Former federal judge Shira A. Scheindlin will lead a new legal practice aimed at businesses and other groups facing sexual harassment and misconduct allegations in a higher stakes environment.
It’s the latest example of how law firms are taking on new roles and expanding or revamping their expertise to respond to scandals that have most recently rocked companies in entertainment, media, and other businesses. They’ve taken down stars, executives, and lesser knowns who harassed women, and are driving a national conversation about workplace culture.
At Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, Scheindlin will be working with former New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams. The pair will work with attorneys already at the New York-based firm who are experienced in employment, litigation, and government affairs.
“Independent investigations are crucial to determine what course of action should be undertaken,” said Abrams. “Sexual harassment has emerged as an important and sensitive issue for those affected and for companies across the economy.”
The new Stroock unit will conduct internal investigations for companies and organizations.
Other firms are also gearing up.
Anderson Kill P.C., in New York, for example, this week brought aboard Dona S. Kahn, an employment attorney, to conduct independent investigations of accusations to determine the facts in contested, and sometimes contentious, situations, and offer options to companies to resolve the issue.
New York-based employment law firm Outten & Golden, like others, is strengthening its bench. It recently promoted four lawyers to partner, including Gregory S. Chiarello. A litigator, Chiarello is co-chair of the firm’s sexual discrimination and sexual harassment practice group.
On sexual harassment, firms are undertaking roles that human resources traditionally filled - questioning each side on disputed behavior that can range from racially tinged remarks to unwanted touching.
More businesses started to outsource such inquiries to outside firms as the perception grew that human resources was an arm of the company in question rather than a neutral fact-finder.
Stroock’s group will handle requests by companies to review and also update company human resources training, policies and practices to help companies deal with complaints.
Such workplace misconduct “has always been there. It’s not just corruption or insider trading, but it could well be about allegations about conduct by high-level management,” said Scheindlin, who spent 22 years as a judge and handled numerous sexual harassment and misconduct cases.
She emphasized the importance of a thorough, impartial investigation.
“Not all conduct is the same,” she said, “You have to be aware that there is a continuum of conduct that can end up with physical abuse, and companies have to be attuned to risk and be careful that they are handling any allegations correctly.”
Scheindlin and Stroock litigator Joel Cohen, a former federal prosecutor, wrote in an editorial published in The Guardian that properly done inquiries were essential to ensure the accused company or organization is not viewed as whitewashing an allegation and, also, that accused organizations were not found guilty without sufficient evidence of wrongdoing.
“The integrity of the process must be the sine qua non of any investigation,” they wrote.
Their team also includes Howard Lavin, a partner in Stroock’s employment group, who said there has been an uptick in client inquiries in the sexual behavior area.
“I am getting calls from existing clients and prospective clients to review their policies or to create new ones, or to have training,” he said.
And there can be areas of uncertainty that arise where companies may want to clarify in their policies, he added.
“A grope or a grab is not appropriate but there can be more uncertainty about things like repeated touching elbows or repeated hugs, which can be interpreted differently depending on the situation,” he noted.
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