By: Dani Meyer
While it may have been a typical response for Squire Patton Boggs LLP to go on the defensive after a former associate took to Reddit to say she had suffered gender discrimination, experts say there could have been a better way to handle such a situation and that the firm may have missed an opportunity to tell its side of the story.
Kristen Jarvis Johnson made headlines this week when her “Ask Me Anything” thread on social news website Reddit, in which she recounted being a victim of gender discrimination and said she felt like she was “worth less as a lawyer” after having a baby, went viral.
In a statement, Squire Patton Boggs said it was “disappointed” to see her comments and that it strongly disagreed with Johnson’s opinion of its policies regarding women. The firm reaffirmed its commitment to “a firm culture that promotes full and equal participation, advancement and retention of women.”
It also pointed out that it has women serving on its global board as well as acting as practice group leaders and office managing partners, and that two out of four promotions in the Middle East since the Squire Patton Boggs merger in 2014 were for women.
“Of the women, one was on maternity leave the year she made partner and the second was on maternity leave the year before she made partner. During the period when Ms. Johnson was in Doha, [Qatar], there were four partners in the office, two of whom were women,” Squire Patton Boggs said in the statement. “Our Doha office was also founded in 2003 by a woman partner who was the first non-Qatari attorney licensed to practice law in the state of Qatar and supported Ms. Johnson’s move to the office.”
Equinox Strategy Partners founder Jonathan Fitzgarrald’s first reaction was that Squire Patton Boggs missed the mark with its response.
“Their approach in responding to the situation is like throwing gasoline on a fire,” he said.
In this “typical law firm response,” he said, Squire Patton Boggs missed an opportunity to take control over the situation by appealing to people’s emotions rather than their intellects.
“No one cares about the legal arguments of why the firm was right and Johnson was wrong. No one cares,” Fitzgarrald said. “This isn’t a court of law. This is a jury of her peers.”
Sheila Sheley, president of Sheley Marketing LLC, said that with the facts seeming to weigh in Squire Patton Boggs’ favor, it was natural for the firm to want to use them to exonerate itself: “What lawyer can resist the temptation to mount a defense and present the [evidence] to discredit a witness?”
Still, Squire Patton Boggs’ response could have been more balanced and acknowledged challenges facing the profession as a whole, she said.
“Firms are competing harder for clients, clients are pressuring firms for lower fees, and attorneys are having to work more hours just to maintain the same level of profitability,” Sheley said. “All lawyers are feeling the pain, not just women.”
John Hellerman of Hellerman Communications suggested that the firm would have been better off being less interested, instead simply wishing Johnson well and saying it looked forward to buying her dolls for local schools.
In that vein, he thinks Squire Patton Boggs missed an opportunity to call attention to Johnson’s self-interest in the situation, since it has helped gain more publicity for her startup, which is aimed at making dolls for young boys.
Given how easy it is for employees to speak out online, this is hardly the last time a situation like this will pop up for a law firm. When it does, Fitzgarrald said, it’s not an option for the firm not to comment.
“Otherwise, the story is one-sided and the law firm is never happy with the way the story is reported. No longer can law firms stick their head in the sand and hope the weather will pass,” Fitzgarrald said. “If they want to shape the story, they’ve got to tell their side of the story, and that means they have to respond in a very timely and authentic way.”
Hellerman said that while it might be acceptable not to comment in some situations, silence is becoming a less and less useful option.
“Every firm has to look at it from their own perspective. But generally speaking, when there is something negative in the news, it’s best to come up with some way to participate in the dialogue. There’s parameters in that, but it’s better than ignoring the dialogue altogether,” Hellerman said.
It’s a balance, he added, since of course law firms don’t want to worsen a controversy that’s subsiding. Regardless of which approach a firm takes, the ultimate goal is to “make [the situation] neutral and boring,” he said.
Once the dust has settled, he thinks it may be “the time for the firm to make some bold moves” regarding gender equality.
In challenging these types of allegations, actions speak louder than words, Jill Huse of Society 54 LLC said. An unfortunate example has been set in many firms where few women reach the partnership ranks, and this has a lot to do with biases within a male-dominated industry, according to Huse.
Huse said firms often recognize issues but have a hard time resolving them, likely because the leadership consists of men who don’t want to admit there’s an problem.
“In order to challenge these allegations, firms need to embrace an expanded shift in their culture where they are not only thinking about gender and diversity issues, but also crafting and implementing plans that create opportunities for advancement,” Huse said. “And they need to be accountable for these efforts.”
A representative for Squire Patton Boggs declined to comment Friday.
This article was originally published by Law360.