Holland & Knight’s recent announcement that a partner accused by nine female lawyers of sexual harassment was stepping down from a top position to which he’d just been promoted holds lessons for other law firms, experts on workplace issues say.
In March, New York-based managing partner Howell Melton announced that Douglas A. Wright, 44, a tax lawyer, had been promoted to chief operating partner of the 1,250-lawyer Tampa, Fla.-based firm. The position included supervisory responsibility for the firm’s business operations, including the human resources department.
But sources within the firm quickly leaked documents about a confidential internal investigation, which led to a series of articles in the St. Petersburg Times and other newspapers. The firm initially blasted the leak, saying it “recklessly and unfairly impugns the reputation of one of the firm’s finest partners,” but it announced shortly afterward that Wright had elected to return to his old job.
It turned out that nine female lawyers at Holland & Knight’s Tampa office last year accused Wright, a former nose guard for the University of Florida football team, of sexually harassing them.
The complaints resulted in a confidential investigation by the law firm. Wright received a private reprimand last summer, including orders to stop asking women in the office to feel his “pipes,” or biceps. He also was told to stop commenting on their clothes and sex lives and to forgo any retaliation against the women who’d complained.
In an internal memo, managing partner Melton described Wright’s conduct as “inappropriate and unacceptable,” the St. Petersburg Times reported.
Last week, following the announcement of Wright’s promotion and reports of the sexual harassment probe, the Times published an editorial assailing Holland & Knight as “tone deaf” on gender issues. That was a stinging rebuke for a law firm that long has prided itself on its progressive approach to women, minorities and social issues.
Last week, after two days of critical news coverage, Melton announced that Wright was returning to his former role as a partner in the firm’s business law department in Tampa. The decision was Wright’s alone and completely voluntary, the firm said. Both Melton and Martha Barnett, chair of the firm’s directors committee, acknowledged to the Times that news stories had played a role in the decision.
Outside observers were sharply critical of both Wright’s conduct and of Holland’s decision to promote an attorney to such a key position who’d recently been reprimanded for sexual harassment.
“Law firms have to be very sensitive,” said Edward Poll, who operates the Venice, Calif.-based LawBiz Management Co., a law firm consulting firm. “This firm’s behavior failed that test. A promotion only six months after an incident like this was a mistake.”