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H&K's handling sets a troubling standard

By ROBERT TRIGAUX
Published March 30, 2005


The firm is committed to fostering a collegial work environment in which all individuals are treated with dignity and respect. - from Holland & Knight's policy prohibiting sexual harassment.

I do not recall asking her to "feel my pipes' numerous times or even asking her to do so at all, but I may have done so because I've done it before. - from the April 15, 2004, statement of Doug Wright, the No. 3 partner at Holland & Knight in Tampa.

A former college football player with a frat-boy personality offensive to more than a few female attorneys has nevertheless climbed the corporate ladder and this month became the chief operating partner of the prominent Holland & Knight law firm in Tampa.

Douglas A. Wright, 44, is a successful lawyer catering to wealthy and pro sports clients. He is also known for his locker-room humor, a burly physique and a bullying style - intimidating at least to a number of young female lawyers at the firm's Tampa office.

Confidential company documents obtained this week and first reported Tuesday by the St. Petersburg Times reveal Wright was the subject last year of an internal Holland & Knight investigation and a reprimand for violating the firm's sexual harassment policy.

The documents, which normally never would see the light of day in a newspaper, offer a glimpse of the behind-closed-doors treatment of sexual harassment complaints and the abuse of power that occurs far too often in U.S. businesses.

The story told by the Holland & Knight documents is shameful. Even if only half of the allegations are true, here is a major U.S. law firm with a blind eye to a good ol' boy way of doing things. Young female lawyers, some on their very first jobs, are tyrannized by an older, bigger, richer and more powerful male lawyer who can make or break a career.

It's doubly disturbing because the same female lawyers who should be praised for standing up to Wright - and whose names are now public - may very well end up branded as troublemakers by the close-knit legal world.

Since 2000, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has investigated and attempted to resolve more than 25,000 sexual discrimination claims each year. In this Holland & Knight case, the female associates apparently never took their claims to the EEOC.

An estimated 90 percent of sexual harassment victims decide the cost of fighting back would be higher than giving in or getting out, says Catharine A. MacKinnon, professor of law at the University of Michigan and author of the recently published book Women's Lives, Men's Laws.

"This is a common set of affairs, including these confidentiality agreements," MacKinnon said Tuesday. "Often, if women are to get any relief from sexual harassment, they are silenced in the process."

What is most disturbing in this Holland & Knight tale is that Wright was promoted this month to chief operating partner, the No. 3 position of power, at Holland & Knight. The firm once headed by former managing partner Bill McBride is not just a major Tampa Bay law firm or simply the No. 2 firm in the state. It ranks among the 15 largest law firms in the world and - ironically, it seems today - has long touted its social awareness and advocacy of women's issues.

Complaints allege Wright routinely asked some of the firm's young associate women to "feel his pipes" or "feel his guns" - sexually suggestive slang for feeling his biceps. Complaints also allege Wright repeatedly questioned, taunted or ridiculed female employees about their clothing, sexual habits and sex partners, and periodically threatened to fire them.

One young female associate joined Holland & Knight in 2002 right out of law school only to become one of Wright's favorite targets. Sarah Pellenbarg recalled how Wright pestered her relentlessly about her boyfriend, spending 30 to 40 minutes in her office three to four times a week. He regularly talked of firing her, according to Pellenbarg's statement.

"Doug Wright is the stereotypical schoolyard bully with an obsessive-compulsive twist," she stated. "He bullied and bullied and bullied me, and finally one day, he broke me. I got to the point where I dreaded going to work and cried at night. He was relentless."

In his defense during the investigation, Wright said he did not target women, and this week denied the harassment allegations to this newspaper.

"I joke and tease with everyone," he stated last year. "I suppose some might think that makes me an indiscriminate jerk."

Holland & Knight's investigative team, known as the "fair employment practices committee," concluded "jerk" did not go far enough. Wright violated the firm's sexual harassment policy, the committee decided.

"The majority of the committee found it baffling that (Wright) could believe that such a statement ("feel my pipes") was an icebreaker" to help start a conversation, the group concluded.

It made 13 recommendations to Holland & Knight managing partner Howell Melton Jr. Among those recommendations, Wright should: be reprimanded; be instructed not to ask or require employees to "feel his muscles, guns and/or pipes, and similar types of touching of his body"; refrain from personally monitoring the attire of employees; stop asking associates about their sexual lives and undergo sexual harassment counseling or management training; and not engage in any retaliation against anyone who complained.

To its credit, the committee also urged that Wright's behavior be monitored, especially because the attorney "has been entrusted with leadership positions" and "has made questionable use of the power inherent in those positions."

That's an understatement.

Wright has some fans at the big law firm. One of his peers suggested Wright has a "strong personality" combined with an ex-football player's imposing presence. Partner Stacy Blank, a woman, stated that Wright's "feel my pipes" line was just a "self-deprecating "shtick' that he adopted."

Thirteen days ago, on March 17, managing partner Melton sent a companywide e-mail announcing Wright had been promoted.

The e-mail also sends a troubling message. Man wins. Women lose.

Holland & Knight needs a higher standard.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or 727 893-8405.

[Last modified March 30, 2005, 01:03:17]


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