Career-Limiting Moves

The headlines are typically eye-catching:

Fired Kasowitz First-Year Sues for $77M, Says Firm Didn’t Appreciate His ‘Superior Legal Mind’” says The ABA Journal.

Fired first-year lawyer sues New York firm for $77 million” writes  Reuters.

As Brian Tannebaum noted on Twitter today: “Too easy“.

Admittedly, it would be too easy to write a post about how this is another prime example of the Rakofsky Effect or the Rakofsky Standard or anything remotely anecdotal. Yet such a post would be obliquely criticized by “some” as “piling on” or committing the  “tort of internet mobbing“.

According to the Plaintiff’s Prelminary Statement in the Complaint:

1. Plaintiff brings this action to recover the losses suffered by Mr. Berry at the hands of defendant Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman (“KBTF” or the “firm”), Aaron Marks, and Kim Conroy, for compensatory damages of at least $25 million, special damages of $2.55 million, punitive damages of at least $50 million, as well as injunctive relief and declaratory judgment.
2. In August 2007 Mr. Berry left his distinguished career as a software engineer and entrepreneur in San Francisco, California, to begin a new career as an attorney in New York City. To that end he began law school at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Fall 2007.
3. After on-campus interviews in the Fall of 2008 and subsequent inhouse interviews, Mr. Berry was offered a job at Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman. Relying on KBTF’s representations that it was an aggressive and creative firm that values intelligence, ambition, and drive, and eschews the artificial hierarchical structures of traditional law firms, Mr. Berry accepted the offer, forgoing other opportunities.
4. After a successful summer at KBTF in 2009, Mr. Berry was offered a full-time position at KBTF as associate starting September 2010.
5. Upon arrival at the firm, Mr. Berry immediately began doing superlative work. During his time at KBTF, he repeatedly found ways to improve the efficiency of the work, or even the outcome of cases.
6. Mr. Berry quickly discovered, however, that virtually every representation the firm had made about itself was false. It had told Mr. Berry it eschews artificial hierarchical structure, then refused Mr. Berry an assignment because it would be “unfair to the other associates.” It told Mr. Berry it valued intelligence and creativity, then reprimanded and ultimately fired him for exhibiting those traits. It claimed that the amount of responsibility an associate shoulders is dependent only on his willingness and ability, then reprimanded and ultimately fired him for demonstrating that willingness and ability to shoulder more responsibility.
7. In December 2010, Mr. Berry ran afoul of Kim Conroy, an associate at the firm, when he informed her that he had too many assignments at the moment and would not be able fully to take on her project. It is well-known at the firm, and encouraged, that attorneys are responsible for managing their own time and refusing assignments when they are overbooked. Ms. Conroy, knowing this, nonetheless conspired with Aaron Marks to damage his career and reputation and interfere with his employment at KBTF. Mr. Marks called Mr. Berry into his office to reprimand him, ultimately leading to his termination.
8. By the spring of 2011, Mr. Berry was confident that he could handle far more responsibility than he had been given to that point. When it happened that his current assignments wound down, he wrote to some partners he had come in contact with to request assignments that would give him more responsibility and the opportunity to fully demonstrate his abilities.
9. Mr. Marks again called Mr. Berry into his office, to again reprimand him, this time for that e-mail, and then some days later, on May 10, 2011, he was fired.
10. KBTF gave Mr. Berry an unconscionable Separation Agreement to sign under economic duress, and refused to negotiate or even discuss its terms.
11. Almost immediately after Mr. Berry signed the Agreement, KBTF breached virtually every one of its promises under the Agreement.

Having read the 50-page Complaint [pdf via AM Law Daily] in its entirety, I am left with the indelible impression that new lawyers face immense obstacles—professional, financial, ethical and personal—that are unique in the history of the legal profession.

Actually, no. Every generation of lawyers faces the same obstacles. Each year, law schools churn out bright, ambitious, industrious individuals, most of whom are lured by the siren song of $100,000+ starting salaries, bespoke suits and designer labels, a fancy automobile, a corner office and the brass ring of partnership. The harsh reality of legal practice and office politics must be like an ice-cold slap in the face.

If you ignore the hyperbolic prose (the adjective “superlative” is repeated four times) and third-person references (“Mr. Berry”), one can actually sympathize with his plight. Clearly, Berry is not some spoiled, self-entitled, Gen-Y, narcissistic Slackoise. In his own words, according to the Complaint:

“17. From 1997 to 2007 Plaintiff Gregory Berry had a distinguished career as  a software engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Within five years he held the title of Director of Technology, managing a team of engineers. His career culminated when he founded and was the creative force behind an internet company whose impact on online entertainment services can still be felt today.
18. After conquering Silicon Valley, he decided to take his talents in a new direction, and in 2007 began law school at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia, PA.”

Perhaps after he conquered Silicon Valley, he made a wrong turn at Albuquerque.

The sad truth is that the most intellectually gifted are often cursed with having to bring their IQ’s down to relate to those who cannot appreciate their obvious brilliance.  The smartest guy in the room is usually the one in the corner, double-dipping the chips, muttering to himself.  It is the lack of social or emotional intelligence or “not being the right fit” which is often the intangible in the career equation. At paragraph 72 of the Complaint, Berry reproduces the text of his “Partner E-mail” which reads in part:

“There is a natural skepticism that someone without a lot of formal legal apprenticeship can do the job of a senior associate, but the truth is much of the learning and experience an associate acquires is parallel to any business experience—negotiating contracts, negotiating settlements, writing, analysis. If you will allow me to manage some cases for you I can guarantee without reservation that you will get a better result than you get now with many of the official resources you have available to you.”

Bold. Assertive. Transformational. Ambitious. All qualities of an aspiring associate with a superior mind that any reasonable partner would appreciate and reward.

Right?

Wrong.

Telling partners how much smarter you are than most others in the firm is generally considered a career-limiting move.   I suppose if one is faced with mountainous document review (someone’s gotta do it, give it to an associate) and one has conquered Silicon Valley before, then the partnership should have appreciated Mr. Berry’s “outside-the-box-thinking”:

“…Mr. Berry explained to the managing associate and the other associates on the team how to review the documents with a software package that was internal to the KBTF system. Using the internal software large documents could be reviewed up to 600% faster (3 minutes versus 20) than using the web-based program.”

37. None of the associates but Mr. Berry switched to the internal software, costing the client hundreds or thousands of dollars extra in unnecessary hourly billing.”

Here’s how Berry describes himself on his website “About” page:

Gregory Berry

Before his career in the law, Mr. Berry worked for several years as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law and began his legal career at the “big-law” firm of Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman, where he quickly discovered that the emphasis in “big-law” firms on generating billable hours rather than on applying creativity and intelligence to devising unorthodox and cutting-edge legal strategies left Mr. Berry wasting his talents. Mr. Berry became a lawyer to fight for justice and to use his powers for good. He started this law firm to lend his abilities to clients who need the highest legal talent possible.

While not completely accurate (there is no mention of him getting fired),  at least he’s trying. Heck, I really do empathize with him. I do not intend to offer apocryphal advice or banal anecdotes.  It does appear that Berry retained counsel at some point through the negotiation of his severance. Berry alleges in his Complaint that:

91. Per the Separation Agreement, Mr. Berry retained counsel to attempt to negotiate a better severance amount from KBTF, sufficient to allow him to survive until he could find a job.
92. Upon learning that Mr. Berry had retained counsel, KBTF immediately withdrew the severance offer entirely.

It seems that the trend nowadays is to blame others rather than take responsibility.  Berry may well have a meritorious claim. As a pro se plaintiff,  he will save on legal fees. In the grand scheme of things, he would benefit from seeking the advice of a mentor or experienced trial lawyer to offer some objective advice and perspective on the costs and benefits of pursuing litigation. I am sure there are at least a couple of lawyers willing to lend him a hand.

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One Response to “Career-Limiting Moves”

  1. Career-limiting moves in social media « Mud Map to Life in the Modern Age Says:

    […] this one is quite stunning. A first year graduate is suing his former employer “big-law” firm Kasowitz, Benson, Torr…claiming he was fired because he exhibited intelligence and creativity. Now, I don’t know the […]

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