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Hateful Legal Emails Expose A Surprisingly Dark Side of Communication

"Tell him that he’s the reason why most people hate Jews.”

“What’s this f—t’s problem?”

“She hates being called Barbs” … “But loves ‘Babs’ and ‘Sugar Tits”

These are tame snippets of emails between two top attorneys at a Los Angeles law firm that handles employment discrimination. The language they used was not just sexist, racist, and profane, but also hateful and discriminatory.

Were these junior associates who — quote unquote — didn’t know better? To the contrary, they were senior partners with decades under their belts at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, a prestigious firm with a reported 1,700 employees worldwide, and offices spanning the U.S. from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Manhattan.

The communications between the pair — John Barber, 55, and Jeff Ranen, 45 — date back at least 15 years.The two left their longtime workplace in May to start their own boutique law firm, reportedly taking at least 100 lawyers from Lewis Brisbois with them.

The Lewis Brisbois firm is devoted to opportunities for hiring candidates from traditionally underrepresented groups, according to its website. The derogatory emails were made public after a complaint was filed following Barber’s and Ranen’s departure, and a subsequent investigation revealed the offensive comments, the firm told the New York Post.

In leaving, Barber was quoted by the legal publication Above the Law as saying the motivation for leaving was to “build something that’s reflective of our values and our beliefs.” He also told the publication that “Jeff and I are in lockstep in that we serve two masters — excellence and our culture — and we are ferociously protective of both.”


It’s hard to see these statements as anything other than a breathtaking series of callous acts. And if a pair of senior attorneys at a law firm specializing in labor law — the very people who are trusted to protect plaintiffs experiencing attacks of racism, sexism, ageism and more — are capable of saying these things, what about everyone else?

The Los Angeles Times quoted attorney Merle Vaughn, who recruits diverse candidates for law firms, wondering about the types of microaggressions women and minorities would have had to endure at a firm that allowed this to happen. That Barber and Ranen felt secure in putting their views in writing showed that “they believe they are above it and they won’t get caught,” she told the Times.

This is where Alphy’s Reflect AI has value. Reflect AI is a communications tool that is trained to help detect language that is harmful, helpful, and even unlawful. Reflect AI works in email and video communications to provide users an objective view of what they’re saying and how it might be interpreted by others. This gives people an opportunity to adjust their tone and content in real time, to be more respectful and collaborative.

Here are three statements related to body weight, and the responses you’d receive if you typed them in an email using Reflect AI:

“I might be able to Jew them down to $390"

"Gypsy is my new word to describe about half of the minorities in California. Generally with an Armo, Persian or middle eastern flair.”

"We’re going to a strip club or bringing in hookers"

"She could be 200 pounds and acne scarred and after all this time I’d still f— her.”

"Tell him that he’s the reason why most people hate Jews.”

In its report, the New York Post reached out to the Rev. Al Sharpton, an American civil rights activist, for his thoughts on the matter. “Though they may pretend to have founded their new firm in pursuit of ‘empathy and compassion,’ it is beyond any doubt that they are incapable of doing so,” he told the newspaper of Ranen and Barber. He also called on the California state bar to conduct a review to determine whether the lawyers’ licenses should be revoked.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Barber in 2015 told an acquaintance, “There is no ‘NSFW’ for me,” abbreviating “not safe for work.” “My average email would get someone fired,” he added, according to the newspaper.

How important is respectful communication? What are the consequences of discriminatory language? How great is the need for organizations to foster inclusive and respectful workplaces? These aren’t just rhetorical questions. The answer, for starters, is costly lawsuits, and damage to the company, to employees, and brand. Here’s a startling figure: U.S. companies spend more than $1 trillion per year on the fallout from miscommunication and harmful communication. Nearly half a billion dollars is spent on legal fees.

No profession, no position, and no amount of experience exempts people from showing respect, equality and decency to one another — especially the legal field. Let’s consider this a wakeup call. Harmful language helps no one.And remember - there’s always a paper trail.

Carolyne Zinko is the editorial director of Alphy.

Photo by Photo by Nik on Unsplash .

Reflect AI by Alphy is a SaaS platform that flags harmful language, including topic, tone, “isms,” confidence, mindset and appropriateness. Our AI language classifier detects risks in emails prior to send, flags conversational missteps (and successes) in video meetings in real-time, and upskills individual communication with targeted and personalized microlearning.


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