Inappropriate Emails and Allegations of Misconduct Shake the Legal Community
Longtime law partners John Barber and Jeff Ranen recently made headlines after leaving prestigious firm Lewis Brisbois under controversial circumstances, which included the revelation of offensive emails that the media obtained from their former firm.
The departure of profile partners from law firms, particularly when the departing partners promptly set up a new legal firm, is a frequent source of intensely-felt emotional turmoil. But in this high profile departure, the release of a range of offensively written emails has rubbed salt into the Lewis Brisbois wounds.
Barber and Ranen, who had been with the firm for over two decades, held leadership positions within the employment practices group and the management committee. However, their departure was marked by allegations of misconduct and the revelation of offensive emails, tarnishing their professional reputation.
Lewis Brisbois, an Am Law 100 firm, ranks among the top 100 law firms in the United States based on revenue. With a gross revenue of $702 million in 2022, it secured the 70th spot in the American Lawyer’s Am Law 100 ranking.
The firm also boasts a considerable headcount, as evidenced by its 15th position in the National Law Journal’s 2022 NLJ 500 ranking, which measures the number of lawyers in a firm.
Despite its significant size, Lewis Brisbois has not made the LawFuel ‘Most Prestigious’ or other lists recognizing the firms for their achievements.
Profitability and Focus on Specialized Areas
The lack of widespread recognition for Lewis Brisbois can be attributed, in part, to its profitability per lawyer, which falls below that of other major firms, although the firm’s profit per equity partner stands at $1,015,000, placing it at the 88th position in the Am Law 100. Good money, most salary-earners would agree, but insufficient to mount a challenge on the AmLaw mountain.
Similarly, its revenue per lawyer ranks at the 100th spot.
Lewis Brisbois is primarily known for its expertise in insurance-defense litigation and employment law, both of which are characterized by lower billing rates.
The Birth of Barber Ranen
In April, John Barber and Jeff Ranen departed from Lewis Brisbois to establish their own firm, Barber Ranen. Such departures are not uncommon when partners possess practices that are more profitable than the overall firm’s average.
Creating their own venture allows these partners to retain a larger portion of their profits, without having to support less lucrative practice groups. However, what caught many by surprise was the rapid recruitment of approximately 130 lawyers from Lewis Brisbois by Barber Ranen in just a few weeks.
Such mass defections are rare, given the fiduciary duties partners owe to their former firms, limiting their ability to poach talent and clients.
Law firm breakups and bankruptcies can be spectacular affairs, as we all know from cases like the Dewey & LeBoeuf collapse, the dissolution of Howrey in 2011, the breakup of Bingham McCutchen in 2014 and others.
The birth of Barber Ranen has provoked some intense feelings and media interest also.
Barber and Ranen told Staci Zaretsky of Above the Law that they wanted to “build something that’s reflective of our values,” which include “empathy, collaboration, and compassion,” as they told the Los Angeles Business Journal.
Such words did not exactly excite the remaining partners at Lewis Brisbois, as legal commentator David Lat observed in his Judicial Notice substack ‘deep dive’ into the issue.
Offensive Emails and Allegations
The departure of Barber and Ranen from Lewis Brisbois sparked anger and suspicion among the remaining partners. Questions arose as to how they managed to attract numerous lawyers and clients from their former firm in such a short period.
These concerns were further exacerbated when a 2019 whistleblower letter, penned by former Lewis Brisbois COO Robert Kamins, resurfaced. The letter alleged misconduct, including embezzlement, fraudulent software use, kickbacks, misappropriation of assets, and breaches of fiduciary duty. Notably, Kamins, who had knowledge of these allegations, was working at Barber Ranen at the time of their resurgence.
The offensive emails exchanged by John Barber and Jeff Ranen during their tenure at Lewis Brisbois were recently disclosed by the media.
The emails were written decades earlier, between 2002 and 2008, which creates some serious issues also for Lewis Brisbois as to how they could not have done anything about the authors’, who of course were leaders and major rainmakers for the law firm.
The content of the emails contained disturbing and inappropriate language and certainly raise serious concerns about the partners’ conduct. The offensive remarks targeted various individuals and communities, including racial, ethnic, gender, and religious slurs.
The Debra Cassens Weiss of the ABA Journal provided a summary of the emails:
- Ranen reported to Barber that someone had asked a question about the need to pay overtime when an employee works six hours one day and 10 hours the next day. “Kill her by anal penetration,” Barber had replied in June 2012.
- After someone wrote in March 2022 that a judge hates being called “Barbs,” Barber replied, “But loves ‘Babs,’ and ‘Sugar T**s.”
- After a Lewis Brisbois partner told Barber in November 2013 that people were upset during a mediation because a witness frequently used the N-word, Barber used the full slur when he replied, “Got it. N*****. Don’t use.”
- Barber responded to an email about a baby shower with the full N-word in the subject line against spelled out in full.
- Ranen used the anti-LGBTQ slur beginning with an “F.” Once he asked in November 2014, “What’s this f****t’s problem?” In April 2015, he told a partner, “Don’t be a f****t.”
- Ranen referred to looters as “savages” when he wrote in May 2020, “F**king looters came within a mile and a half. I can’t even imagine what it was like living in Larchmont in 1992 when the savages decimated Koreatown.”
- The lawyers mocked a lawyer from an opposing firm for his past service in the Israeli Defense Forces. “He’s a f**. Israeli Defense Force hand-to-hand combat instructor? Yawn. I’ll kick his ass,” Barber wrote. “His bio gave me a stiffy. Does that make me a homo?” Ranen replied.
- Ranen refers to an opposing counsel as “the Gypsy king” and uses the phrase “dirty gypsy.” In July 2012, he declares, “Gypsy is my new word to describe about half of the minorities in California. Generally with an Amo, Persian or Middle Eastern flair.” In the same email chain, Ranen said a lawyer is “a surprisingly tough negotiator due to his Persian background.”
- Ranen wrote, “Sorry. I worry about things. Part of being half Jewish.” In a March 2012 email about an invoice, he wrote, “This is the reason why people don’t like Jews.” In a September 2017 email soliciting suggestions for a private investigation company, Ranen wrote, “How about someone who’s not a Jew?”
- After Ranen wrote in July 2014 that he brought in bagels and cream cheese with lox spread, Barber replied, “Jew c***.”
The partners acknowledged that the emails were theirs and duly apologized, with an announcement –
We want to apologize. To everyone. To our families, our friends, our colleagues, and the public who had to read the thoughtless, hurtful and inappropriate words we used and sentiments expressed in the emails recently released by our former law firm…. [W]e are resigning from Barber Ranen effective immediately in order to allow our friends and colleagues to continue on without the cloud of our conduct hanging over them.Barber & Ranen
The Barber Ranen CEO also issued a statement regarding the affair –
Effective immediately, the firm has requested and accepted the resignations of John Barber and Jeffrey Ranen. The remaining Equity Partners express their disappointment and disdain for the language Mr. Barber and Mr. Ranen used. We will form a new firm. We ask for the support of our friends and colleagues while we heal and plan our path forward.Tim Graves
Both law firms face serious challenges, particularly Barber Ranen. But the entire unsavory affairs also casts some serious ethical questions around the responsibility any law firm has about partner attitudes and conduct.
Although Lewis Brisbois has been criticized for releasing the emails, which it has said it was unaware existed prior to a complaint levelled against the authors of the offensive emails, they also must take some flack for the position they put themselves in by saying they were unaware of them.
David Lat reports one former law firm managing partner making his own comment about the matter, saying:
“The emails surely got leaked to the media by LB itself, to achieve exactly what happened: destruction of B&R themselves, and probably the demise of their new firm, at least in its current incarnation. That’s pretty cold. But I don’t believe for a second that there aren’t lots of other similar emails that went to and from partners who are still at LB. It’s just that LB controls the flow of leaks”