Earlier this month, Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, announced the firm had formed an “internal investigations unit to help companies and organizations respond to suspected sexual misconduct.”
Justice Ecosystem asked Scheindlin five questions about the new endeavor:
1. Why did the firm decide to launch an internal investigations unit that is focused on alleged workplace sexual misconduct?
Shira Scheindlin: Leaders at the firm felt that there is a great need to provide the opportunity for a thorough, neutral and credible investigation of allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace. Charges are often decided in the court of public opinion before a thorough investigation has been completed. We believe our team is well qualified to provide this service.
2. You are leading the unit, with Abrams — what will be first task on your agenda and what are your goals? What roles will others at the firm take?
Shira Scheindlin: First on our agenda is ensuring that our present and future clients have a good anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies in place, particularly regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, including efficient and safe avenues to receive and review complaints.
Stroock’s employment group is already offering a custom-fit workplace discrimination training program, called “Respect in the Workplace.” It is a collaborative, discussion-based training that provides nuanced advice to help educate employees on the gray areas of the law as it relates to workplace behavior. We are planning to build on that capability by ensuring our team is ready to conduct internal investigations when requested. Our goal is to provide high-quality internal investigations with credibility and integrity so that everyone will conclude that it is truly an independent investigation.
Abrams will co-chair the new unit. He brings 15 years of experience as the Attorney General of the State of New York. In that capacity he conducted innumerable investigations and authored many reports. Abrams is fully familiar with sexual misconduct issues and will lend his experience and impeccable reputation to any investigation conducted by our unit.
Joel Cohen, a former prosecutor and experienced criminal defense lawyer and now Of Counsel at Stroock, is also involved, and should any allegation rise to the level of potential criminal conduct, it will be invaluable to have an experienced criminal lawyer as a member of the team. Both Abrams and Cohen have conducted many internal investigations involving many kinds of workplace improprieties.
Howard Lavin, another Stroock partner, heads the existing employment practice group. He is very experienced in both in-house training on discrimination issues and in helping clients adopt an appropriate written policy in this sensitive area. Also involved are Michele Pahmer and Elizabeth DiMichele, who are both members of the employment/litigation practice group and have trained thousands of employees over the years together with Lavin.
3. In the legal industry, what have been the most challenging problems facing women and men who found themselves dealing with sexual harassment?
Shira Scheindlin: The most challenging problem for those who believe they have been victims of harassment is the fear of how lodging a complaint may impact their future in either their own firm or in future employment opportunities. Providing reassurance that there will not be a negative impact, and then implementing a plan to prevent such an impact is a challenge that we must be ready to meet. We have several ideas on that score, but that discussion must wait for another day.
4. How can firms and other legal organizations identify and prevent sexual harassment?
Shira Scheindlin: First, companies must educate their employees about appropriate and inappropriate workplace behavior, providing concrete, tailored examples. Second, companies must make sure they have a clear, user-friendly complaint procedure, which includes accessible alternative complaint-takers. Third, companies have to get buy-in from senior management — that is, make sure senior management supports the efforts to establish a workplace that’s free from harassment and discrimination.
5. What should individuals do if they are experiencing harassment?
Shira Scheindlin: Effective anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies provide employees options in lodging a complaint. In most settings, the first step is to make an immediate report to the Human Resources department.
Employers have a duty to investigate sexual harassment complaints and to take steps to eliminate such conduct. The HR department should then conduct an initial investigation. If the charge warrants further action, the matter should be referred to the general counsel or senior level management who should consider the benefit of hiring an outside firm to conduct an internal investigation.
If the individual does not feel that HR has responded appropriately, that individual should consider bringing the complaint to the general counsel or senior management directly. An employee who is not satisfied with the company’s response may consult an attorney as to the next steps or file a complaint with the appropriate federal, state or local fair employment practices agency.