SAN FRANCISCO — How many lawyers does it take to pay off a $6.9-million damage award in a sexual harassment suit?
Sorry, Baker & McKenzie. This is no run-of-the-mill lawyer joke.
A San Francisco jury's decision to sock the world's largest law firm with record punitive damages for failing to protect a legal secretary from harassment by a senior partner sends a powerful message: that juries will not tolerate rich companies--law firms in particular--that act as if they are above the law, lawyers and legal experts said Friday.
But society's longtime contempt for lawyers' high fees and their ability to take either side of an issue probably played a role, too.
The massive award, announced Thursday, indicates "a combination of disdain for sexual harassment and for lawyers who do not act professionally," said Howard Varinsky, a jury consultant for the attorneys representing Rena Weeks, 40, who sued the 1,700-lawyer firm in May, 1992.
"I found it odd that it was such a large verdict," said Harvey I. Saferstein, a partner with the Los Angeles law firm of Irell & Manella and former president of the State Bar of California. "It wouldn't surprise me if there were some lawyer hostility going on."
Jane Thomas, an attorney in San Francisco with Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton who sat through most of the trial, said: "The closing arguments of Phil Kay (one of Weeks' attorneys) really tapped into that vein--a vein of distrust for big-firm lawyers, lawyers who make a lot of money."
That said, other lawyers and jurors interviewed Friday contended that the $6.9 million assessed against Chicago-based Baker & McKenzie had more to do with Americans' growing realization and abhorrence of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Weeks had accused Martin Greenstein, a former Baker & McKenzie partner who had been a big moneymaker in the firm's Palo Alto office, of groping her and making crude remarks. Among the allegations were charges that he had pulled back her arms to see which of her breasts was bigger.
Trial testimony showed that other women had made similar complaints against Greenstein but that the firm had done nothing to stop him.
Greenstein, a divorced father of four, earned $550,000 in his last year as a Baker & McKenzie partner, court records show. Pressured to leave the firm in October, he now makes about $225,000 to $240,000 a year and has a net worth of $1.93 million.
The jury also assessed $225,000 in punitive damages against Greenstein on Thursday. A week earlier, during the trial's first stage, the same jury had awarded Weeks $50,000 in damages for emotional distress.
It was the $6.9 million award--nearly double the amount that Weeks had sought--that set jaws dropping and e-mail flashing in the legal community.
Representatives of the firm, which has 90 lawyers at its offices in San Francisco, Palo Alto and San Diego, labeled the amount excessive. Abby Silberman, a partner in Baker & McKenzie's employment law area, said the firm plans to seek a steep reduction in the amount from Superior Court Judge John Munter, who presided over the five-week trial. Lawyers and jurors contacted Friday widely expected that the firm would be successful in its request.
Jurors indicated that they took Baker & McKenzie's power and wealth into account when assessing damages. Last year, the firm had gross revenues of $512 million and distributed $189 million to its partners. It had net profits of $65 million.
"The Baker & McKenzie lawyers (who served as witnesses) were talking legalese," said juror Francis Lewis, 58, a retired deck officer with the U.S. merchant marine. "In the real world, they came across as dishonest."
What mattered to the jury, Lewis said, was not that they were lawyers per se but that theirs was the biggest law firm in the world and that "the way they treated their lower-paid employees was unconscionable." He added: "It was the abuse of authority."
Asked whether he feels any prejudice against lawyers, Lewis laughed and said: "No, no, no. . . . My brother and my father are lawyers."
He acknowledged, however, that in the jury room "there were amusing asides about Shakespeare being right, but they were just in passing."
Juror William Carpenter, a 70-year-old retired teacher in San Francisco, said that the hefty judgment grew out of what the panel perceived as Baker & McKenzie's arrogance and inept handling of the case.
"We felt we were being lied to," said Carpenter, whose niece passed the Bar recently and works for a San Francisco firm.
As for lawyers in general, Carpenter said: "They're not all bad people, but some of them are very arrogant. You get power, you use it."
Carpenter, when asked whether he could say he truly feels no prejudice against lawyers, said: "Sure, I can say it, and I think I can mean it. But I'll tell anti-lawyer jokes because it's not totally politically incorrect to do so."
Despite all the wisecracks Americans make at the legal profession's expense, "people respect lawyers more than lawyers think they do," said Varinsky, the jury consultant, who has extensively surveyed attitudes on the subject. "They hold lawyers in high esteem, equal to doctors. They really expect professional behavior."
Barbara Clark, a former Baker & McKenzie attorney who is now with Pettit & Martin in San Francisco, said she wondered at the beginning of the trial whether "these people were doomed from the outset" because of a pervasive let's-get-the-lawyers sentiment.
"Perhaps that's fair to hold them to a higher standard," she said. "That's what we do for a living. I wouldn't expect a butcher to buy bad meat."
Times researcher Norma Kaufman contributed to this story.