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‘Collecting salary while sitting on your ass’ text shows how far we still have to go

A text message in which a female lawyer was called a “soul-less and morally bankrupt person” by a colleague, after she resigned shortly after returning from a maternity leave period in which she had to perform work, is a reminder of the myriad uphill battles facing women in law.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 13 January 2023 Big Law
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The text message and viral social media post

On Tuesday, 10 January, American attorney Kelley Barnett — who is the senior vice-president and counsel at AmTrust Financial Services in Cleveland, Ohio, posted a screenshot of a text message that a female associate at Cleveland-based law firm, Zashin & Rich, had received from a male colleague, who has subsequently been identified as senior attorney Jon Dileno.

In her caption accompanying the screenshot, Ms Barnett explained that the grab of the text was being shared with permission from the recipient.


“Recent events make it clear that the toxic culture attributed to firms is alive and well,” she penned, before going on to detail that the text received by the anonymous female attorney was sent by Mr Dileno.

The former had returned from maternity leave days prior, Ms Barnett wrote (“a leave during which she was asked and expected to perform legal work”), and had notified a partner that she was resigning to take up a role at another firm.

Then, the following text message was received:

“I had suspicions you were interviewing two months ago and I told Stephen then to ask you about it. I also told him to cut you loose at that time if confirmed. He was too nice of a guy to do so. What you did – collecting salary from the firm while sitting on your ass, except to find time to interview for another job – says everything one needs to know about your character. Karma’s a bitch. Rest assured, regarding anyone who inquires, they will hear the truth from me about what a soul-less and morally bankrupt person you are.”

There is “no universe”, Ms Barnett argued in her post, “in which this kind of behavior [sic] (in writing or not) should be acceptable”.

“Law firms, and the lawyers within law firms, should not be sovereign entities where deplorable behavior [sic] like this goes unchallenged,” she said.

As of the time of writing this story, the LinkedIn post made by Ms Barnett has garnered more than 14,000 reactions, over 2,000 comments, and nearly 500 reposts.

The firm’s first statement

In a now-deleted statement, posted on the firm’s LinkedIn page, Zashin & Rich managing partner Stephen Zashin noted that he had been made aware of an “inappropriate and unprofessional” text message sent from one of his employees to another.

“That single text was sent in the heat of the moment by an employee upset by the belief that the former colleague while on paid leave sought employment with another law firm. Within days of her return to work, she took that new job. That’s not an excuse for the offending text, which should not have been sent. That single text has prompted some to question our commitment to fair treatment, diversity and other values that our firm holds dear and believes in fervently,” he wrote.

“I stand on our firm’s record of how we treat our employees. Zashin & Rich prides ourselves [sic] on focusing on supporting working parents with modified schedules and other accommodations. For more than a decade, we have offered open-ended paid leave, for maternity, paternity and other forms of medical leave. Numerous current employees, women and men, have availed themselves of this benefit. We do this because we believe it’s the right thing to do.”

“As a result of this incident, the firm is taking corrective action. We are taking a purposeful look at our culture and what may need to change,” Mr Zashin continued.

“While we cannot undo the past, we can change the future. We are committed to turning this negative into a positive.”

That statement was live on the firm’s LinkedIn page until at least Wednesday evening, Sydney time, but by Thursday morning (12 January), it had been removed.

Apology and the firm’s second statement

US-based media outlet wrote that Mr Dileno had confirmed to it that he had sent the text message.

In an email, the outlet published, Mr Dileno wrote that he wanted “to apologize [sic] to my former colleague regarding the inappropriate and disrespectful text that I sent to her. The thoughtless words do not reflect my values nor the values of Zashin & Rich, and I am sorry for any hurt that I may have caused.”

In a follow-up statement on Tuesday, 10 January, Mr Zashin said that, “after careful consideration”, Mr Dileno was no longer working with the firm.

“This has been a sad and challenging time for our firm. I apologize [sic] to my former colleague who received the inappropriate text and I am disappointed that this happened on my watch,” he wrote.

“I said in a previous statement that Zashin & Rich committed to turning this negative into a positive and I feel this commitment even more strongly today.”

Disgusted, but not surprised

When asked by Lawyers Weekly what this incident, albeit from the United States, says about where the legal profession is at in better supporting women in their careers, Her Lawyer principal solicitor Courtney Bowie said it is “depressing to think that I was disgusted by it, but not surprised”.

“It’s a pretty sad indictment on the industry and a rare insight into harassment that still faces female professionals today,” she proclaimed.

“It really portrays [a broader] misconception and undervaluing of the difficulty and importance of early parenthood. These misconceptions and value judgments have their roots in cultural ideas about gender roles.”

While the legal profession needs a lot more education and positive prevention action (like the new Respect@Work requirements) in all workplaces, Ms Bowie went on — “especially legal ones — it goes deeper than that”.

“It’s about how we raise our kids. How we talk to our friends. How we model behaviour and gender roles for our family members. That’s the bigger shift that needs to happen, so that eventually text messages like this become a sad part of our history, rather than an ongoing fight for our working women,” she posited.

Parental leave ‘a benefit begrudgingly given’

For years, freelance general counsel and coach Niti Nadarajah reflected, law firms have made public commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion. This incident. She said, highlights just how much these commitments “need to transcend beyond mere words”, including those in internal policies, to become embedded in the very psyche of an organisation.

“There are many studies that show how the ‘motherhood penalty’, i.e., the systemic disadvantage that women face in the workplace when they become mothers, contributes to the gender pay gap. Supporting parents (of all genders) to not only take parental leave but also return to work empowered to progress their careers absent ambition, proximity and benevolence bias is a key driver for reducing the gender pay gap and moving towards equity,” she outlined.

“Unfortunately, what the Zashin & Rich situation shows us is that for some, parental leave is viewed as a benefit begrudgingly given to mothers as a check-box tick towards satisfying a commitment to DEI, and one for which women should be grateful and reciprocate with loyalty to their organisation.”

“The text message that was sent to the female lawyer also demonstrates the misinformed attitudes that many hold towards parental leave, where caregiving responsibilities and the aftermath of pregnancy and childbirth are reduced to ‘collecting salary from the firm while sitting on your ass’,” Ms Nadarajah continued.

“If the legal profession is truly committed to gender equity, we need to look beyond policies and start openly discussing parental leave (including for men), pregnancy, childbirth and infertility, as well as women’s health issues, such as the impact of endometriosis and menopause, and the ways in which these experiences intersect with a lawyer’s career.”

Further education needed

Coutts Lawyers & Conveyancers partner Karena Nicholls agreed with Ms Nadarajah’s take, saying that she would have thought that the profession had come much further in educating professionals around women in law and maternity leave.

“Clearly, this individual needs further education, even if it was sent in anger or jest, it is unacceptable. As a woman in law and a mother myself, it is evident that not all firms have embraced the balance of the two,” she said.

“The goal is to empower and support women in law back into the profession even if it means alternate employment, flexible employment, or some other arrangement. Now, of course, one would be upset that the person was not returning if they are a valued member of the team, but the approach was clearly outside the values of the firm given the firm’s statement to the public.”

Moreover, Ms Nicholls noted, it is a reminder “that any communications should be carefully considered before hitting send”.

A warning and gratitude

In concluding her now-viral LinkedIn post, Ms Barnett wrote that there are “some great people” at the firm where Mr Dileno formerly worked, but “not calling out this behavior [sic] only perpetuates it”.

“If you’re a law firm leader reading this post, I implore upon you to closely look at whether your firm is one that truly promotes civility, respect and inclusion for all,” she advised.

“Culture is not something you artfully design and direct. Culture is an outcome. It’s a continuous, everyday reality check on what kind of firm you’re actually running.”

“To all lawyers – male, female, law firm, in-house, and government lawyers: Don’t scroll by this post without taking a hard look at your actions (or inactions). Do they perpetuate these problems or attempt to dismantle them?”

And, Ms Barnett added, “to the female lawyer who shared her story: THANK YOU.”

“You have much to be proud of and I admire your bravery so much. Rest assured, I’m not the only one who feels that way,” she said.

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