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Sanford Heisler, After Pushing Discrimination Claims, Faces Them

Nov. 17, 2020, 12:06 AM

Sanford Heisler Sharp, the civil rights law firm known for bringing discrimination lawsuits against Big Law firms, is facing allegations of bias and discrimination from its own employees.

More than two dozen legal assistants claim gender and racial discrimination by attorneys and that the firm repeatedly failed to address their concerns. The allegations are detailed in a letter the assistants sent to firm leaders June 25.

The letter alleged senior attorneys made racist comments such as “These Asian names give me so much trouble. Bing bong bing bong!” and “That shirt makes you look like you’re in a gang,” referring to a college minority affinity group t-shirt.

The letter also claims male attorneys made sexist comments toward female legal assistants, including “I love looking at you in the sunlight” and “be a good girl.” Law360 first reported the allegations this week.

Former legal assistant Javier Alvarez said he sent the letter on behalf of 29 legal assistants. It included six demands, including that the firm implement management training for attorneys, require partners who made offensive comments to apologize, and create greater transparency in the firm’s HR process for handling complaints.

Chairman David Sanford said in an emailed statement the firm “had good reason to believe that many of the letter’s allegations were false or misleading” yet hired an outside investigator to examine them.

“The investigator concluded that the alleged behavior did not reflect intentional racial, ethnic, or gender bias and that the alleged incidents were isolated ‘one offs’ and represented ‘insensitivities,’” Sanford said.

Sanford Heisler Sharp has attracted attention in the legal industry in recent years by representing female attorneys suing Big Law firms like Jones Day, Greenberg Traurig, and Morrison & Foerster.

“It is a particularly powerful experience for us collectively to face issues like this, given the civil rights work that we do,” Sanford’s statement said. “We have done our best to rise to the occasion with the response we would wish to see from any firm or other entity facing these issues.”

The firm is in the process of implementing unconscious bias and diversity training for all employees, management training for all attorneys, and a formal internal employment dispute resolution process, according to Sanford.

‘Reputation-Damaging Accusations’

After not receiving a response to his initial letter, Alvarez said he forwarded the document to the entire firm on July 6.

Later that day, Sanford sent a firmwide email on behalf of the executive committee announcing a third-party investigation into the legal assistants’ claims. He also announced that Alvarez would be placed on leave pending the outcome of the investigation.

Sanford wrote that he believed many of the allegations were false and that the firm had reason to believe the legal assistant’s claims of discrimination were “motivated by anti-Semitic and anti-white-female animus.”

The following week, 26 attorneys and staff wrote a firm-wide letter announcing their support for the legal assistants, whom they described as courageous. The attorneys added that they were “distressed” by the executive committee’s accusations that the legal assistants were motivated by bias.

“These serious and reputation-damaging accusations were levied without explanation, and there is no indication that any process was afforded to those accused,” they wrote in a letter reviewed by Bloomberg Law. “As with Javier’s discipline, we are concerned that this sends a chilling message to potential complainants.”

The attorneys also expressed concern over Sanford’s characterization of the legal assistant’s claims as “false,” which they worried had “profoundly damaged employee confidence in the fairness of the independent investigation.”

Alvarez, who left the firm in September, said he and several colleagues decided to go public with their claims because they believe the firm failed to properly address their concerns internally.

“We really wanted some kind of public accountability so nobody would go through what we did,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Russell-Kraft in New York at srussellkraft@gmail.com
To contact the editor on this story: Chris Opfer in New York at copfer@bloombergindustry.com;
John Hughes in Washington at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com

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