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Big law firms send out press releases all the time. Won a big case. Sponsored a charity basketball game. Brought on a new partner. But there’s probably never been a release quite like the one Pillsbury Winthrop fired off on the morning of Sept. 4. The one-paragraph missive — issued by Mary Cranston, the firm’s San Francisco-based chair, and Marina Park, its managing partner — vibrates with anger. The document’s subject is Frode Jensen III, a Pillsbury partner who has accepted an offer to join Latham & Watkins. Latham gets its share of vitriol as well. “Pillsbury Winthrop, in response to a press release issued by Latham & Watkins on September 3, 2002 announcing that Frode Jensen, a corporate securities partner in Pillsbury Winthrop’s Stamford Connecticut office is joining the New York office of Latham & Watkins, would like to correct some possible misperceptions caused by the Latham release,” the Pillsbury release states. “Pillsbury Winthrop previously had intended not to comment on Mr. Jensen’s departure in order to downplay the event,” it continues. “However, as a result of Latham’s press release Pillsbury Winthrop Chair, Mary Cranston, explained that Mr. Jensen’s departure comes on the heels of sexual harassment allegations involving Mr. Jensen and a significant decline in his productivity. According to Ms. Cranston, Mr. Jensen has been largely absent from the Stamford office since the start of this year.” The release then quotes Cranston as saying, “Our firm values respect and integrity above all else. We investigated the harassment claims, concluded that there was a reasonable likelihood that harassment had occurred and responded with a variety of measures. It is always sad to lose a friend and colleague to another firm, however, under the circumstances of the past year, Mr. Jensen’s move is probably in the best interest of all concerned, and we wish him well with his new firm.” The parting shot: “Latham & Watkins did not contact anyone in Pillsbury Winthrop’s management in connection with a reference check for Mr. Jensen.” Public relations professionals from San Francisco to New York expressed amazement at Pillsbury’s approach. Howard Rubenstein, a dean of the New York PR world who has fought countless high-profile publicity battles, calls the Pillsbury document “one of the most unusual press releases I’ve ever heard of.” He declines to comment further. Another in-house public relations expert at a large international law firm is more blunt. “Common sense must have gotten up and walked out of the building on the day Pillsbury wrote that,” this person says, calling it “ill-tempered” and “mean-spirited.” “The release sounds like a rant,” agrees Allan Ripp, a New York-based public relations consultant whose clients include Sidley Austin Brown & Wood. Lateral moves are a fact of life among big firms, he notes. “You just don’t respond to other firms’ releases when people leave,” he adds. “Next month, Pillsbury could hire someone away from Latham.” Pillsbury’s management defends its decision to send out the release. Cranston says the firm felt it needed to respond to Latham’s Sept. 3 release and news articles that ensued in order to “correct the record.” She says the firm has “a policy of no tolerance” for sexual harassment, and was “very careful” in how it worded the release, specifically choosing to use the word allegations. Jensen could not be reached for comment last week, despite numerous attempts. Firm leaders at Latham say they stand behind their decision to add Jensen to the partnership. FIRST RELEASE It started with a Sept. 3 press release — standard in tone and content for most law firm announcements. “Prominent M&A Lawyer Frode Jensen Will Join New York Office of Latham & Watkins,” was the headline. It described Jensen’s experience and background. Latham’s press release did not draw much media attention — at least until Pillsbury fired back at it. Reporting on Latham’s announcement, The Daily Deal on Sept. 4 wrote simply that Jensen was a “big hire” for Latham, which had “poached” the “well-known” M&A specialist from Pillsbury. ( The Daily Deal is an affiliate of Legal Times and law.com.) Pillsbury’s release hit news desks hours later. Ripp, the New York PR agent who does work for Sidley Austin, says of Pillsbury’s follow-up move, “To go public this way brings it to the attention of all the firm’s clients.” He adds, “What this release really says is, ‘Don’t look at this guy, look at me.’” Indeed, that is what has happened. Press coverage in the days since the Pillsbury release has questioned why the firm didn’t fire Jensen if, as the release alleges, the firm believed sexual harassment had occurred. “You don’t always terminate people,” says Cranston, who says the firm took other steps. Generally, she says, such steps can involve financial penalties or removing people from certain work assignments, though she declines to reveal the specific steps she alleges were taken in Jensen’s case. The labor and employment and torts bar also watched Pillsbury’s approach with interest, saying that the firm may have exposed itself to a lawsuit. “It sounds like they just lost their cool. They weren’t thinking like lawyers,” says American University law professor Susan Carle, who has trained employers on dealing with departing employees. “There’s a definite cause of action for defamation.” If Pillsbury is forced to defend itself in a courtroom, it is expected it would claim that all of its statements were truthful. “Truth is a defense,” says George Mason University law professor Michael Krauss. “That’s the obvious mud that’s going to be slung.” Adds Carle: “Of course, truth is a defense, but nobody wants to litigate a case to the point where truth matters.” PRIOR POACHING Jensen, 52, practiced for 14 years at Winthrop, Stimson, Putnam & Roberts, a New York firm that merged with Pillsbury Madison & Sutro in 2001. Prior to his career at Winthrop Stimson, he practiced at Cummings & Lockwood in Stamford and was an associate at Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York. At Pillsbury Winthrop, he was co-chair of the firm’s mergers and acquisitions group and a member of the firm’s senior management. From Latham’s point of view, Jensen is a known-quantity M&A lawyer, and an asset to Latham’s New York practice. He also happens to be the third senior partner that Latham poached from Pillsbury in recent months. In June, Latham hired litigators Stephen Stublarec and Christopher Byers from Pillsbury’s San Francisco headquarters. Latham’s press release at the time noted that Stublarec “served in numerous management roles at his prior firm,” and then detailed those roles. “While at his prior firm, Byers served as chair of several committees,” including the complex litigation and recruitment committees, the release said. David Gordon, the managing partner of Latham’s New York office, says he remains confident that Jensen will be a valuable addition. He and Kirk Davenport, who co-chairs the firm’s corporate department in New York, insist that their evaluation of Jensen was thorough. They both say they are aware of no litigation involving Jensen and Pillsbury Winthrop. “We did a lot of due diligence,” Davenport says, “and we are confident that we got it right.” The two Latham partners say they do not expect to withdraw their offer to Jensen in the wake of Pillsbury’s comments. But they acknowledge that the first time they learned of any allegations of sexual harassment was when they saw Pillsbury’s Sept. 4 release. Both men decline to comment on the substance of the allegations, other than to say the firm takes such allegations “very seriously.” Davenport says the firm is “in the process of completing our follow-up investigation, and we’re asking [Jensen] a lot of questions.” For their part, the Latham lawyers are trying to stick to the high ground. Davenport calls Pillsbury “a very fine” firm. “We’ve had lots of good interactions with them, and we look forward to working with them in the future.”

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