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HK – Chicago partner of Holland & Knight urges Howell Melton to resign for the firm’s sake.

In 1 on January 7, 2009 at 1:12 pm

Law firm's leader gets challenge from afar

In a scathing memo, a Chicago partner of Holland & Knight urges Howell Melton to resign for the firm's sake.

By SCOTT BARANCIK and KRIS HUNDLEY
Published May 3, 2005


A sexual-harassment case that rocked the Tampa office of Holland & Knight when it was disclosed a month ago has caused tremors halfway across the United States – and an open call for its leader's resignation.

Chicago partner Charles D. Knight sent managing partner Howell Melton Jr. a scathing, seven-page e-mail three weeks ago accusing him of "horrible judgment, insensitivity, arrogance and incompetence."

In the confidential memo, obtained by the St. Petersburg Times, Knight urged Melton to resign for the sake of the 1,250-lawyer firm and its clients, or risk subjecting the firm to a divisive recall vote.

Another Chicago partner, Mark A. Stang, who two weeks ago apologized to the "brave women of our firm's Tampa office" and expressed "disgust" with their treatment in a letter to the Times , ended his five-year career at the law firm Friday. He started at another Chicago law firm Monday. Stang declined to comment on the reasons for his departure.

Chicago is the second-largest of Holland's 27 domestic offices after Washington, D.C. Created through two mergers, it has about 160 lawyers, or nearly 13 percent of the firm's total.

Knight's e-mail was a startling display of pique by a rank-and-file partner who acknowledged in his memo that the managing partner holds enormous influence over his professional well-being. It also hinted at a more broad-based dissatisfaction with Melton's leadership. "I am not alone among my partners in believing that your resignation now would be in the best interests of the firm," Knight said.

Melton, based in New York, declined to comment, but Martha Barnett, head of the firm's policy-making Directors' Committee, reiterated her support for him in an interview Monday.

"While I respect Chuck Knight's views, I don't support the conclusions he reaches," said Barnett, who is in Holland's Tallahassee office. "There has been a strong expression of support throughout the firm for the role Hal Melton plays. Some may disagree with how he handled this issue, but they look at his leadership over the last two years and continue to have confidence in him."

The challenge to Melton stems from his handling of the case of Tampa partner Douglas A. Wright. In March, Melton promoted Wright to be the firm's third-ranking partner just months after reprimanding him for violating the firm's sexual harassment policy. The investigation case file was leaked to newspapers and included documents showing that Melton had rejected the investigating committee's recommendations for a tougher punishment.

Female lawyers in the Tampa office complained that Wright asked women to "feel my pipes (bicep)" or his thigh, routinely questioned them about their personal and sexual lives, and threatened to have them fired. Wright said that his comments were not sexual in nature and that his remarks about firing associates were intended to be jokes.

While Barnett seemed to take Knight's criticism in stride, there were indications of behind-the-scenes efforts to minimize the impact of the Wright case on Melton's standing.

Last month, Melton flew to a number of Holland offices to mend fences with partners. In Chicago, a number of partners declined to meet with him. It is not known if Melton met with Knight then, though Barnett said the managing partner had "reached out" to his critic.

Holland's management also attempted to curtail dissemination of Knight's letter. Knight sent the original by e-mail to Melton and gave paper copies to his colleagues in Chicago. Firm managers promptly ordered lawyer Robert Schnitz to collect all copies; some lawyers refused to hand them over.

Barnett said she was told the copies were gathered in part to comply with Knight's desire that his criticism be contained within the Chicago office.

Knight did not return a call seeking comment Monday. An outside observer called Knight's e-mail a rarity.

"It's not at all common for a partner to call for the resignation of his managing partner in writing," said Peter Zeughauser, an independent law-firm consultant in Corona del Mar, Calif. "It is not done."

More than just a critique of the Wright case; Knight's memo was an indictment of Melton's leadership. In a tone both legalistic and venomous, Knight, a 52-year-old litigator wrote:

"The managing partner demonstrated an astonishing and unacceptable lack of judgment by promoting Wright to Chief Operating Partner." The decision showed "callous insensitivity to the women who had complained about Wright's behavior."

The firm's initial defense of Wright as "one of the firm's finest partners' while implying that those who complained about him were not true victims of sexual harassment … was an act of monumental stupidity."

"The morale of women, minorities, and, yes, white males at the firm has been shaken." Partners have spent "countless hours … attempting to reassure our attorneys and staff that the firm's commitment to a decent and diverse workplace is not simply a marketing gimmick." Similarly, "the firm's efforts to recruit women and minorities will almost certainly suffer."

"The damage that the Managing Partner has already done to the firm is enormous. His judgment has been so demonstrably poor that the firm cannot trust him either to repair the damage that he has already done or to lead this firm in the future. … How can we convince our clients that we can counsel them on delicate personnel matters when the Managing Partner has demonstrated such insensitivity in our own sensitive internal matters?"

Despite Wright's decision to step down as chief operating partner, and despite Melton's April 11 e-mail offering staff an "expression of regret," Melton's stubborn refusal to take responsibility for his mistakes suggests he is not fit to lead the firm.

Knight acknowledged that not everyone at the firm supports Melton's forced removal. But he said "no one seriously disagrees that a resignation would enable the firm to put this shameful episode behind us and more expeditiously mitigate the harm to the firm's reputation in the eyes of the public, our clients, and our employees."

Elected to a five-year term as managing partner in 2003, Melton quickly began making his mark. He promoted growth, boosted the firm's profits-per-partner ratio by squeezing out underperformers, and pushed partners to do more free legal work for the poor.

He also required every Holland attorney spend at least 2,500 hours per year – or 10 hours a day, assuming two weeks' vacation – on firm-related business, or face a pay cut. Partners and associates alike complain the requirement has crimped their personal lives and put Holland at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to recruiting.

Unlike Melton, a lifelong Holland lawyer, Chicago partners Knight and Stang are relative newcomers to the firm. In fact, Holland & Knight didn't have a Chicago office until 2000, when it acquired 40-lawyer Burke Weaver & Prell. Two years later, it made a second acquisition there.

In his e-mail to Melton, Knight, formerly with Burke Weaver, recalled the time in 1999 when then-Holland leader Bill McBride pitched the merger. McBride talked about how Holland had made it a priority to weed out selfish, arrogant and disrespectful attorneys. Knight said it was a welcome policy that "became widely known as the "no jerk rule."'

Knight called McBride's presentation extremely persuasive. But recent events caused him to decide McBride was wrong.

"McBride appears to have failed to weed out all of the jerks," Knight wrote to Melton. "Regrettably, it appears that some of them succeeded to the highest levels of the firm's management."

–Times staff writer Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or 727 893-8751.

Posted via email from HKLaw Investigation

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