Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM

Several former K&L Gates lawyers, all women, have alleged they suffered sexual harassment or gender discrimination by certain male partners in Pittsburgh who were perceived to be protected from the fallout of those claims.

Sources with knowledge of the allegations said several male partners in the firm’s Pittsburgh headquarters allegedly engaged in the conduct from the 2000s through the mid-2010s.

Numerous sources, including former K&L Gates employees and others with first-hand knowledge of incidents who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation, described instances of misconduct ranging from affairs with subordinates to unsolicited advances and, in one instance in the early 2000s, a sexual assault.

In a statement to The Legal Intelligencer for this article, K&L Gates said it does not comment on specific personnel issues. The firm said it prohibits all forms of harassment and discrimination and reviews its policies continuously.

“As a matter of policy and practice, the firm takes allegations of harassment and discrimination very seriously,” the firm’s statement said. “When we learn of allegations of harassment or discrimination, we investigate and take action as appropriate.”

A Problematic Culture?

But others questioned the firm’s approach.

“It was very clear that women in the partnership were not treated the same as men,” said one former K&L Gates partner, a male lawyer who worked at the firm in the 2000s and early 2010s. “I never would have let my daughter work there.”

In several instances, multiple sources said, female associates in Pittsburgh raised complaints with the firm about how they were treated after rebuffing a male partner’s advances or ending a romantic relationship with him.  Other instances of male partners making unsolicited advances toward female associates went unreported, sources said.

Between 2002 and 2012, firm management signed at least three confidential settlement agreements with women who alleged sexual harassment or claimed that their career was stunted after they rebuffed a male partner’s advances in the firm’s home office, sources confirmed. In all of those cases, sources said, the male partner was kept on by the firm, and the female lawyer left soon afterward.

Despite efforts by some at K&L Gates to keep these allegations from being known by the partnership at large or becoming public, word of the claims and settlements spread. Numerous sources said they had heard of confidential settlements between the firm and women who had worked there related to inappropriate sexual relationships or discriminatory behavior.

While many of the allegations of these women centered on certain partners in Pittsburgh, a London publication last year reported on a similar pattern at K&L Gates. Roll on Friday reported that “K&L Gates has been accused of turning a blind eye to multiple claims of sexual harassment against one of its lawyers.” A spokesman for the U.K. Solicitors Regulation Authority confirmed that the authority is investigating the allegations detailed in that article.

Sources who spoke with The Legal Intelligencer said associates at K&L Gates were assigned work under an “entrepreneurial” system that required them to seek out and form working relationships with partners in order to get assignments. They said many partners became valuable mentors to the associates they worked with, including women, and some women became very successful at the firm.

But if a woman lawyer experienced inappropriate behavior by a partner for whom she worked, sources said, there was often a fear that reporting that behavior could undermine her ability to gain assignments or advance toward partnership.

A number of sources also said it was their perception that women who worked for certain partners at K&L Gates in Pittsburgh during this same period generally struggled to succeed after having children.

Sources cited discriminatory remarks made by certain male partners about pregnant associates. And multiple sources said some women lawyers left K&L Gates because they struggled to get assignments from partners after taking maternity leave, and received poor performance reviews as a result of lower billed hours.

One female lawyer who previously worked at K&L Gates, who asked not to be named, said a male partner told her directly when she was pregnant that he expected that she would stop practicing law and stay home with her kids after her baby was born. “I experienced attitudes that weren’t friendly toward women,” the female lawyer said. “I did find it harder as a woman to get the good billable work.”

A Controversial Lateral

David DeNinno was said to be a major rainmaker at Reed Smith. But in 2011, he left the firm for K&L Gates. That was just weeks after Reed Smith resolved a gender bias suit in which an alleged statement by DeNinno was cited as an example of discriminatory behavior.

In the gender bias suit, former Reed Smith partner JoEllen Lyons Dillon claimed she received little to no work from more senior partners at Reed Smith and that work was diverted to male nonequity partners or women who engaged in sexual relationships with firm management.

According to the suit, Dillon had complained to DeNinno about her compensation being cut by almost half after she took maternity leave. In response, the complaint said, DeNinno asked Dillon if she was “done having babies.”

Samuel Cordes, the lawyer who represented Dillon, declined to comment for this story.

In addition, prior to DeNinno joining K&L Gates, three female lawyers from Reed Smith with whom he allegedly had affairs complained to Reed Smith, according to a source with knowledge of the claims. Those women ultimately left the firm.

Reed Smith declined to comment for this story. DeNinno did not return a call seeking comment.

K&L Gates hired DeNinno from Reed Smith just days after Dillon dropped the case—her lawyer said in May 2011 that “the matter has been resolved to our mutual satisfaction.”

Multiple sources said numerous lawyers within K&L Gates were aware of the allegations against DeNinno and were unhappy with K&L’s decision to hire him.

DeNinno left K&L Gates less than a year later for an in-house position.

‘I Don’t Want a Scandal’

It was because of the culture at K&L Gates that Roberta Anderson Sutton, a lawyer who practiced in the firm’s Pittsburgh office for 20 years, chose not to immediately report her worst experience at the firm, she said.

Roberta Anderson Sutton

It was about 15 years ago. She was an associate at the firm, then known as Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, attending a firm event at a Pittsburgh hotel.

During that evening event, she said, she left the party to go to the restroom and encountered a male partner in the hallway. Anderson Sutton said the partner took her by the shoulders, forced her into a nearby conference room and shoved her onto a table. He then ripped open her blouse, she said.

Anderson Sutton said she protested and called out. The male partner eventually left the room, she said, though she was unsure what caused him to do so.

“It was extraordinarily aggressive,” she said.

Anderson Sutton said she called her then-husband, a former K&L attorney, and asked him to meet her at the hotel. She told him what had happened. He was furious, she said, but she refused his suggestion of reporting the incident.

“At the time I thought, ‘No, I’m doing really well at this firm. I’m going to succeed here. I don’t want a scandal,’” she said.

And she did succeed there. Anderson Sutton, an insurance recovery lawyer, became a partner after about seven years at the firm, and she co-founded K&L Gates’ cybersecurity practice. She later moved to Cohen & Grigsby in 2017 before starting her own consulting business earlier this year.

Anderson Sutton said she chose not to tell firm management about the incident because she worried that making a report would harm her career. Two sources, including Anderson Sutton’s ex-husband, confirmed that she told them about the incident soon after it happened.

More than a year after the alleged assault, during an out-of-state firm event, the same male partner came knocking on Anderson Sutton’s hotel room door, she said. She called hotel security and stayed quiet until he stopped knocking. Because of their previous encounter, she was afraid, she said, so she confided in a friend of hers who worked at the firm, telling her friend about the assault. That friend then told someone in firm management, Anderson Sutton said.

An employment lawyer for the firm met with Anderson Sutton to hear her account of what happened, she said. And a few days later, at the firm’s Pittsburgh headquarters, the male partner who had allegedly attacked her came to her office unaccompanied, she said.

According to Anderson Sutton, the partner said he had been directed by the firm’s employment lawyer to come apologize to her. “He said, ‘I guess you’ve solidified your future with the firm.’ I said, ‘I would think just the opposite,’” she said.

Even though she had not intended for firm management to hear about the incident, Anderson Sutton said she was “extraordinarily offended” by how the firm responded after hearing her account. The male partner continued to practice at K&L Gates for several more years, before leaving the firm to take another legal position.

Charles Pemberton, a lawyer in Pittsburgh who represents employees in employment discrimination cases, said the kind of response by the firm that Anderson Sutton described would be improper. “That is out of the ordinary,” he said.

Anderson Sutton chose to go public with her account, even posting about it on her Facebook page, after Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, at which Christine Blasey Ford detailed her sexual assault allegations against the now-confirmed U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Anderson Sutton said there were other times she encountered inappropriate behavior at K&L Gates, whether toward herself or other women at the firm.

A few years later, for example, another male partner groped her chest and buttocks at a firm retreat, she said, and she noticed that at least one other male partner saw the groping but said nothing to stop it.

“I unfortunately shrugged it off as this is something you just have to deal with,” she said.

A Firm’s Response

Lori Bauer, a partner at Jackson Lewis who represents employers in discrimination cases, said it’s unusual for a law firm to face as many allegations of harassment in one office as K&L Gates appears to have faced.

But, she noted, many firms may have tolerated behavior years ago that would cause alarm in 2018.

Pemberton said multiple instances of sexual misconduct at a large firm isn’t surprising in itself. But, he said, it’s important to consider how law firms handle those allegations.

Law firms, as employers, are not required by law to discipline partners accused of sexual harassment or discrimination, Pemberton noted. But they are required to put a stop to the alleged behavior, he said, and they must not permit retaliation against the accuser.

At most firms today, Bauer said, if an employee brought harassment or discrimination allegations, “it would be investigated and if there was any corroboration or any reason to believe it was true, that [accused] person would not be at the firm anymore.”

In its statement, K&L Gates said: “We have policies in place that prohibit all forms of harassment or discrimination. We review those policies continuously and revise them when appropriate to conform to what we believe to be best practices in the profession.”

READ MORE:

Behind Big Law’s Wall of Silence on Sexual Misconduct

Recruiters See Effects of Sexual Misconduct on Lawyers’ Careers

Corporate Lawyer DeNinno Leaves Reed Smith for K&L Gates