Notice And Comment: Biglaw Firm Rescinds Job Offer Over 'Inflammatory' Anti-Israel Email
How should leaders in the legal profession respond to controversies in the news?
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Like an untold number of people around the world, I was unspeakably shocked, sickened, and saddened by Hamas’s horrific attacks on more than 20 sites in southern Israel, which took the lives of more than 1,000 people (and counting). While the Israel-Palestine conflict is complicated, I see the appropriate reaction to these attacks as simple: unequivocal condemnation. And while legitimate criticisms can be leveled against the Israeli government, now is not the time to make them.
But that’s just my opinion, and some people disagree—like Ryna Workman, a 3L at NYU Law and the president of its Student Bar Association (SBA). In a “Message From The President” that was included in a weekly SBA newsletter sent to the entire student body at 12:08 p.m. yesterday, Workman wrote:
This week, I want to express, first and foremost, my unwavering and absolute solidarity with Palestinians in their resistance against oppression toward liberation and self-determination. Israel bears full responsibility for this tremendous loss of life. This regime of state-sanctioned violence created the conditions that made resistance necessary. I will not condemn Palestinian resistance. Instead…
I condemn the violence of apartheid. I condemn the violence of settler colonialism. I condemn the violence of military occupation. I condemn the violence of dispossession and stolen homes. I condemn the violence of trapping thousands in an open-air prison. I condemn the violence of collective punishment. I condemn the violence of phosphorous bombs. I condemn the violence of the United States military-industrial complex. I condemn the violence of obfuscating genocide as a “complex issue.” I condemn the violence in labeling oppressed people as “animals.” I condemn the violence in removing historical context. I condemn the violence of silence.
Palestine will be free.
Your SBA President,
Their message—Workman is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns—elicited widespread outrage. As Yair Rosenberg of The Atlantic said on Twitter, Workman “sent out a message refusing to condemn Hamas’s mass slaughter and effectively cheerleading it.”
Workman was a summer associate at Winston & Strawn, with an offer to return as a full-time associate after graduation. But after Workman’s comments went viral, the firm revoked its offer, making the following announcement at around 5 p.m. on Twitter and LinkedIn:
Today, Winston & Strawn learned that a former summer associate published certain inflammatory comments regarding Hamas’ recent terrorist attack on Israel and distributed it to the NYU Student Bar Association. These comments profoundly conflict with Winston & Strawn’s values as a firm. Accordingly, the Firm has rescinded the law student’s offer of employment.
As communicated yesterday to all Winston personnel, we remain outraged and deeply saddened by the violent attack on Israel over the weekend. Our hearts go out to our Jewish colleagues, their families, and all those affected.
Winston stands in solidarity with Israel’s right to exist in peace and condemns Hamas and the violence and destruction it has ignited in the strongest terms possible. We look forward to continuing to work together to eradicate anti-Semitism in all forms and to the day when hatred, bigotry, and violence against all people have been eliminated. Our strength lies in our unity, empathy, and shared humanity.
Workman could also get ousted as SBA president. I’ve included that announcement in a footnote, since I know that readers appreciate reading primary documents even if they’re not essential to a story.1
Here are my brief and preliminary thoughts on this fraught situation (which I’m open to revisiting and revising, after hearing from you, my readers):
As a strong defender of free speech, I recognize Workman’s right to voice their opinion, even if some or even many of us find it abhorrent.
At the same time, a private, reputation-conscious employer like Winston is not required to ignore Workman’s comments, especially given how much negative publicity they generated for the firm.
One reader suggested to me that Winston could have justified the offer rescission by citing incredibly poor judgment or a total lack of self-awareness, as opposed to inconsistency with “firm values.” In the words of this reader—who, to be clear, also views Workman’s comments as reprehensible—“Now Winston will face pressure to summarily defenestrate the next person discovered to have taken the inconvenient side of some inflammatory issue.” [UPDATE (3 p.m.): As noted by several commenters, a significant part of the poor judgment is using the SBA newsletter to disseminate personal views, without consulting or even notifying other SBA members.]
The three-paragraph Winston email reprinted above could have been replaced by a single paragraph: “Today, Winston & Strawn learned that a former summer associate published certain inflammatory comments regarding Hamas’ recent terrorist attack on Israel and distributed them to the NYU Student Bar Association. These comments reflect extremely poor professional judgment. Accordingly, the Firm has rescinded the law student’s offer of employment.”
This entire episode highlights the difficulties that leaders and institutions create for themselves when they take positions on every issue in the news, from the monumental to the mundane. See also Dean Gillian Lester of Columbia Law School, who issued a stronger criticism of Hamas yesterday after getting flak for her original missive.
[O]ur commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is not going to take the form of having the school administration announce institutional positions on a wide range of current social and political issues, make frequent institutional statements about current news events, or exclude or condemn speakers who hold views on social and political issues with whom some or even many in our community disagree. I believe that focus on these types of actions as the hallmark of an “inclusive” environment can lead to creating and enforcing an institutional orthodoxy that is not only at odds with our core commitment to academic freedom, but also that would create an echo chamber that ill prepares students to go out into and act as effective advocates in a society that disagrees about many important issues.
Martinez’s position makes sense to me. While it is often tempting for law deans and firm chairs to publicly declare their opposition to obviously bad things like massacres and racism, a strong policy against public statements may be preferable. If a legal leader makes clear that they never issue such statements—no matter how pressing the issue, no matter how just the cause—then they can’t be pressured into commenting on this controversy or that one.
After a while, members of the law school or law firm will stop expecting their leader to make such pronouncements. This will spare leaders the inevitable criticism when their public statements are viewed as inadequate or even wrong by some constituency or other, and it will allow them to focus on their day job of running a complex and diverse organization, undistracted by having to run a think tank or newspaper editorial board on the side.2
So, readers, what am I missing? Are there benefits to these public pronouncements that I am overlooking or underestimating? Are certain events so egregious that something must be said?
This is a Notice and Comment post, so I’m leaving the comments open to all readers, not just paid subscribers to Original Jurisdiction. As always, please keep things civil—I realize these subjects elicit strong emotions—and please focus on issues related to law and the legal profession. I look forward to your thoughts.
At 9:49 p.m. yesterday, the following email went out from the NYU Law SBA account:
Dear NYU Law Student Body:
Earlier today, the SBA President published a statement about the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine as part of the weekly bulletin email. The remaining members of SBA are writing to clarify that we did not write, approve, or see this message before it was published. SBA did not hold discussions about whether to issue a public statement about the conflict or the content of any potential statement. The ‘Message from the President’ reflects their personal views and does not represent the views of SBA as an organization or any of its officers. Under the SBA Constitution, our directive is “[t]o provide an effective medium for the expression of student's views,” and we regret that today’s Message distracted from this mission.
This evening, the SBA Board voted to initiate the removal of the SBA President. As required in Art. 9, Sec. 1.1 of the SBA Constitution, the SBA will conduct a hearing between October 17 and 24th as part of our removal procedures. The SBA will also continue to monitor the Vote of No Confidence survey that has been circulated under Art. 9, Sec. 2.2.
As a result of today’s statements, multiple students have received significant targeted harassment and death threats. We are horrified by these vile personal attacks and threats to students’ safety. The doxxing of any NYU Law student is unacceptable and disturbing. We urge NYU Law’s administration to do more to protect students’ privacy and safety in the face of targeted harassment.
We want to be clear, first and foremost, that we mourn the tremendous loss of human life in the past several days. We encourage students who have been affected by this crisis to reach out to NYU’s Wellness Exchange or the Office of Student Affairs for support. As a governing body that represents students and student groups with a wide range of perspectives on these very important issues, and out of concern for the safety of the members of the SBA and the student body, SBA cannot comment further.
We remain committed to creating a welcoming and inclusive space for all NYU Law students and serving as representatives of the student body. To further support our role as a student organization, we are in communication with NYU Law Administration to discuss appropriate next steps.
NYU Law SBA
Dean Troy McKenzie of NYU Law issued his own statement on the Ryna Workman controversy—and my sources criticized it as inadequate. He wrote:
Dear Members of the NYU Law Community:
Some of you may have seen a message from the president of the Student Bar Association regarding the horrific conflict in Israel and Gaza. This message was not from NYU School of Law as an institution and does not speak for the leadership of the Law School. It certainly does not express my own views, because I condemn the killing of civilians and acts of terrorism as always reprehensible.
The attack on Israel and the subsequent and ongoing hostilities have made this a period of extreme pain and distress for many members of our community. Since the weekend, I have worked with administrators to provide support to students, faculty, and alumni who have been affected by this crisis.
The feelings that divide people in the world at large are certainly present within the Law School, but I hope that we are able to address them with compassion and mutual respect. The Law School’s leadership team will continue to provide the resources and support we can.
“Incredibly weak response,” according to one NYU source. Wrote another, “Besides the fact that it took three days for him to issue this, and that he only managed to do so after a student writing under the school’s banner forced the issue by proudly supporting Hamas, it’s unsatisfactory insofar as it manages to give the impression that there’s a legitimate division of views over whether it’s appropriate to support the massacre of civilians. I’m happy to see that the Dean condemns that sort of thing, but this email really leaves much to be desired.”
UPDATE (11:37 a.m.): I wonder whether Dean McKenzie, like Dean Lester at Columbia, got flak for issuing too tepid a statement. This morning Dean McKenzie sent out a more robust response (also signed by David Tanner, Chair of the NYU Law Board of Trustees):
Dear members of the NYU Law community:
As the violence in Israel persists, and we continue to struggle with feelings of anger and sorrow at the tragic loss of innocent lives, we need to make several things abundantly clear on behalf of the NYU Law Board of Trustees and our Law School as a whole.
NYU Law unequivocally condemns the recent terrorist acts and the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas in Israel. The murder and kidnapping of civilians, and the use of sexual violence and the separation and torture of children, are all abominable and atrocious. We want to say, loud and clear, to our community: Any statement that does not recognize this brutality does not reflect the values of NYU Law.
We are working 24/7 to protect the safety of all our students while providing support for those most affected by the war, here and in Israel. Please do not hesitate to reach out.
Troy A. McKenzie
Cecilia Goetz Professor of Law
Chair, NYU Law Board of Trustees
UPDATE (10/22/2023, 12:44 p.m.): Davis Polk has similarly rescinded offers to three Columbia and Harvard law students who held leadership roles in organizations that signed a controversial statement. For more details, see this Judicial Notice roundup.
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