HK – runs into new sex, race quips imbroglio

In 1 on December 28, 2008 at 8:09 pm

Law firm runs into new sex, race quips imbroglio by KRIS HUNDLEY and SCOTT BARANCIK

Holland & Knight, which recently demoted a partner, faces a flap over comments made at a training session.

Comments by two of Holland & Knight's Jacksonville partners during company-wide training last week led to complaints about what some interpreted as sexist and racist attempts at humor. The company immediately launched an internal investigation.

The seminar on the proper handling of depositions was videocast to Holland offices nationwide for the benefit of inexperienced associates. They watched partners from around the firm offer instruction and participate in role-playing skits to illustrate interviewing techniques.

On Friday afternoon, the first day of the two-day session, a senior male Holland partner was instructing associates to coach their clients to maintain eye-contact with an opposing lawyer when being questioned. He then added that this was important even when the lawyer was a well-built woman.

Later that same afternoon, another white male partner donned a wig, sunglasses and a New York Knicks jersey to play the role of a rap artist who was being prepared for a deposition. For his unscripted performance, he affected the dialect of a stereotypical black rapper.

Reaction was swift.

By Friday evening, Holland officials were hearing complaints. On Saturday morning, the firm's managing partner, Howell Melton Jr., sent a voicemail to all Holland lawyers, alluding to unspecified "unacceptable behavior" during Friday's workshop and announcing that the incidents had been referred to Holland's Fair Employment Practices Committee for investigation and disciplinary recommendation.

When the associates gathered later Saturday for the second day of training, a Holland executive read statements of apology from the two Jacksonville partners, Robert J. Beckham, a trial lawyer for 45 years who made the comment about a female lawyer, and Peter P. Hargitai, who practices in the area of commercial litigation, banking operations and intellectual property.

When asked about his comment, Beckham, 75, said he didn't feel it had been fairly characterized and referred a reporter to a Holland spokeswoman. He said he wasn't under the impression that his comments were the object of scrutiny. Hargitai, 34, did not return calls asking for comment.

Holland officials declined to comment publicly on the Jacksonville incident or the investigation.

"It is Holland & Knight's policy not to make public comment on internal matters of this nature," the firm said in a statement. "The firm holds all of its personnel to the highest standards and expectations of professional conduct and strongly disapproves of any conduct that denigrates or ridicules any person or group."

The matter arose at the end of a particularly stressful week for Holland, the second-largest law firm in Florida and among the 15 largest in the world.

Four days earlier, the St. Petersburg Times reported that managing partner Melton had named Tampa partner Douglas A. Wright to be the firm's chief operating partner just months after reprimanding him for sexually harassing several female associates. Wright relinquished his new title shortly after the disclosure, but the incident left many observers inside and outside Holland questioning the firm's commitment to its female employees.

The Jacksonville incident occurred just as Holland's top-ranked woman was sending out an e-mail to all Holland lawyers encouraging them to rise above the challenges presented by the Wright controversy.

Though it is unknown exactly how many of the firm's litigation associates witnessed the training session first-hand, word of the offending comments spread like wildfire after Melton's unprecedented announcement via voicemail of the investigation. Such investigations are generally only known to the parties directly involved.

No Holland employees were willing to comment on the record about the two comments.

But Michael L. Buckner, an African-American lawyer who worked for seven years in Holland's Jacksonville office, said the complaints against Hargitai were misdirected.

"I'm very good friends with Peter," said Buckner, who did not see the presentation. "And I've never heard him say any racial comments or show racial insensitivity. You're barking up the wrong tree."

Now in private practice in Fort Lauderdale, Buckner said he wouldn't have been offended.

"I don't personally see any problem with it … if you were telling me that same thing from some other law firm, then it'd be a different story," Buckner said. "I wouldn't have taken it the wrong way, and that's because of me knowing those people in Jacksonville."

Buckner said it is not unusual for lawyers to do role-playing during training seminars and that he participated in a week-long seminar in 2003, the last year he was with Holland.

"That's how you learn," he said of the classes. "Not everyone acts the same way. I did get clients at Holland & Knight that had different experiences and backgrounds."

Lawyers who specialize in litigation, or taking cases to court, need such training because the vast majority of lawsuits are settled long before they reach a judge and jury, making the deposition, when official statements are taken, critical.

Holland had hired an outside lecturer based in Los Angeles to lead the sessions and speak on key deposition skills. Experienced partners in Holland offices around the country were scheduled to demonstrate specific aspects of each lecture.

The 12-hour training session was based on a hypothetical breach of contract case, in which a young recording group broke away from its first record company after rising to fame.

The training program, put together by an outside firm, described the defendants as uneducated youths who had been raised in the projects in Oakland, Calif. by their mothers.

Hargitai was assigned the role of a defendant being prepped for a deposition. Participants were encouraged to have fun with their roles.

But Hargitai apparently caught some observers off-guard when he appeared on the videoconference in basketball jersey, sunglasses and a wig he once wore for a disco party.

Torri Griffin, a diversity consultant and trainer in Atlanta, said it's not surprising Hargitai's performance sparked some displeasure.

"It may seem as if people are being super-sensitive," she said. "But in fact when people are not in tune with what other people are facing in terms of stereotypes, their statements can be truly offensive. He could have just spoken like himself and he didn't need the costuming."

Though Holland recently appointed a diversity partner, La Fonte Nesbitt, to coordinate efforts to recruit more women and minorities, the firm is still predominantly white males.

There are no African-Americans among the Jacksonville office's 50 lawyers. Of the office's 29 partners, only 2 are women.

Firmwide, Holland has 743 partners. Three percent, or 23, are African Americans and 118 are female (16 percent). Of Holland's 1,256 lawyers, 145 or 11.5 percent are members of a racial or ethnic minority. That compares favorably to a recent survey of the nation's 250 largest law firms, where minorities made up an average of 9.64 percent of the total.

Speaking about efforts to increase minority and female representation at Holland, Nesbitt said, "I don't pretend this law firm is perfect on diversity issues. But we're taking it seriously and examining it critically. And we think we've got a good message, which is demonstrated in our numbers, actions and otherwise."

Posted via email from Case Investigation


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