Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Akin Gump: A Culture of Embarrassability

I used to work as a paralegal at the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, from 1988 to 1991.  I was fired on October 29, 1991 after I had lodged a job harassment complaint against my supervisor and others.  The firm concluded that my complaint itself was symptomatic of mental illness and that I was not fit for employment.

I have written about the firm extensively on this blog and elsewhere.  Several of the anecdotes concern the issue of embarrassment.

1.  At the termination meeting on October 29, 1991 I met with the attorney Dennis M. Race, Esq. in his office together with my supervisor who told me about the decision to fire me.  Prior to the meeting a box of my personal effects had been brought from my work station to Mr. Race's office.  At the meeting, I was advised to look through the box and pick out the items I wanted to take home with me.  Here's what I wrote about the incident in September 1992, about a year after the termination:

B. On October 29, 1991, after Dennis Race advised me of my termination, Mr. Race had me sift through two boxes of my personal effects in the presence of my supervisor in Mr. Race's office. The two boxes containing my personal effects had been housed in the terrace level of the building, and had presumably been brought up to the fourth floor and placed outside Mr. Race's office before he called me to his office to advise me of the decision to terminate. The presumed purpose of having me sift through the contents of the boxes was to elicit and gauge a reaction (compare paragraph C below regarding Mr. Race's irrational concern with the issue of embarrassment). At three points Mr. Race, seated at his desk and apparently reading something, registered a nonverbal vocalization as I reviewed my personal effects: (1) at the point I identified to my supervisor and handed over to her my Lexis and Westlaw ID's; (2) at the point I asked my supervisor whether I could keep my job evaluations; and (3) at the point I discarded my Walkman radio and said to my supervisor regarding the radio, "it doesn't work."

Mr. Race's action of gauging my response strongly indicated that the review of my personal effects had been planned in advance with the intent to determine what response the interaction would elicit (which perhaps explains the odd timing of the notice of termination. See 2/). Any evidence so gathered was gratuitous because regardless of how I reacted, my reaction would in no way alter the decision to terminated. The evidence so gathered might be termed "inoperative" evidence. (However, I apparently made a good impression on the attorney managers by my cool response. Later in the morning, when I returned to the terrace level to return my key, my supervisor was on the telephone in her office. When she saw me, she momentarily grimaced with a look of disgust--hardly a look of sympathy or triumph. But she quickly changed her expression and shortly thereafter, while talking to me briefly, was unusually friendly and polite. The momentary look of disgust suggested that I had not behaved in Dennis Race's office the way she had anticipated or would have liked. Also, two days later when I met with Laurel Digweed, her initial response was to ogle my pay stub--a look of anger that I interpreted as a good sign with respect to my relations with the attorney managers. Her first words were to the effect that these were "difficult circumstances," an apparent mocking reference to a note I had left on Malcolm Lassman's desk shortly after I was advised of my termination, "It's a shame we had to meet under such difficult circumstances.")

The attempt to elicit gratuitous evidence might be characterized as paranoid.

2. A second incident involving the issue of embarrassment arose the following day, on the morning of October 30, 1991.  I described the incident in the same document I wrote in September 1992, which is quoted in paragraph 1, above:

C. On October 30, 1991, during a telephone call with Dennis Race regarding unemployment compensation, he stated that I should refrain from making any statements on the unemployment application that might embarrass the firm. None of my previous actions in relation to the firm would indicate a propensity to embarrass the firm. Also, an attempt to embarrass the firm by means of statements on the unemployment application would only result in my ineligibility for benefits. The personnel administrator, Laurel Digweed, later expressly dismissed Dennis Race's comment as inapposite.

3.  A third instance relating to embarrassment arose in the fall of the year 2009, years after my employment ended in 1991.   I began posting documents on this blog (My Daily Struggles) concerning my employment experience.  I subscribe to a service that allows me to see who logs onto my blog posts.  Akin Gump developed an obsessive preoccupation with my postings beginning in November 2009.  The firm logged onto the blog several times a day.  Indeed, I discussed Akin Gump's extensive interest in my blog on one of my postings.  Do you think the firm was embarrassed by the things I was posting on my blog?  One wonders.

The issue of embarrassability, (i.e., susceptibility to embarrassment) has been studied by psychologists.  One study found that the strength of the independent self-construal (the image of self as separate from others) is negatively correlated with embarrassability. Second, the strength of the interdependent self-construal (the image of self as connected with others) is positively associated with embarrassability.  Many prior studies have associated embarrassability with social deficiencies -- such as deficiencies in an independent self-concept and the need for social support to maintain self-esteem.  Conversely, embarrassbility correlates negatively with self-reliance, solitariness, resourcefulness, individualism, and self-sufficiency (qualities found by Raymond Cattell to characterize persons at a high level of ego strength). 
If embarrassability is indeed an important part of Akin Gump culture, one would expect to find that characteristics associated with embarrasability -- such as a high level of group-orientedness, affiliative behavior, the expectation that one be a joiner and follower dependent -- would be salient features of Akin Gump culture as well.  

Is there any evidence in my writings that supports the view that Akin Gump culture places a special premium on group-orientedness as opposed to individualism?

I offer the following writings that support that very viewpoint:

Did Akin Gump Operate Like a Cult?

A Budding Psychoanalytical Theorist 

Reputation Evidence: Akin Gump is Fratty

The following are observations by an employee in the paralegal group about the "country-club atmosphere" that prevailed at the firm:

7. Some time in early April 1988 a legal assistant named Sandra Sussman, with whom I shared office space for a few days, told me that it was per perception that prospective legal assistants were hired more for their social skills and ability to fit in the group than for their professional ability.  She may have used the phrase “country club” to describe her perception of the Akin Gump legal assistant environment.

She stated that she felt she did not fit in because she was older (about 28 years old), more mature, and had a different background than the other legal assistants.  Ms. Sussman had served in the armed forces, and, if I recall correctly, was stationed in the Netherlands.

Ms. Sussman voluntarily resigned from the firm a few weeks later, in April 1988. Record on appeal at 187-201 in Freedman v. D.C. Dept. Human Rights, D.C.C.A. no. 96-CV-961 (Sept. 1, 1998).  

 One might go so far as to see the following observations made about me by Dennis Race as a negative spin on my individualism.  In the following observations Dennis Race emphasized my lack of group-orientedness, my lack of affiliative behavior, and my failure to meet  the firm's expectation that an employee be a joiner and follower dependent -- all characteristics associated with embarrassability.  Note again that Dennis Race evidenced an over-concern with the issue of embarrassment in two instances at the time of my termination (see discussion, above). 

 -- Because Claimant preferred to work in isolation, Respondent attempted to accommodate him -- and did so until work and space constraints became a problem.

 -- Claimant was uncomfortable communicating with his peers and required work that ensured total isolation. 

 --  Claimant was informed that the law firm did not have a position (similar to his job tasks for client, Eastern Airlines) which allowed Claimant to work alone and isolated from other employees. He was also told that it was clear that he could not function in a group setting (he could not work with or in close proximity to other legal assistants or litigation support personnel). Claimant had openly admitted that he had difficulties interacting with co-workers and requested virtual isolation. He was informed that although Respondent tried to accommodate him, there was no longer work (or space) available to suit him.

 --  C. Claimant was told that "there did not appear to be a good fit" because of his demand for isolation; (2) his difficulty working with or near other employees;

 --  I concluded that Gary's inability to work or interrelate with others is a substantial problem for the firm. There is only so much work that can be done without any interaction among our staff (which is what he requests)

--  In addition he is very difficult to supervise -- (i.e., I exhibit deficiencies in the characteristic "follower dependence")

In a sense, Dennis Race's observations about my personality can be viewed as a perverse parody of statements made about me in my job performance evaluations -- specifically, about my self-reliance:

-- works well independently 

-- self-sufficient

--  highly motivated individual 

--   Totally independent, self-sustaining and committed to his work. 

--   I trust Gary's ability to meet whatever the demand with little guidance. 

--  independent nature. 

--  Gary is a self-starter in all respects. 

--  Gary is the soul of dependability and responsibility. 

--   He is a self-starter and thoroughly dependable.

--   Always know he can be relied upon to complete a project with no supervision, and it will be done accurately and efficiently.

--   A self-starter


Gary Freedman said...

By implication, if Akin Gump employees were to embark on harassing an employee one would expect that these individuals would invest energy into acts intended to humiliate or embarrass the target.

"Do unto your enemy what you most fear," as it were.

Gary Freedman said...

From a webpage about Akin Gump's collegiality:

Relations among the junior associates are just as good. “It's going to sound corny, but some of my best friends in the world I met here,” one source told us. In fact, nearly all our interviewees considered their peers as “friends rather than colleagues.” As such, juniors are quite a social bunch: we heard of them meeting up regularly for events such as poker nights, birthday parties and Sunday lunches. All the offices have regular happy hours, while the LA locations operate a 'casual Friday' policy.


Gary Freedman said...

“Good mid-market firm; "Frat" culture”
Anonymous Employee (Former Employee)

I worked at Akin Gump for less than a year

Pros – Good opportunities for young associates, very diverse set of practice areas and realistic partnership prospects. DC office is great and very friendly.

Cons – Work not top-shelf (though still very strong), bonuses are generally not as good as other firms. Office culture varies greatly by location.

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