Teaching Lawyers the Law

updated 09/19/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/19/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE WAR IS FAR FROM OVER, OF course, but the opening battle is decisively won. On Sept. 1, a San Francisco jury gave former legal secretary Rena Weeks a victory that could suck the oxygen out of a corporate boardroom—or at least raise the pulse rates of the occupants thereof. Though she won't see a penny until the end of the appeals process, which could take one to three years and go all the way to the Supreme Court, Weeks, 40, was awarded $7.1 million in punitive damages for sexual harassment—believed to be the largest such award ever—in a suit against the law firm of Baker & McKenzie and former partner Martin R. Greenstein, 49. "I felt vindicated," says Weeks, who worked for the Chicago-based firm—the world's largest, with 1,700 attorneys and offices in 30 countries—for less than three months before resigning in October 1991. "I hope it will make a statement to all employers that sexual harassment cannot be condoned or tolerated."

In legal circles, the message can hardly be ignored. A $7.1 million judgment is "not bad for only having worked three months," notes Joseph Schwacter, a San Francisco attorney who often represents management in sexual-harassment cases. "It could certainly inspire more lawsuits."

During the five-week trial, Weeks and half a dozen other female former Baker & McKenzie employees gave the six-woman, six-man jury emotional accounts of the lewd remarks and gropings that they said Greenstein had subjected them to as far back as 1988. Former secretary Vicki Gardner, who testified that in 1990 the patent-and-trademark specialist had fondled her and pinned her against her desk, said she had complained to her superiors, warning them that Greenstein was a "lawsuit waiting to happen." Gardner said the firm had promised to investigate, but by the following July, when Weeks started her $35,000-a-year job at Baker & McKenzie's Palo Alto, Calif., branch office, little had apparently come of it. Weeks testified-that on one occasion after a staff luncheon, Greenstein, a divorced father of four, grabbed her breast while dropping M&M's into the pocket of her blouse. Then "he put his knee in my lower back and pulled me back...and he said, 'Let's see which breast is bigger.' I was in shock. I didn't know what to think."

Greenstein vigorously denied the allegations of sexual harassment by his former secretary, who now teaches preschool and lives in San Jose with her husband. Greenstein's lawyers said Weeks was not a victim but an incompetent and disgruntled employee. (After Weeks complained about Greenstein to her superiors, she was transferred to another department and he was sent to counseling.) Greenstein allowed that his behavior might have offended two other secretaries. One testified that he asked her, "Do you have a social disease? Do you want one?"

That sort of behavior is "a piece of my life that is past," said Greenstein, who was asked to resign from Baker & McKenzie last fall after 22 years. He is now a lawyer with a San Jose patent firm and earns about half his former $550,000 salary. (Of the jury's award, Greenstein is personally responsible for $225,000 of the punitive damages.) Calling the verdict "very disappointing," he insisted, "Whatever happened was certainly not done with malice or an intent to harm."

For their part, the jurors apparently didn't agree. Nor were they persuaded that Baker & McKenzie, in the words of firm chairman John McGuignan, "took all complaints seriously and took action as soon as the facts were clear." Notes juror William Carpenter, a retired English teacher: "I got the feeling of power, arrogance and outright lies. If there's one message I'd like to send out, it's that even attorneys aren't above the law."

LAIRD HARRISON in San Francisco

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