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A former New York-based partner at Dechert has filed a gender discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming that the firm and its management created a hostile working environment for women — specifically those who elected to have children. Nina Grayson, a partner in Dechert’s corporate practice group, filed the complaint with the EEOC in New York last month. It centers on her return — or lack thereof — from maternity leave this past spring. Dechert managers claim the complaint has no merit. According to Grayson, when she said she wanted to take her entire 2000 vacation at the conclusion of her maternity leave, firm chairman Barton Winokur balked and told her she would have to “live with the consequences” if she did so. When she returned to work in May, she says, Winokur told her she would not be paid for one of the months she took as vacation. Grayson, who distributed copies of her EEOC complaint to all female Dechert employees along with a letter dated Nov. 6, claims this was a form of gender discrimination that cost her status with her partners and ultimately led to her messy departure from the firm last summer. “It was evident to me from the foregoing that I had made an enemy of Mr. Winokur by exercising my right to take maternity leave without prejudice,” Grayson wrote in the complaint. “By insisting that I not take paid vacation after my maternity leave, he was denying me the same right to vacation that anyone who had not taken maternity leave would be entitled to. “Plainly, this would have never been an issue for any male partner (or associate), yet for me it was an issue of grave consequence. Mr. Winokur had told me repeatedly that if I insisted on what would amount to equal treatment with my male colleagues, I would ‘suffer the consequences.’ There could be no greater ‘death sentence’ for one’s career at Dechert than to hear those words from Bart Winokur. Plainly, my status at the firm was drastically and, I believe, irreversibly, diminished by my having taken maternity leave.” The Legal Intelligencer requested an interview with Winokur; Dechert management responded by faxing an unsigned statement on Wednesday. The firm denied the charges, calling them “a distorted and inaccurate version of the facts.” “Grayson resigned from the firm several weeks after returning from a six-month period of total absence,” the statement read. “For five months of this period, Ms. Grayson received full compensation as an equity partner of Dechert under the firm’s maternity and leave policies. “Proceedings before the EEOC are meant to be confidential, and for this reason the EEOC is statutorily prohibited from making such charges public. Accordingly, we do not believe it is appropriate to respond publicly to Ms. Grayson’s charge. Nevertheless, because Ms. Grayson has chosen to widely disseminate her charge, we do believe that the following points should be made. “The charge that Ms. Grayson filed is based upon a distorted and inaccurate version of the facts, and we fully expect that the EEOC will dismiss this charge. Contrary to her assertions, Ms. Grayson’s differences with Dechert’s management were not the result of her having taken her maternity leave, which the firm fully supported and encouraged. Rather, they result from a difference of opinion regarding Ms. Grayson’s overall level of commitment to the firm during the period when she was an active partner.” Grayson, a 37-year-old George Washington University Law School graduate, joined the firm in December 1991 as an associate and was made partner in 1997. Grayson says in the complaint that, as a partner, she received a salary as well as a year-end draw and her assigned share of the profits. While she was eligible to vote on a few firm matters, Grayson says her vote constituted a fraction of 1 percent of the total partnership vote. She added that she was not on any firm committees and described Winokur and the firm’s 14-member policy committee as wholly powerful when it came to important firm matters. In December 1998, Grayson gave birth to her first child, took her 12 weeks of maternity leave and directly followed that by taking her full allotment of six weeks’ vacation for the year. She says she received her bi-annual review from the policy committee that fall, was told the firm was “completely satisfied” with her performance and received a 20 percent increase in base salary. Grayson gave birth to her second child in November 1999. She claims she took four weeks’ vacation — for the 1999 year — leading up to delivery, followed by her allotted 12 weeks of maternity leave — from December 1999 to February 2000. Grayson says she planned to take her entire vacation for 2000 directly after the completion of her maternity leave, meaning she would return to work in late April or early May. She says she received a call in late February from Winokur’s assistant inquiring when she would be returning to work. When Grayson informed her that she planned to take her 2000 vacation after her maternity leave, she says, Winokur’s assistant told her the chairman had a “pet peeve” about partners doing that. Winokur, the complaint says, called Grayson at home on March 27 — about four weeks into the vacation — to take exception to her taking vacation after maternity leave. She says she told him that by her calculation she was entitled to take until mid-April but that she “would prefer to return on May 1.” Winokur, the complaint says, responded by saying that the policy committee had a problem with this and that Grayson should take March and April as unpaid leave. Grayson said she told Winokur that she didn’t see how the firm could ask her to take March as unpaid vacation when the month was just about over. According to the complaint, Winokur told her he could not force her to take that time as unpaid leave but that she would have to “live with the consequences” if she didn’t. “He said he ‘could not imagine that [I] would want to work at a place where all [my] partners disagree with [me],’ ” Grayson wrote in the complaint. Grayson says she told Winokur that she strongly disagreed with his position but offered to take April as unpaid leave. Yet she was unwilling to give up her March pay. Winokur, she says, declined to compromise and insisted that she should not be paid for March, reiterating that the decision was hers. The following morning, Grayson says, she called Winokur with her decision, telling him again she would not take March as unpaid leave. This time, she says she explained her reasoning more fully. She claims she told Winokur that her doctor had told her that she should return to work only when she felt strong enough and reminded him that she worked long hours before taking maternity leave and had actually suffered a miscarriage while working in 1997. Winokur, she says, told her he would review the matter with the policy committee. Soon after the conversation, Grayson received a call from policy committee member Kathy Ziga. She says the two talked about the Winokur conversation, and Ziga told her not to worry about it and that “everyone takes their vacation at the end of maternity leave.” Grayson says she received her monthly March paycheck and assumed that the firm had reconsidered its position. She remained out until the end of April and did not receive pay for that month. Grayson says she wanted to make peace with Winokur and did not make an issue of that fact. Upon Grayson’s return to work, Winokur called her and said he wanted to finish their talk from March. Grayson says the two did not actually meet until late June, when Winokur told her that she would not be paid for March and that the firm would withhold it from her year-end distribution. Winokur, she says, added that all the partners disagreed with her stance and that if she continued to make an issue of it, she would have to “suffer the consequences.” During this conversation, Grayson claims that she asked Winokur to put himself in her shoes and he replied by saying, “I could never be in your shoes.” Winokur, she says, compared her situation to that of another partner, Richard Sharfman, a recent lateral hire who took six weeks’ vacation as soon as he joined the firm. Grayson says she responded that she had been with the firm for nine years and that there was no parallel. With that, she says, Winokur grew impatient and sought a response. She says she told him that while she disagreed about the March pay issue, she could not afford to suffer the consequences of disagreeing with him and the other partners. “Then maybe this is not the place for you. Now I’m mad,” Winokur said before hanging up, according to Grayson. Grayson says Winokur soon sent an e-mail to the firm’s accounting department informing them that Grayson had agreed to take March as unpaid leave. Three days later, Grayson announced her intentions to withdraw from Dechert’s partnership, sending the policy committee a memorandum explaining why. “My decision to withdraw results from the committee’s creation of a hostile and discriminatory work environment following my maternity leave, the denial of vacation to which I am entitled, and hostile and threatening pronouncements as to my status in the firm by Mr. Winokur,” she wrote. “Contrary to Mr. Winokur’s memo to the accounting department, I did not agree that I should be treated as being on unpaid leave for the month of March. That was a decision dictated by Mr. Winokur, which I was told to accept or ‘live with the consequences.’ That ultimatum violates the policy of maternity leave at the firm.” Under terms of Dechert’s partnership agreement, a partner has to receive a date of withdrawal from the policy committee after making the intent to leave known. She says Winokur responded on July 24 by purporting to make Grayson’s withdrawal date retroactive to June 19, the day she made her intent known. As a result, she received no salary for July, despite the fact that she worked for the firm during that month. “Clearly, this was a punitive and, again, a discriminatory measure, evidently intended by Mr. Winokur to extract from me an additional month’s salary after I had challenged his authority to deny me post-maternity paid vacation,” Grayson wrote in the complaint. Grayson says not only is she being denied her April and July draws from year-end distributions — to which she claims she is entitled on a pro-rated basis — but her year-end draw will be pro-rated as if she withdrew from the firm on May 19. The two months’ salary and distribution she lost will amount to no less than $60,000, she estimates. “I had been a very highly regarded partner with a very promising future,” Grayson wrote in her complaint. “My status, however, changed completely after my second maternity leave, when I simply attempted to exercise my vacation entitlement as if I had not been on maternity leave, as if I had the same entitlement as any male partner. “The firm refused to recognize that entitlement and threatened me if I attempted to exercise it. As a result, I was alienated from a firm at which I expected to work and enjoy the benefits of partnership for perhaps 25 more years. The cost to me has been enormous, but I could not, and should not be expected to, accept such discriminatory, and I submit, unlawful treatment.” Although Dechert management said it was confident it would prevail before the EEOC, the statement said the firm was “concerned about the false impression that Ms. Grayson’s charge attempts to create about the firm’s treatment of its women partners and employees. Ms. Grayson’s charge is totally inconsistent with Dechert’s demonstrated record in this area.” To back up that point, the firm pointed to an October 1997 article in The Legal Intelligencer, which cited Dechert among the nation’s top “women-friendly firms.” The article reported on the results of a survey conducted by two former Harvard law students, which concluded that Dechert rated fourth in the country and first in Philadelphia for its women-friendly atmosphere. The firm was praised for its part-time policy, reasonable hours, and willingness to allow both men and women to attend family functions. Grayson is now employed at Dreier & Baritz, a Manhattan firm whose name partner, Marc Dreier, is representing her in this matter. Dreier said that Grayson distributed the EEOC complaint to her former female colleagues at Dechert because she felt it was important for them to know the details of her situation. “Dechert is a big place with lots of women attorneys and staff,” Dreier said. “If benefits and standing can be compromised by taking maternity leave, women are really at risk. And if you worked in an environment that is hostile to women, then you would want it to change. She brought it to their attention because she’s not there anymore. But they are and they can do something about it. … Because we know Mr. Winokur won’t do anything about it until he becomes pregnant.” Dechert management said it was disappointed that Grayson distributed the complaint to its female attorneys only because EEOC matters are supposed to be confidential. But a firm spokesman said management was not aware of any specific problems it had caused.

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