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At Law Firms, Rainmakers Accused of Harassment Can Switch Jobs With Ease

Opaque hiring practices in legal industry often make prior sexual-harassment complaints easy to leave behind

The flowers arrived at Mayer Brown days after a prized new hire started at the law firm’s New York office.

“Thanks for taking him,” the note on the bouquet read. It was signed: “The women.”

Mayer Brown partners had begun getting calls earlier that February day about James Tanenbaum, a veteran capital-markets attorney, a person familiar with the matter said. They learned he left his previous firm, Morrison & Foerster, in December after sexual-harassment allegations.

Mr. Tanenbaum, 70, resigned from Mayer Brown the next week, shortly after the firm began an investigation, the person said.

It wasn’t the first time he had switched jobs following misconduct allegations. Morrison & Foerster hired him in 2003, soon after he paid a settlement to a female lawyer who accused him of sexual harassment at his longtime firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, a Stroock spokesman confirmed.

Mr. Tanenbaum “forcefully denies any claims of improper conduct,” his spokesman said.

Law firms stand out in a corporate landscape where rainmakers accused of bad behavior often receive second and third chances, according to interviews with dozens of lawyers, legal recruiters, consultants and leaders at some of the country’s largest firms.

Firms’ sole assets are lawyers and their client relationships. As demand for work from the biggest law firms has softened since the financial crisis, poaching top partners has become one of few ways to boost revenue.

Many firms ask about prior complaints in new-hire questionnaires but do nothing to vet the answers, lawyers say. Firms rarely ask partners for references at their old firm, for fear of alerting competitors a star lawyer is in play.

“It can be particularly difficult to find out about misconduct in the legal industry,” said Christine Chung, a partner at New York-based law firm Selendy & Gay who has been involved with hiring lateral partners from big law firms for almost a decade. “If the person left the old firm for a bad reason, you may not figure it out.”

Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner Jeffrey Reeves departed in December after an investigation into sexual-harassment allegations, the firm said.

Mr. Reeves was the partner in charge of the firm’s Orange County, Calif., office in October 2015 when co-workers saw him making out with a junior associate at a Las Vegas nightclub during an office retreat, current and former Gibson lawyers said.

The incident prompted the office to hold mandatory sexual-harassment training and stop serving alcohol at monthly partner lunches, some of the lawyers said. The firm stripped Mr. Reeves of his leadership role in early 2016, though he stayed a partner.

In August 2017, Mr. Reeves called a female associate into his office after going to lunch with her and having several glasses of wine, people familiar with the matter said. He locked the door, dropped his pants, pushed her into a chair, put his hand on the back of her head and made her perform oral sex, they said, adding that she emerged crying after a partner knocked repeatedly on his office door.

An attorney for Mr. Reeves said Mr. Reeves “adamantly denies that any such incident occurred and is shocked by the allegation.”

A Gibson Dunn spokeswoman said the firm “promptly investigated allegations when they were brought to our attention in December and acted swiftly” in response, resulting in Mr. Reeves’s departure.

Mr. Reeves, who had worked at Gibson Dunn for 26 years, quickly joined litigation boutique Umberg Zipser in January. The next month he moved to a different boutique, Theodora Oringher.

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While firms often have human-resources departments and antiharassment policies, partners—more than 75% of whom are male across the industry—control the workflow and career development of those beneath them.

“Too often, those doing the harassing are in positions of power, making it unlikely that the harassment will ever be reported,” said Jamie Quient, who spent a year as president of a San Diego women’s bar association campaigning against law-firm harassment.

Many firms strive to dole out fair punishments for misbehavior, and partners have had careers derailed because of harassment allegations.

Fox Rothschild forced a New Jersey partner to resign last year after an internal investigation into allegations of inappropriate behavior, said Thomas Paradise, the firm’s general counsel. Mr. Paradise said Fox Rothschild didn’t know to which firm the attorney was moving until his last day and wasn’t contacted for a reference. Though the partner denied many of the allegations, the firm “advised him to disclose to his new firm the reasons for his departure,” Mr. Paradise said.

The partner, said people familiar with the matter, is litigator N. Ari Weisbrot, who moved to Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner in May 2017.

Bryan Cave wasn’t aware of the allegations when it hired Mr. Weisbrot, co-chair Therese Pritchard said. She said the firm began an investigation after an inquiry from the Journal and that as of May 2018 he was no longer with the firm.

Mr. Weisbrot said he is legally constrained from commenting on his departures.

Separately, Mr. Weisbrot tried to forcibly kiss a female attorney in a restaurant parking lot after interviewing her for a job at Fox Rothschild, a person familiar with the matter said. Mr. Weisbrot denies the claim, which he said the firm didn’t raise with him. Fox declined to comment.

As in other industries, law-firm management can be reluctant to punish partners who generate millions of dollars in business.

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