Gina Maisto Smith, left, and Leslie Gomez, right, of Cozen O'Connor.
Gina Maisto Smith, left, and Leslie Gomez, right, of Cozen O’Connor. (Courtesy photos)

Cozen O’Connor is debuting a new practice group focused on institutional responses to sexual and gender-based harassment and violence, hiring five Philadelphia lawyers, including four attorneys from Pepper Hamilton.

Gina Maisto Smith will chair the group at Cozen O’Connor and Leslie Gomez will be the vice chair. They are making the switch from Pepper Hamilton along with partner Megan Traversari and counsel Lauren Carella. Partner Maureen Holland is joining the group from Hamburg & Golden.

The five lawyers represent educational institutions as well as corporations, hospitals, religious institutions and nonprofits. Their practice includes policy development, investigations, training and compliance with Title IX and other regulations.

The move gives Smith a chance to lead a separate practice group focused on “holistic” responses, she said, and to not be “pigeonholed into a traditional civil litigation practice or a traditional white-collar practice.” The group’s work with clients extends beyond civil and criminal law to include regulatory and psychological issues that arise in harassment and abuse cases, she said.

Smith said the idea for her practice came from her experience at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, where she and Gomez were both prosecutors.

“When I started this practice in 2006 it was not a traditional practice,” Smith said. “It needed to grow with the national understanding of the issue. The national understanding of the issue has exploded over the past few years.”

Cozen O’Connor CEO Michael Heller said the new practice group creates opportunities for cross-selling, particularly with clients in the labor and employment practice. He said the firm had periodically found a role in Title IX-related sexual misconduct matters involving its higher education clients, but did not have the full resources necessary until now.

Smith and Gomez “are the leaders in the space by far, and having practices that are unique and differentiators I think is a great model for a law firm like ours,” Heller said. “We expect immediately to see an increase in revenues not just from their business … but also from our existing client base.”

Heller said the firm is also looking to grow the practice through joint venture opportunities, which could include partnerships with consulting, auditing, crisis management or public relations services.

Smith and Gomez have been involved in a number of high-profile investigations at universities and other institutions. Those include a probe into Baylor University’s response to sexual violence accusations against football players that recently became the subject of litigation against the university and Pepper Hamilton by former employees of the school’s athletic program.

The move to Cozen O’Connor was unrelated to the Baylor litigation, Smith and Gomez said. Pepper Hamilton has said the claims against it are meritless.

A Pepper Hamilton spokesman said in a statement that the firm wished Smith and Gomez well.

Smith and Gomez, who joined Pepper Hamilton in 2013 from Ballard Spahr, also worked with the University of Virginia on campus policies and practices in response to a Rolling Stone article that made false claims of a sexual assault at the university. Other clients have included Amherst College, Occidental College, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Holland and Carella also conduct Title IX investigations for schools, while Traversari’s white-collar investigations practice includes work with government and regulatory agencies and pharmaceutical companies.

Lizzy McLellan can be contacted at 215-557-2493 or lmclellan@alm.com. Follow her on Twitter @LizzyMcLellTLI.

Copyright The Legal Intelligencer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.