A year and a half ago, on a Tuesday night in October, an ambitious young lawyer named Aaron Charney was working late on the 28th floor of 125 Broad Street—the pin-striped skyscraper near the southern tip of Manhattan that houses the world headquarters of the law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell.
Eric Krautheimer, a partner at the firm, was there, too, along with an associate named Gera Grinberg. They were all hustling to meet a deadline on the same project—part of a deal that no one will name because, even now, it’s still pending. No matter, that project would turn out to be the least interesting thing about what happened that night.
Working on the 28th floor means you’re among the elite at Sullivan & Cromwell. Of the firm’s 600 lawyers, fewer than 60— 23 partners and a few dozen associates—are part of the mergers-and-acquisitions group, a sort of firm-within-the-firm that each year advises and executes close to a trillion dollars in deals and earns tens of millions of dollars in fees.
All the stereotypes about life at a stodgy white-shoe firm—the masochistic hours, the glorified grunt work, the borderline abuse at the hands of the partners—seem magnified to the young associates there, if for no other reason than that the firm’s blue-chip clients, like AT&T and AIG and Goldman Sachs, need their lawyers on call night and day to meet sudden-death deadlines. To get this kind of work done quickly and accurately, you need a certain tunnel vision—and, when tempers flare, a very thick skin.
Although the vast majority of young associates at Sullivan stay a few years and then write their tickets elsewhere, Charney thought he’d be one of the roughly one in ten lawyers who go on to make partner—and until that night, there wasn’t any reason to believe he would fail. Up from the Syracuse suburbs, he’d graduated in the top 10 percent of his high-school class and ascended to Brown undergrad, Columbia Law, and finally a beige-on-beige office in the M&A group.
In his first two years at the firm, Charney was doing better than well: While others were incorporating entities or doing due diligence, he was helping negotiate deal points. “He did work in his second year you wouldn’t get from fourth-years,” says one person who worked with him. At 27, he was young and smart and successful and well paid. And gay, though he made a point of not talking about that at work.
But Charney had at least one problem that he wasn’t aware of. To the other lawyers on the 28th floor, he was a remote figure. Most of the M&A attorneys worked together in groups, but Charney spent his time working behind closed doors, often with Grinberg. When they weren’t busy talking about their off-hours jaunts to Atlantic City or dishing about who might be leaving the firm, the other young lawyers took to wondering what Grinberg and Charney were doing all day on their own. Were they slacking off? Conspiring? Could they be sleeping together? “It was a very gossip-heavy floor, and that was one of the frequent subjects,” one former co-worker remembers. “
Actually, most people were weirded out by it.” It wasn’t just about sex: Not everyone knew that Charney was gay, and Grinberg (a few years older than Charney and by all accounts an affable guy) was said to have a girlfriend. It was more that the other lawyers were suspicious of the two who had separated themselves from the herd.
Charney and Grinberg had been pulled away from their usual work for the month of October to help Krautheimer on the project that consumed them that night. The partner was ten years older than Charney and lacked Charney’s educational pedigree—he was a SUNY-Binghamton undergrad and got his law degree at Western New England—but his skills were beyond reproach (he would go on to help lead the highest-valued merger deal of 2006, AT&T’s $83.1 billion buyout of BellSouth). He was paunchier and more rumpled than the treadmill-trim Charney and flouted firm decorum by showing up at the office without a tie and in short sleeves in the summer. Among the associates, he was widely known to be a hard-ass; when he excoriated an underling, he never did it with a smile. So it was with an entirely straight face that, sometime after midnight, the alleged remark was made.
Charney says he had walked into Krautheimer’s office to get a document he needed when Krautheimer tossed the paper onto the floor. “Bend over and pick it up,” Charney claims Krautheimer said. “I’m sure you like that.”
It was a comment that would be shocking and inappropriate in nearly any professional environment. Then again, this was not any professional environment. Associates at big corporate firms are often bullied by partners—beset by tantrums and cruel criticisms. Partners get away with it, it seems, because associates are essentially a fungible resource—easy to replace and therefore hard to care much about. The abuse can even be seen as part of the strange hazing process at corporate firms by which a class of more than 100 associates is whittled down over eight years to a dozen or so people who make partner.