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Before #MeToo, This Litigator Waged a War Against Sexual Harassment

Linda Friedman was rooting out sexual harassment decades before a series of allegations brought by women against Harvey Weinstein and others ushered in the #MeToo era. In the mid-1990s, Friedman became known as a go-to plaintiffs lawyer when she represented a group of women who filed what became known as the “boom-boom room” suit against Smith Barney. The litigation got its nickname because of a basement party room at the brokerage’s branch office in the Manhattan suburb of Garden City, New York. “It was gross every way you turned,” recalled Friedman about the brokerage industry at that time. Ultimately, a class of more than 2,000 plaintiffs joined that suit, which raised allegations that Smith Barney’s culture was rife with sexual harassment and discrimination and led to roughly $150 million in arbitration awards and settlements. Since then, Friedman, now a name partner at Chicago-based litigation boutique Stowell & Friedman, has represented hundreds of women and minorities who have filed successful class actions against their employers for discriminating against them because of their race or gender. In 2013, she represented a class of African American employees who filed racial discrimination claims against Merrill Lynch, securing a $160 million settlement. Last year, she snagged a $35.5 million settlement on behalf of a class of Wells Fargo employees with bias claims. And Friedman still has her sights set on discrimination in the brokerage industry. [caption id="attachment_16530" align="alignright" width="245"]

Linda Friedman[/caption] Last week, she filed in an Illinois federal court a proposed class action racial discrimination case against the brokerage Edward D. Jones & Co. LP. The suit alleges that the retail brokerage discriminated against African Americans by denying them opportunities to participate in programs that assign mentors and transfer client assets from retiring financial advisers to newcomers. The suit also claims that Edward Jones denied some African American employees office space, requiring them to work from home, and assigning them to solicit business from less fruitful territories than their non-African American counterparts. Edward Jones’ spokesman John Boul said his brokerage’s management has not had time to review the allegations. With her focus on fighting against racial and gender discrimination, and as a pioneer in the workplace battle against sexual harassment, Friedman looks at the advent of the #MeToo era with mixed feelings. For some of her clients, the allegations against Weinstein, who now faces rape charges in New York, prompted them to re-thank Friedman and fellow Stowell & Friedman name partner Mary Stowell for the work they did to help clean up the brokerage industry. “You and Mary gave a voice years ago to women in my industry against the same kinds of outrageous behavior. Because of you and Mary women in financial services knew there was a safe place to go to get results if they felt victimized, threatened … It was hard work for you to stand up to Wall Street. But you persevered and changed the culture,” wrote Marybeth Cremin, a former Merrill Lynch employee, in an email on Oct. 15, 2017, days after The New York Times first reported on the allegations against Weinstein. “You put Wall Street on notice and most Wall Street players started doing better. Thank you both for all your hard work. You made a big difference for my generation and for the generations to come.” Cremin was the lead plaintiff in a class action suit filed against Merrill Lynch in 1996 that recovered about $250 million for 900 women, Friedman said. But the wave of new allegations brought forth in the wake of the #MeToo movement saddened her. Based on progress made within the brokerage industry as a result of cases filed by her firm, Friedman had hoped that blatant sexual assaults and acts of harassment against women in the workplace would become more rare. Yet as more allegations against prominent institutions and individuals began dominating the headlines, Friedman feared that “we had to regress to fight the sexual harassment battle,” veering attention away women’s and minorities’ existing challenges to achieve economic parity in terms of career opportunities and compensation. “[I]t was a sad, reality check that while Wall Street may have made some progress, other industries, such as the entertainment industry, never made it past grope or quid pro quo,” Friedman said. “I did not question the progress women on Wall Street had made, just what it meant in terms of where we were headed.” As the outcry among Hollywood’s Time's Up advocates has also focused on achieving equal pay, Friedman now recognizes that #MeToo will need to address sexual harassment, as well as the broader issue of pay equity. Friedman sees "the similarities between Wall Street and Big Law" when it comes to gender discrimination. “[T]here was always that irony in the room while we were litigating the Wall Street class actions. While we placed charts in Powerpoint presentations to show the low representation, high attrition and compensation disparities between men and women on Wall Street, we were mostly sitting opposite [some] white male partners from Big Law firms,” Friedman said. “We were also aware that women associates were hired at 50 percent, but women were not promoted to partner at any where near that rate. So it really was one of those hypocritical moments where Big Law was making a lot of money to defend Wall Street on gender issues when Big Law could have been the defendant in need of legal representation.” Despite a spate of gender discrimination and pay equity suits filed against large firms in recent months, Friedman is not hopeful that class actions will have the same power to transform the legal services industry as they did for the securities industry. Friedman's clients were able to bring brokerage firms into public courtrooms with class actions because judges allowed them to do so, as industry conducted arbitrations sponsored by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority didn't permit class claims. The same scenario simply does not exist for law firms, she said. In a story earlier this month, The American Lawyer noted that in call the cases that Friedman has handled within the last 15 years involving law firms, she could not recall any partnership agreements that did not contain mandatory arbitration provisions, with many employment contracts also containing class action waivers. In the brokerage industry, and with other business employers more generally, Friedman believes that the toughest battle will likely be in rooting out gender and racial discrimination, including the types of claims put forth in her recent suit against Edward Jones. "Race is so much more complicated because people aren't aware they are doing it," said Friedman about discrimination in the workplace. "It can be about attitudes and stereotypes and beliefs that are false, but are readily accepted."