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HK – Holland & Knight Douglas Wright Sexual Harassment Embarrassment Holds Lessons

In 1 on January 7, 2009 at 1:09 pm

Holland & Knight Embarrassment Holds Lessons

Nine female lawyers accuse Wright of sexual harassment

Dan Lynch
Daily Business Review
April 5, 2005

Holland & Knight's recent announcement that a partner accused by nine female lawyers of sexual harassment was stepping down from a top position to which he'd just been promoted holds lessons for other law firms, experts on workplace issues say.

In March, New York-based managing partner Howell Melton announced that Douglas A. Wright, 44, a tax lawyer, had been promoted to chief operating partner of the 1,250-lawyer Tampa, Fla.-based firm. The position included supervisory responsibility for the firm's business operations, including the human resources department.

But sources within the firm quickly leaked documents about a confidential internal investigation, which led to a series of articles in the St. Petersburg Times and other newspapers. The firm initially blasted the leak, saying it "recklessly and unfairly impugns the reputation of one of the firm's finest partners," but it announced shortly afterward that Wright had elected to return to his old job.

It turned out that nine female lawyers at Holland & Knight's Tampa office last year accused Wright, a former nose guard for the University of Florida football team, of sexually harassing them.

The complaints resulted in a confidential investigation by the law firm. Wright received a private reprimand last summer, including orders to stop asking women in the office to feel his "pipes," or biceps. He also was told to stop commenting on their clothes and sex lives and to forgo any retaliation against the women who'd complained.

In an internal memo, managing partner Melton described Wright's conduct as "inappropriate and unacceptable," the St. Petersburg Times reported.

Last week, following the announcement of Wright's promotion and reports of the sexual harassment probe, the Times published an editorial assailing Holland & Knight as "tone deaf" on gender issues. That was a stinging rebuke for a law firm that long has prided itself on its progressive approach to women, minorities and social issues.

Last week, after two days of critical news coverage, Melton announced that Wright was returning to his former role as a partner in the firm's business law department in Tampa. The decision was Wright's alone and completely voluntary, the firm said. Both Melton and Martha Barnett, chair of the firm's directors committee, acknowledged to the Times that news stories had played a role in the decision.

Outside observers were sharply critical of both Wright's conduct and of Holland's decision to promote an attorney to such a key position who'd recently been reprimanded for sexual harassment.

"Law firms have to be very sensitive," said Edward Poll, who operates the Venice, Calif.-based LawBiz Management Co., a law firm consulting firm. "This firm's behavior failed that test. A promotion only six months after an incident like this was a mistake."

"It would appear that maybe [Wright] had watched one episode too many of 'Ally McBeal,'" said John Beane of Staff Development Services, a Leland, N.C.-based firm that specializes in law firm human resource consulting. "In many cases, managers fail to see an incident like this as a big deal. When they decided to promote this guy, they were more or less endorsing what he'd done."

Holland leaders declined to comment for this article. A company spokeswoman refused to say how many of the initial complainants are still with the firm. In a written statement, Holland & Knight said it remains "committed to fostering a work environment in which all individuals are treated with dignity and respect."

Barnett, a former American Bar Association president, told the St. Petersburg Times that the news media coverage of her firm's handling of the case had caused embarrassment, "particularly for an institution that views diversity and equality as a core value of our firm."

Wright declined to comment.

During Holland's investigation of the women's complaints, according to the St. Petersburg Times, Wright said he "may have" made the comments attributed to him by the women" but "I do not recall" doing so. He has denied discussing sex with colleagues.

One of the lawyers, Elizabeth Fite, who left the firm five months ago, said in an interview that since the women had dealt with their complaints through internal Holland & Knight procedures rather than filing complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, "there are certain confidentiality obligations imposed on us. I've been trying to comply with those obligations."

Still, some Holland partners reportedly defended Wright and circulated a petition on his behalf within the firm.

Holland & Knight, founded in Tampa in 1889, has 32 offices. It's the second-largest law firm in Florida and among the 15 largest firms in the country.

Wright, a tax attorney, also represents sports clients. The married father of three joined Holland & Knight in 1987 after graduating from the University of Florida law school. He has spent the last 13 years as a member of the firm's private wealth services group.

Holland & Knight has made special efforts to advance women in the firm and in general. Among the firm's initiatives are the Rising Star program, which singles out five female lawyers a year for specialized management and leadership training. Last year, 13 of the 24 associates the firm promoted to partner were women.

The firm also sponsors Women Executive Leadership, a nonprofit organization aimed at putting more women on corporate boards. At the Tampa office, where the complaints against Wright were lodged, there are 18 women among the office's 82 lawyers, and seven female partners out of a total of 54. Firmwide, five of the 24 partners who serve on Holland & Knight's board of directors are women.

Nonetheless, experts were critical of the firm's handling of this matter.

"The key is training and how policies are communicated," said William P. Anthony, a professor of management at Florida State University who studies and serves as an expert witness on workplace harassment, managing diversity and strategic human resource management. "I'm sure they have a good sexual harassment policy, but how was it promulgated? How were people trained?"

William R. Amlong, a partner at Amlong & Amlong of Fort Lauderdale whose firm has handled many workplace harassment cases, said for Holland to promote Wright after reprimanding him for sexual harassment "sends the wrong message, especially with complaints by nine women. That's not a sexual harassment complaint. That's a stampede."

The promotion fosters a perception that some Florida law firms are "just an amalgamation of frat boys," he said.

His wife and law partner, Karen Coolman Amlong, said Wright's promotion indicates an inherent problem with the Holland & Knight corporate culture. "There had to be fertile soil there," she said.

Poll suggested that workplace harassment problems like this will ease.

"If you look at law school classes, they're more than 50 percent women," Poll said. "When women who can act as women, rather than as clones of men, take power at law firms, the culture will change. It has to."

Posted via email from HKLaw Investigation

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