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Houston-based Vinson & Elkins is the defendant in a suit filed recently by one of its former associates, an African-American female attorney who alleges V&E engaged in unlawful employment practices that violated her civil rights. Rhonda Wills alleges in her complaint in Wills v. Vinson & Elkins, filed on June 13 in the U.S. District Court in Houston, that she was the victim of racial and gender discrimination as well as sexual harassment while at the firm. Wills alleges in her complaint that V&E violated her rights under 42 U.S.C. �1981, retaliated against her — including denying her partnership — and placed her in such an intolerable position that she had to resign. Wills, whose complaint paints V&E as a place where African-American lawyers are unlikely to thrive, alleges that the firm acted with “malice or reckless indifference toward her rights” and requests an unspecified amount of punitive damages. The complaint also asks the court to grant an injunction to prevent V&E from engaging in unlawful employment practices. John Murchison, a V&E partner in Houston designated to speak for the firm, takes issue with Wills’ allegations. “It’s a highly fictionalized account of her time at the firm,” Murchison contends. After U.S. District Judge Nancy Atlas, wife of V&E partner Scott Atlas, recused herself from the case on June 23, the case was assigned to U.S. District Judge John D. Rainey. Wills, a University of Texas School of Law graduate who spent a year as a briefing attorney at the Texas Supreme Court, joined V&E as an associate in August 1995 and worked in the firm’s Houston litigation section, according to the complaint. Denied a partnership in November 2002, Wills left V&E in April 2003, according to the complaint. Two V&E partners, David Harvin and Robert Schick, allegedly told Wills that she was not promoted to partner because some partners in the Houston litigation section did not “feel comfortable” with her, according to the complaint. Neither Harvin nor Schick returned calls seeking comment before presstime on June 26. But Murchison contends that V&E encouraged Wills to stay at V&E and try again to become a partner. “She quit and walked off,” alleges Diana Marshall, who represents V&E in the suit. Marshall, owner of the Marshall Law Firm in Houston, says she is surprised to see V&E sued for racial and gender discrimination. “It has been a very high-profile leader in minority hiring and advancement,” she says. V&E also has focused on how to better recruit, retain and advance women in the firm through its Women’s Initiative, which it formed in the fall of 2000, says Marie Yeates, a partner in the firm’s Houston office. Yeates says that as part of the initiative, V&E formed the Women’s Development Council, which she chairs, to work on strategies. In early 2001, V&E hired Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that advises corporations on women’s issues, to provide advice to the firm on what it should do, she says. V&E also named Betty Owens, a partner in Houston, as director of attorney development. Yeates says part of Owens’ assignment is working on the Women’s Initiative. In addition, Yeates says, the firm created an outside advisory board, that includes V&E clients, which provides input on the efforts to improve the situation for women at the firm. “Are we perfect — absolutely not,” Yeates says. “It’s something we have to work on and keep working on.” Wills, now a partner in Houston’s Barner & Wills, alleges in the complaint that V&E pays “lip service” to clients by having such programs in place but that “the Women’s Initiative has done little to help women associates achieve an equitable position” at the firm. “I think diversity and the Women’s Initiative are both used more as marketing tools to develop business than as legitimate efforts,” Wills alleges in an interview. Wills alleges in the complaint that she was photographed for inclusion in the Women’s Initiative brochure sent to thousands of clients, prospective clients, judges and lawyers about two weeks after the firm denied her partnership. In October 2002, just before the firm denied her partnership, Wills was included in a V&E televised commercial shown on Continental Airlines, she alleges in her complaint. Shell Oil Co. general counsel Catherine Lamboley, chairwoman of V&E’s Women’s Initiative advisory board, says she and other board members believe V&E is committed to retaining and advancing women within the firm. “Definitely we wouldn’t be spending our time [on the board] unless we did,” Lamboley says. Wills and her attorney, Broadus Spivey, decline to comment on the allegations in the complaint. “The petition speaks for itself,” says Spivey, a shareholder in Austin’s Spivey & Ainsworth. RACIAL DIVERSITY In her complaint, Wills alleges that V&E has a history of racial discrimination in its hiring, retention and promotion of African-Americans. Sherman Stimley, the first African-American attorney to join V&E, was repeatedly denied a partnership, she alleges. Author Harold M. Hyman reported in “Craftsmanship and Character: A History of the Vinson & Elkins Law Firm of Houston, 1917-1997,” that Stimley, a Harvard Law School graduate, joined V&E in 1974 but left the firm in the mid-1980s after it “had become apparent that he would not be admitted into its partnership.” Stimley died in 1997. Murchison says Stimley was very popular at V&E and that many people wanted him to make partner. “But I think he just didn’t fit in in terms of his legal practice,” Murchison says. He adds that Stimley worked extensively with V&E after he left the firm. Wills alleges in her complaint that only one black lawyer employed by V&E has been with the firm for more than four years. Al Odom, who joined V&E in 1989 and became a partner in early 1998, says he is one of only two African-Americans to achieve partnership after rising through the firm’s ranks. Odom, who chaired V&E’s recruitment committee as an associate and recruited Wills, says the firm supported his efforts to bring in more African-Americans. “The problem is not getting people in the door, but advancing them once they get there,” contends Odom, who is now a Houston solo. Dwaine Massey, an associate with V&E from August 1994 until September 1999, says the firm recruited him and other African-American lawyers harder than it did Caucasians. “I cannot say we were offered the same mentorship or case opportunities as our counterparts once we got there,” says Massey, now a solo plaintiffs lawyer in Houston. “To be a lawyer, you need a mentor, especially in a big firm. Those opportunities were just not there,” he says. “I didn’t feel like there was an effort made to include me in activities that I knew other white associates were included in,” Odom says. Odom says he became frustrated at times because he had to go around asking for work while it appeared that others were handed cases by the partners with whom they played golf and had close relationships. “Even the [cases] I would get would be less desirable than cases others in my class were getting,” he alleges. “I knew that was not the right position for me,” Odom says of his partnership at V&E. But Odom says the primary reason he left V&E in April 2000 was because he wanted to be a plaintiffs lawyer. “We’re doing the best we can to have racial diversity in our law firm,” Murchison says. The approximately 850-lawyer firm employs 77 minority attorneys, 22 of whom are African-American, he says. Of V&E’s 323 partners, 55 are women and 13 are minorities, including two African-Americans who were lateral hires, he says. Murchison says that Veronica Lewis, an African-American partner in V&E’s Dallas office, sits on the firm’s management committee that voted not to recommend Wills for a partnership. Lewis did not return a call seeking comment before presstime. Wills alleges in her complaint that there were instances in which V&E’s e-mail system was used to distribute allegedly racist messages. The suit does not provide details about the alleged e-mails. She also alleges that Phillip Dye, a V&E partner in the Houston litigation section, told a racially insensitive story during an October 2002 dinner party attended by clients and other attorneys from the firm. “In order to illustrate part of the racist story, Mr. Dye touched [Wills'] face saying, ‘Does this rub off?” — a reference to whether [Wills'] skin coloring ‘rubs off,’ ” Wills alleges in her complaint. Dye says the story told at the dinner was about a suit in which he represents a corporate client sued for racial discrimination because of an incident at a 1999 company Christmas party in the Netherlands. A person dressed as Sinter Klaas — a saint from Spain who converted the Dutch to Christianity — arrived at the Christmas party accompanied by two Caucasians in black face who represented Moors, Dye says. Tradition has it that Moors accompanied Sinter Klaas when he first arrived in the Netherlands, he says. In keeping with the Dutch tradition, the two people with painted black faces picked people out of the audience and made fun of them, Dye says. One of those picked, he says, was an African-American man. At some point, Dye says, the two people with painted black faces asked the African-American if his color rubbed off because theirs did. The man was offended and sued, Dye says. “It wasn’t a racist story,” says Dye, who denies touching Wills or asking if her color rubs off. ‘THE MOMMY TRACK’ Wills also alleges in her complaint that she was penalized in the partnership process for taking a 12-week maternity leave, as permitted by the firm, during each of her two pregnancies. The firm’s Houston litigation section historically has failed to promote a woman who has a baby and takes maternity leave before being considered for partnership, she alleges. A woman who has a baby and takes maternity leave typically is placed on “the Mommy Track” and encouraged to stay home with her children, practice part time or move to an alternative career track — all options that remove her from the partnership track, Wills alleges in the complaint. Murchison says that three female attorneys in Houston’s litigation section — formerly the general litigation section — have not become partners after taking maternity leave since 1990. One of them is Wills, he says. However, Murchison says, “If you look at the firm as a whole, you find people who made partner after they had maternity leave.” The appellate section had people two to three years in a row who became partners after taking maternity leave, he adds. Wills further alleges in the complaint that Gib Walton, a partner and one of three litigation section heads, suggested after Wills was denied a partnership that she consider staying home with her two children or working part-time. Walton also informed Wills that the feeling among the partners in the Houston litigation section was that “she didn’t know her place,” Wills alleges. Walton says he did meet with Wills after she didn’t become a partner but vehemently denies that he made any of the statements quoted in the complaint. “The statements in the complaint that are attributed to me are absolutely false,” he says. Wills also alleges in the complaint that V&E partner Ronald Welsh of Houston, another litigation section head, touched Wills in “a suggestive and inappropriate fashion” and propositioned her, while having lunch at a Houston restaurant, to have a sexual relationship with him in the spring of 1997. Welsh also spread rumors that he was having an affair with Wills, the complaint alleges. Welsh did not return a phone call seeking comment before presstime. Marshall says Welsh is “devastated” by Wills’ allegations and offered to take a polygraph examination about the allegations made in the suit. Marshall says she selected Travis Knowles, a polygraph exam instructor. “The examiner administered the test twice and concluded that [Welsh] is telling the truth, that he did not do any of the allegations complained of,” Marshall says. Murchison says V&E’s managing partner designates seven people within the firm to receive complaints about any type of discrimination or sexual harassment, he says. “Rhonda Wills did not report this to anyone,” he says of the former associate’s allegations. Notes Spivey, “I think the evidence will show she reported [the alleged harassment] to a partner or partners.”

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