sigh of relief and go back to doing what it’s doing. Lawyers who want a biglaw job will still sign up to work for PH and nothing will change for the firm. On the other hand, this associate will face future damage, as her former employers may use this as an example of her indiscretion. This letter is going to follow her everywhere. If there’s a client who wants to follow this associate to another firm, do you think the firm is going to let that client go? It is going to fight tooth and nail to keep the client. She has hurt herself. Also, I’m also not saying that she should have remained silent – she could have confronted the people in the firm face to face rather than sending an email and creating a paper record.
    There are some causes worth fighting for. For example, if a lawyer represents an unpopular client and starts losing business because of it, that to me is an appropriate reason to sacrifice money – because it concerns an individual’s ability to access the law. Who the heck cares about what one stupid big law firm does? To me, it’s not worth losing opportunities.
    Finally, I’m not the only person who would have doubts about hiring this person. Law practice is upsetting. Opposing counsel will call you the worst of possible names, clients may act badly. You can’t just send out inflammatory emails in response because it escalates the problem and ultimately, can get you in trouble. Lawyers have to act with discretion. It is a hard lesson.
    I didn’t mean to be harsh. I truly believe that there are opportunities so much, much better than this associate can imagine that lie ahead – both personally and professionally. My fear is that she will not see them if she keeps looking back.

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    Disgusted – You are absolutely right that the firm could have avoided this, and that it brought this problem on itself. For the record, I would never treat an employee this way and for the record, I do understand, fully, the gravity of this associate’s loss on a very personal level. Also, as I said in the post, I do think that she should investigate a lawsuit – because the conduct appears actionable on its face.
    However, sending that kind of email just doesn’t do much good in the long run. The firm may reconsider how it terminates people if it’s sued, but if there’s no suit, it will breathe a sigh of relief and go back to doing what it’s doing. Lawyers who want a biglaw job will still sign up to work for PH and nothing will change for the firm. On the other hand, this associate will face future damage, as her former employers may use this as an example of her indiscretion. This letter is going to follow her everywhere. If there’s a client who wants to follow this associate to another firm, do you think the firm is going to let that client go? It is going to fight tooth and nail to keep the client. She has hurt herself. Also, I’m also not saying that she should have remained silent – she could have confronted the people in the firm face to face rather than sending an email and creating a paper record.
    There are some causes worth fighting for. For example, if a lawyer represents an unpopular client and starts losing business because of it, that to me is an appropriate reason to sacrifice money – because it concerns an individual’s ability to access the law. Who the heck cares about what one stupid big law firm does? To me, it’s not worth losing opportunities.
    Finally, I’m not the only person who would have doubts about hiring this person. Law practice is upsetting. Opposing counsel will call you the worst of possible names, clients may act badly. You can’t just send out inflammatory emails in response because it escalates the problem and ultimately, can get you in trouble. Lawyers have to act with discretion. It is a hard lesson.
    I didn’t mean to be harsh. I truly believe that there are opportunities so much, much better than this associate can imagine that lie ahead – both personally and professionally. My fear is that she will not see them if she keeps looking back.

  • http://disgustedbeyondbelief.blogspot.com/ Disgusted Beyond Belief

    I understand the reluctance an employer would have to hire someone who generally just bad-mouthed a former employer or aired a former employers dirty laundry. Generally speaking, I’m sure every firm has some degree of dirty laundry, gossip, and things that are annoying for those who work there – it is probably unavoidable – and so I can see an employer not wanting an employee who so freely airs such things – which is also why I can understand why those who, say, keep a blog about work at an office may also end up losing their jobs.
    But this is not what this case is about. This is more than just your typical dirty laundry. This is something terribly egregious and outrageous. There is simply no excuse for this sort of behavior. Moreover, unless one is either a doormat or desperate for the money, there will be a strong incentive for anyone with any sense of decency to make public such egregious conduct. This isn’t just your typical dirty laundry or even a more serious case of dirty laundry. This is disgusting conduct that goes so far over the line that when someone engages in it, one would hope that someone affected by it has the guts to make it public rather than let it be buried by non-disclosure agreements.
    And I disagree that the lack of a lawsuit will not change things – in my mind, if there is no lawsuit, this only increases the legitimacy of the complaints – this associate then would have given up $50,000 just so she could make this public. That to me shows that this was important to her and makes me believe her. It would also make me rather starve than apply to work at that law firm, or if I already worked there, I’d be looking for the earliest chance to leave. And so a good chunk of those 1200 people may be wanting to leave as well before they are the next one to be on the recieving end of the firm’s wrongdoing. The only one burning bridges here is the firm, by it egregious conduct.
    When I first read this posting, I was imagining that the letter must have had some profane language or have been a wild tirade, so I was pleasantly surprised to find it had no profanity and was a measured, but strongly worded and level-headed indictment of the firm. Just the sort of thing you’d expect from a competent attorney. I didn’t see an angry tirade, I saw righteous indignation in a dignified tone.
    So I still disagree with the notion that this should give other employers pause about hiring her. Who would you rather have working for you? Someone who is wronged this grievously who just quietly takes it, or someone who will not take it sitting down, who will risk something and not let it pass quietly?
    This isn’t about not being able to take it when opposing counsel calls you a name or a client acts badly. This goes far deeper than that. This isn’t about not having a thick skin. This is about an inexcusable, grievous wrong done to her by this firm. The only one in trouble by the public airing of this matter is the firm. What sort of a message does it send when she is condemned for airing it except that you are supposed to shut up and take it when you are personally wronged this significantly? I don’t take this as a sign that she’d do this every time she gets upset. And no rational person should think that based on this one single instance in this extreme case that that’s what she would do generally. I certainly don’t. Particularly when you add in consideration of the recent miscarriage. My wife had a misscarriage that was pretty bad and if something like this happened on top of it, well, I wouldn’t have taken it sitting down and neither would she.
    On a final note, I don’t think this associate is looking back. On the site where this was posted, it indicated that she was asked for further comment and she declined to give it. I think she’s said her piece and she’s moved on.

  • http://disgustedbeyondbelief.blogspot.com/ Disgusted Beyond Belief

    I understand the reluctance an employer would have to hire someone who generally just bad-mouthed a former employer or aired a former employers dirty laundry. Generally speaking, I’m sure every firm has some degree of dirty laundry, gossip, and things that are annoying for those who work there – it is probably unavoidable – and so I can see an employer not wanting an employee who so freely airs such things – which is also why I can understand why those who, say, keep a blog about work at an office may also end up losing their jobs.
    But this is not what this case is about. This is more than just your typical dirty laundry. This is something terribly egregious and outrageous. There is simply no excuse for this sort of behavior. Moreover, unless one is either a doormat or desperate for the money, there will be a strong incentive for anyone with any sense of decency to make public such egregious conduct. This isn’t just your typical dirty laundry or even a more serious case of dirty laundry. This is disgusting conduct that goes so far over the line that when someone engages in it, one would hope that someone affected by it has the guts to make it public rather than let it be buried by non-disclosure agreements.
    And I disagree that the lack of a lawsuit will not change things – in my mind, if there is no lawsuit, this only increases the legitimacy of the complaints – this associate then would have given up $50,000 just so she could make this public. That to me shows that this was important to her and makes me believe her. It would also make me rather starve than apply to work at that law firm, or if I already worked there, I’d be looking for the earliest chance to leave. And so a good chunk of those 1200 people may be wanting to leave as well before they are the next one to be on the recieving end of the firm’s wrongdoing. The only one burning bridges here is the firm, by it egregious conduct.
    When I first read this posting, I was imagining that the letter must have had some profane language or have been a wild tirade, so I was pleasantly surprised to find it had no profanity and was a measured, but strongly worded and level-headed indictment of the firm. Just the sort of thing you’d expect from a competent attorney. I didn’t see an angry tirade, I saw righteous indignation in a dignified tone.
    So I still disagree with the notion that this should give other employers pause about hiring her. Who would you rather have working for you? Someone who is wronged this grievously who just quietly takes it, or someone who will not take it sitting down, who will risk something and not let it pass quietly?
    This isn’t about not being able to take it when opposing counsel calls you a name or a client acts badly. This goes far deeper than that. This isn’t about not having a thick skin. This is about an inexcusable, grievous wrong done to her by this firm. The only one in trouble by the public airing of this matter is the firm. What sort of a message does it send when she is condemned for airing it except that you are supposed to shut up and take it when you are personally wronged this significantly? I don’t take this as a sign that she’d do this every time she gets upset. And no rational person should think that based on this one single instance in this extreme case that that’s what she would do generally. I certainly don’t. Particularly when you add in consideration of the recent miscarriage. My wife had a misscarriage that was pretty bad and if something like this happened on top of it, well, I wouldn’t have taken it sitting down and neither would she.
    On a final note, I don’t think this associate is looking back. On the site where this was posted, it indicated that she was asked for further comment and she declined to give it. I think she’s said her piece and she’s moved on.

  • wptam

    whoever posted the e-mail should apologize publicly for messing up this person’s life. And how is it that so many lawyers can get the details to this story so wrong and condemn the poor woman for messing up her future when as I gather, very likely, was one of her colleagues that was responsible.

  • wptam

    whoever posted the e-mail should apologize publicly for messing up this person’s life. And how is it that so many lawyers can get the details to this story so wrong and condemn the poor woman for messing up her future when as I gather, very likely, was one of her colleagues that was responsible.

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