When we at Ethics Unwrapped make public presentations about ethics, we speak to a broad range of audiences—e.g., church groups, social groups, student groups, and many professional groups including teachers, doctors, engineers, geologists, construction contractors, and lawyers. Legal professionals are aware that the pressures of their work create numerous ethical challenges and the profession’s continuing education requirements appear to be a good-faith effort to respond.
More remains to be done, however, as has been made obvious with the recent scandal involving the large (1600 or so attorneys), Los Angeles-based firm Lewis, Brisbois, Bisgaard & Smith. In short, two significant rainmakers from Lewis Brisbois—John Barber and Jeff Ranen–split off from the firm, taking 140 or so attorneys with them to form the new firm of Barber Ranen.
Apparently believing that revenge is a dish best served warm, Lewis Brisbois appears to have quickly invented a pretext to comb through e-mails that Barber and Ranen had sent each other (and often copied others) through the years and then leaked them to the New York Post and the ABA Journal. The contents of the e-mails are shocking. Barber and Ranen, a couple of white guys, blithely demeaned nearly every minority group imaginable, using the “C-word” for women, the “F-word” for gays, the “N-word” for blacks, and so on. Barber and Ranen used racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, and misogynistic language with abandon. They mocked Israeli soldiers, female judges, and people of Middle Eastern ancestry.
When these e-mails were publicly printed and widely disseminated, Barber and Ranen were forced out of the new firm they had founded, notwithstanding their protestations that the pages and pages of e-mails written over more than a decade did not reflect what was in their hearts. The new firm was renamed, but its future is largely in doubt.
Lewis Brisbois then felt blowback as it dawned on folks that these scandalous e-mails had been written by senior attorneys at the firm and widely disseminated within it, hinting at a “culture of bigotry thriving in some corners of the behemoth firm.” (Ryan & Hamilton). This is not a flattering picture of Lewis Brisbois, which may explain why LA County has severed its ties with the firm. Other clients may follow. It’s too early to tell.
We at Ethics Unwrapped have produced a nice little video about implicit bias (see https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/implicit-bias ), but it seems that explicit bias remains a meaningful problem in Big Law. As Thomas Edsall pointed out in an op-ed on June 28, 2023, there are powerful groups in our body politic who believe that racial minorities and non-Christians occupy an unjustifiably favored position in our society. When the curtain is pulled back on some of our most powerful institutions, such as huge law firms, grounds to question that belief come to light.
William Bredderman, “’Kill Her by Anal Penetration’—Lawyers’ Vile Emails Exposed,” The Daily Beast, June 4, 2023, at https://www.thedailybeast.com/california-lawyers-john-barber-and-jeff-ranen-former-lewis-brisbois-partners-emails-exposed.
Thomas Edsall, “This Is Why Trump Lies Like There’s No Tomorrow,” New York Times, June 28, 2023.
Harriet Ryan & Matt Hamilton, “Top Law Firm Outs Ex-partners’ Racist, Sexist Emails, Sinks Competing Firm,” Los Angeles Times, June 8, 2023.
David Thomas, “Ex-Lewis Brisbois Partners Resign from New Firm after Racist, Sexist Emails Found,” Reuters, June 5, 2023, at https://www.reuters.com/legal/legalindustry/ex-lewis-brisbois-partners-resign-new-firm-after-racist-sexist-emails-found-2023-06-05/#:~:text=The%20name%20partners%20of%20U.S.,Barber%20Ranen’s%20chief%20executive%20officer.
Debra Cassens Weiss, “Leaders of Lewis Brisbois Rebellion Sent Emails with ‘Unacceptable, Prejudiced Language,’ Law Firm Says,” ABA Journal, June 5, 2023.
Justin Wise, “LA County Cuts Ties with Lewis Brisbois After Racist Emails,” Bloomberglaw.com, June 26, 2023.
Implicit Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/implicit-bias