A 2009 employment discrimination case hints at poisonous politics at firm’s heart
One of the many gripes ex-partners of Dewey & LeBoeuf have about the US firm is the secrecy displayed by the former management. Ex-chairman Steve Davis, they say, kept few people in the loop about anything, with even details of the firm’s decline in recent months rarely being reported internally to partners.
The specific claim is that Davis and the management never kept notes of executive committee meetings, an allegation brought up with reference to partnership promotions in a case brought against the firm by a former associate three years ago.
“The respondent [Dewey] has deliberately created a partnership process that is secret and designed to avoid women and ethnic minorities from bringing any challenge,” claimed Valeria Piovesana in her witness statement to the London Central Employment Tribunal for a case the firm settled in 2009 – “amicably”, she told The Lawyer.
“The partnership has adopted a deliberate policy of taking no notes of any meeting concerning selection and avoiding discussions about candidates in writing,” she went on to allege in her submission. “For the reasons set out in this statement, the reasons for this policy are clear – shining a light on the inner workings of Dewey Le Boeuf [sic] reveals a partnership where decisions are made on the basis of unlawful prejudices rather than reason.”
Piovesana’s claims in her statement are clearly only one side of the story. Dewey, which declined to comment, will no doubt see things differently, but Piovesana’s experiences appear shocking.
Piovesana – who has since left the firm – was considered a talented associate in the London project finance department, she claimed. In 2007 she narrowly missed out on partnership and claimed she was promised promotion the following year. This never came to fruition, with Piovesana alleging she was discriminated against because she was pregnant.
The first time round, in 2007, she was offered a role as Italian local partner, a salaried partner position that she considered an insult, given that she was dual-qualified in Italian and English law.
On one occasion in 2009, she alleged, a London partner accused her of being “just ‘an Italian lawyer’” who “did not even speak proper English” after she had raised objections after he gave a client “what we believed to be incorrect corporate advice” during a conference call.
“I […] raised the fact that [the partner] had been treating [another associate] and me badly and with contempt,” Piovesana claimed, recalling a meeting with legacy Dewey Ballantine’s London HR head Julia Sherlock and office chief Fred Gander to discuss the matter.
“They both acknowledged the fact that [the partner] was a ‘problem’ for the London office and that other lawyers (and in other offices) had reported incorrect advice from him,” she stated. “Fred and Julia both said that his days with the firm were numbered.”
The witness statement claims that no action was taken against the partner, who has since left the firm. “Certainly there is no documentation that the respondents have provided that shows that they had discussions with him about his comments or took any action against him following this incident,” Piovesana went on.
Piovesana’s claims are particularly scathing with regard to the firm’s attitude towards women, with her claiming that in her decade at Dewey Ballantine only one female partner had been promoted to the partnership in London – and she was sponsored by the New York office.
Piovesana’s application for partnership in 2007 was backed by the likes of Italy head Bruno Gattai, Warsaw chief Jarosław Grzesiak and then US projects head Richard Shutran, she claimed.
But Davis appears to have vetoed her promotion, saying – according to her statement – that he wanted “UK partners and corporate partners”, not Italian and project finance partners.
In an extraordinary account, Piovesana met with Davis, who told her she was a “victim of the merger” that had just gone live between Dewey Ballantine and LeBoeuf Lamb Greene & MacRae.
Davis, who was from the LeBoeuf Lamb side, reassured her of her partnership prospects for the following year in a moment of prophetic wisdom. “The chairman also told me that ‘barring anything catastrophic happening to the firm’ I would have made partner [in 2008],” Piovesana claimed. “He also added that in such as? case ‘neither Fred [Gander] nor I would be around then’. And the two of them shared a quick laugh.”
The catastrophe was delayed by a few years, as was the duo’s exit from the limelight, with Davis ousted as chairman this year and Gander leaving for KPMG.
Davis did not keep his word, Piovesana alleged, with executive director Stephen DiCarmine later claiming that in the 2008 round “the stars were against” her.
She even alleged that Stephen Horvath – now executive partner – and another partner had “instigate[d] a campaign against me based on lies and false claims but the e-mails [about her promotion application] suggest that they purposely ensured that no documents were created following the guidance of the chief operating officer of the
firm, Dennis D’Alessandro”. D’Alessandro could not be reached for comment.
Another email from projects partner Jim Simpson to Gander in December 2007 allegedly stated: “I have been told that Steve [Davis] is actively lobbying against Valeria. If this is the case, it’s pretty pathetic. Can you tell him to stop it.”
In one January 2009 meeting after her second promotion attempt, which came after an unplanned pregnancy, DiCarmine said there were “noises” about Piovesana, allegedly clarifying: “[He said] that while there were people like [projects partner] ‘Amanda Jennings’ who are liked by everybody, there are also people like ‘Steve Horvath’ who nobody likes – ‘the whole London office hate him’. And then there were people like me who had lots of people saying good things and others saying bad things.”
Unfriends and relations
This may be merely a claim brought by an associate who was not made partner, but with politics like this, perhaps the reason that three years later the firm is on the verge of implosion is not so hard to fathom.