“Surprise!” everyone shouted, as Mary DiNunzio opened the door to the conference room. The office was throwing her a baby shower, and she almost burst into tears of joy. Pregnancy had boosted her emotions past normal Italian-American levels, and for the past seven months, she’d been a walking bowl of estrogen.
“Aww, you guys!” Mary wiped her eyes while they all rushed over.
“Were you surprised?” Judy Carrier, her best friend, gave her a big hug.
“Or did you guess?” Anne Murphy, the firm’s gorgeous fashionista, enveloped Mary in a perfumed cloud.
“DiNunzio, you couldn’t have been surprised, could you?” called out Bennie Rosato, Mary’s partner and former boss. Bennie stood at a distance because group hugs were against her religion, folding her arms in her characteristic khaki suit, unruly blonde topknot, and vaguely ironic smile. “Where did you think we all were?”
“I don’t know!” Mary sniffled happily. “I figured I was the first one in this morning.”
“You? Ha!” Lou Jacobs laughed, giving her a hug. Bald and nearing seventy years old, Lou was a former cop who worked as their investigator. He was trim, fit, and perennially tan from weekends fishing in Margate. His eyes were a flinty gray-blue, with a nose like the bill of a seagull.
“Congrats, Mary!” Marshall Trow, their receptionist, smiled from ear-to-ear.
“Congratulations, Mary!” John Foxman gave her a stiff hug, and Mary hugged him back warmly. She had thought he was too preppie when they first met, but he’d proved his mettle on one of her most important cases.
“You guys went to so much trouble!” Mary took in the scene. Pink and blue streamers hung from the ceiling, obscuring Bennie’s beloved Eakins rowing prints and the view of the Philadelphia skyline. Stacks of trial exhibits had been pushed aside to make room for pink- and blue-frosted cupcakes, a pile of gaily wrapped gifts, and paper plates and cups.
“It was no trouble.” Judy waved her off with a grin. “We wanted to!” added Anne.
Bennie snorted. “DiNunzio, I agree with you, but they said we had to.” She gestured Mary into a seat at the head of the table, usually hers. “Now sit down and have a cupcake, so we can get back to work.”
“Got it.” Mary waddled to the seat. “Sit down, everyone, please. I can’t take the guilt if you’re standing.”
“Bennie, give us a toast.” Judy sat down, reaching for a pink cupcake and taking a typically big bite.
“Okay.” Bennie raised her I CAN SMELL FEAR mug. “Everybody, join me, get a drink.”
Mary felt her eyes well up again. She loved them, and as thrilled as she was about the baby, she would miss them during her maternity leave. And seeing Bennie standing proudly, her mug raised, made Mary flash on the arc of their long relationship. Mary had joined the law firm as an insecure associate and had grown into a somewhat-less-insecure named partner, which was progress.
“To Mary DiNunzio.” Bennie’s expression softened. “I speak for everyone at Rosato & DiNunzio when I say that we wish you, Anthony, and your new baby all the happiness in the world—but we can’t wait until you come back to work.”
“Hear, hear!” Lou called out, and everybody cheered, raising their cups. “To Mary!” “To the baby!” “To the new lawyer!” “Thank you!” Mary smiled, taking a sip of seltzer, which would probably make her gassy. These days she could barely walk for having to hold her sphincter closed. At home, she let it rip, and her husband, Anthony, wasn’t allowed to complain.
Her breasts had grown to gargantuan proportions, and he had to take the bad with the good.
Suddenly there was a noise outside the conference room, and a man in a sportcoat arrived at the threshold. “Excuse me,” he said, “there was nobody at the reception desk. I have hand- deliveries for Bennie Rosato, Mary DiNunzio, and Judy Carrier.” “That’s me,” Bennie said, rising and walking around the table.
“I’m Judy.” Judy stood up and went over.
“I’m Mary, but hang on.” Mary got up, slowly.
“Okay, here we go.” The man handed Mary, Judy, and Bennie each a thick manila envelope. “I’m with AMG Process Servers. You’ve been served.”
Bennie blinked. “You mean a client of ours has been served.” “No. You’ve been served. Bye.” The man left, with a surprised Marshall escorting him out.
“What?” Mary asked, aghast. She’d never been sued in her life. She’d never even colored outside of the lines.
“Let me see.” Bennie had torn open the envelope and was already reading the papers with a deepening frown. “It’s a copy of a Complaint that was just filed with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. We’re being sued as a firm and individually, as partners.”
“Who could be suing you guys?” Anne rose quickly, crossing to read the papers.
Lou snorted, getting up. “Who would be crazy enough?” “And for what?” John asked, indignant, crossing the room to read over Bennie’s shoulder.
Bennie read through the papers. “We’re being sued for reverse sex discrimination.”
Mary read over Bennie’s shoulder, aghast. “The plaintiffs are three male lawyers who allege they applied for jobs and weren’t hired because they’re men.”
“Are you serious?” Judy recoiled. “We’re being sued?”
Lou asked, “What’s the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission?”
Bennie kept reading the Complaint. “It’s an agency that enforces state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender and for other reasons. The federal analogue is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.”
Judy looked over at Lou. “The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act covers smaller employers like us. This is the beginning of a lawsuit, because you have to file a complaint with the Commission before you can go to court.”
“Here, I’ll read the allegations.” Bennie cleared her throat. “The law firm of Rosato & DiNunzio was unlawfully founded as a ‘women-only’ law firm. On many occasions, its principals Bennie Rosato, Mary DiNunzio, and Judy Carrier have even admitted as much, stating in interviews that their law firm is ‘comprised of all women’ and is ‘all-female.’”
Mary felt a wave of nausea, only partly pregnancy-related. “We said that because reporters would ask us if we were all-female. That doesn’t mean it’s a job requirement.”
“Who are these plaintiffs?” Judy’s fair skin flushed with emotion, turning almost as pink as her hair. “When did we fail to hire them? Besides, we’re not an all-female law firm anymore. We have John now. Doesn’t he count?”
“Yeah, right.” Anne gestured to John. “You hired him yourself, right, Judy?”
“Yes, totally.” Judy nodded, emphatic. “Bennie, that disproves their case right there, doesn’t it?”
“No, it doesn’t.” Bennie looked over, frowning. “Point of law, the fact that a company hired a man doesn’t prove that it didn’t discriminate against another male plaintiff. Secondly, the fact that we don’t interview more widely doesn’t cut in our favor. Failing to interview widely tends to perpetuate discriminatory employment practices. In an all-male firm, it would perpetuate an old-boy network.”
“Like an old-girl network?” Mary felt defensive. “Gimme a break. We don’t discriminate against men. This suit doesn’t have any merit. These guys have a lot of nerve.”
“Because they’re men,” Judy shot back, but nobody laughed. “Okay, not allowed to joke around anymore. Bennie, who are the plaintiffs?”
“Their names are Michael Battle, Graham Madden, and Stephen McManus, corporate litigators. They allege they were ‘more than qualified’ to be associates. They applied and were rejected. It says we interviewed one, McManus.” Bennie looked up, puzzled. “Who interviewed McManus?”
“I did,” John answered. “I thought we needed an associate to help on London Technologies. I asked Anne if I could hire somebody. Remember, Anne?”
“Yes.” Anne nodded, frowning. “You were supposed to interview the candidates, make a recommendation to me, and I’d run it up to Bennie.”
“Okay, so I put an ad online and in the Intelligencer, went through the resumes, and interviewed a bunch of candidates, including one of these three, the plaintiffs.” John looked nonplussed, turning to Bennie. “I liked Steve McManus and recommended to Anne that we hire him. She said no and told me to go back to the drawing board. Instead I hired a contract lawyer because I didn’t have time to start the whole process over again.”
Bennie faced Anne. “Why didn’t you want to hire McManus?
Did you interview him?”
“No.” Anne thought for a minute, a worried crease marking her perfect features. “I looked at the resume and didn’t like it. He didn’t seem to have any personality. I didn’t think he would be a good fit.”
Bennie arched an eyebrow. “What do you mean by ‘good fit’?”
“He seemed really boring, like, too quiet. None of us is, and that’s why this is a fun place to work. He didn’t strike me as the kind of person we need, completely regardless of his gender.” Anne straightened. “I can totally defend my decision. Under the law, we can decide not to hire someone for any reason, or even no reason, as long as it’s not discriminatory.”
“Correct.” Bennie returned her attention to the Complaint. “Foxman, you’re mentioned here, too.”
“I am?” John swallowed hard, and Mary noticed he suddenly seemed nervous, which was unusual because not much ruffled his patrician cool. He was good-looking, with intelligent blue eyes behind rimless glasses, a small nose, and precisely layered reddish hair. Tall and perennially well-dressed, he always looked to Mary as if he’d been born in a rep tie. But she could see his mouth go suddenly dry.
Bennie cleared her throat again. “Let me read aloud. ‘Plaintiff Stephen McManus was interviewed by associate John Foxman in his office at Rosato & DiNunzio. During the interview, Foxman told Plaintiff McManus that he himself felt ‘out of place at Rosato & DiNunzio because he was a male.’” Bennie looked up slowly, appalled. “Did you say that, Foxman?”
Mary sensed the answer. John tended to make his opinions known, and she remembered that on the last case they had worked together, he had spoken imprudently to the media. In other circumstances she would have termed it mansplaining, but not today.
“Whoa.” Judy grimaced at John. “Did you really say that?” “John, do you really think that?” Anne’s lovely green eyes focused on him, awaiting his answer, as was Lou.
“Um.” John swallowed visibly, his Adam’s apple getting stuck on his cutaway collar. “I said that.”
Mary moaned inwardly, and everyone fell silent. A pink streamer fluttered from the ceiling to the carpet.
“Foxman.” Bennie controlled her tone. “You said that to an interviewee? Explain.”
John went ashen-faced. “I’m the only male lawyer. If we’re being honest, I do feel that way, sometimes.”
“Like when?” Judy and Anne interrupted, in outraged unison.
John gestured vaguely at the streamers. “For starters, at a baby shower.”
Judy threw up her hands. “John, I feel out of place at a baby shower.”
“But I do feel out of place here, at times.”
“John, really?” Judy blurted out. “You’re not out of place here. You’re one of us, whether you’re a man or woman. You know that.”
“Bummer.” Anne was shaking her head, her glossy red hair shining. “You never said anything like that to me.”
Mary could see that John felt terrible, but now they were on the legal hook. Litigation was a nightmare, especially when you were on the receiving end, and it was the last thing she needed in a difficult pregnancy. She tried not to throw up.
Bennie raised a hand. “Foxman, I asked you to explain the circumstances in which you made this statement to an interviewee.”
John stiffened. “Well, during the interview, I guess Mc- Manus and I got to talking. He was a nice guy. I felt we had a rapport. That’s why I wanted to hire him. I might’ve admitted that I felt out of place here, sometimes. As a guy.”
Bennie squared her shoulders. “Foxman, I’m disappointed. If you’d brought it to me, we could have addressed it. Instead you chose to make your views known to an outsider, who’s using it against us in a baseless lawsuit.”
John swallowed, mortified. “It was a mistake.” “No, it was treason.”
John flinched. “Bennie, I’m sorry. Do you want me to resign?
I don’t want to, but I will if you want me to.”
“And add fuel to the plaintiffs’ fire? No.” Bennie glared at him, creating the most awkward moment in legal history. “Where do you think those resumes would be? Or a copy of the ad that we ran? Do you have them?”
“Find their resumes and any other communications you had with them—email, text, phone calls, whatever. Prepare a chronology so we understand exactly what happened. We have to know what they know.” Bennie glanced at Anne. “Murphy, I’m tasking you with preventing this from happening again. We have to institute a formalized way of dealing with interviewees from now on. We can’t do it by the seat of our pants anymore. Please coordinate with Marshall, set up a system, and let us know your recommendation. We need to implement it immediately.”
“Will do,” Anne said quickly.
Judy turned to Bennie. “Who represents the plaintiffs?” “Hold on, let me see.” Bennie flipped through the Complaint, then looked up. “Guess who, DiNunzio.”
“Tell me.” Mary hated guessing games from before she was on progesterone, which left her feeling dumber than usual.
“It’s your mortal enemy.” “I don’t have any enemies.”
Judy smiled. “Truth. She’s universally beloved.”
Bennie met Mary’s troubled gaze. “You beat him last time, and he’s back with a vengeance. Nick Machiavelli.”
“Oh no.” Mary’s heart sank. Unfortunately, her gorge rose. The real Niccolò Machiavelli had thought it was better to be feared than loved, and his alleged descendant, South Philly lawyer Nick Machiavelli, followed suit. He was feared, not loved, while Mary was loved, not feared. She knew Machiavelli would come back for an ultimate lawyer battle, like a fight between good and evil, with billable hours.
Bennie closed the Complaint. “Folks, the party’s over. Sorry, Mary. Open your presents later. We have to talk about this lawsuit, and everybody has to clear the room except for the three partners.”
“I need a wastebasket,” Mary said, looking around.
Mary nibbled a cupcake, hoping it would calm her stomach, but it didn’t work. That was the double-edged sword of pregnancy; if you didn’t eat, you felt nauseated, but if you ate, you threw up. It didn’t help that she was being sued, and by Machiavelli. Her thoughts churned while she watched Judy wolf down a cupcake and Bennie pace the conference room, in front of the skyline of Philadelphia, topped by Billy Penn on City Hall. From this angle, he famously looked like he had an erection, but Bennie didn’t notice.
“I cannot believe this!” Bennie shouted, throwing up her hands. Mary and Judy exchanged glances as they sat at the table. They knew from experience that when she started pacing, it was best to stay out of her way, like the Acela racing up and down the Northeast Corridor. And not the quiet car.
“This is outrageous!” Bennie pivoted when she reached the credenza, then paced in the other direction, waving the Complaint in the air. “A failure-to-hire case, brought by men, against us! Do you believe it? Do you even believe it?”
Mary gathered the question was rhetorical, and Judy reached for another cupcake, this time a blue-frosted instead of a pink, wondering if the choice was intentional or politically correct.
“I worked my whole life, my whole entire life to have my own law firm!” Bennie shook her head as she strode to the wall, then snap-turned around like an Olympic swimmer at the end of the pool. “I was on my own, and you guys both know it, then I met you two! I wasn’t hiring only women! The gender didn’t matter to me, at all! Remember when you started with me, as associates?”
“Totally,” Mary answered, since Judy’s mouth was full. Her worries were already turning to the potential costs of the lawsuit. The firm had an insurance carrier, but it wouldn’t cover acts outside the scope of employment, which could arguably include intentional employment discrimination. The three of them could be on the hook for the damages, and her husband, Anthony, didn’t have a job.
“You remember, you were big-firm refugees! I hired you both because you were the best! Because you’re terrific! And we crushed it, the three of us, case after case. We made the firm a success, thriving through thick and thin! Remember when we almost went bankrupt?”
“Yes,” Mary answered again. They had almost been evicted from their offices. The caseload had gone up and down, and so had their cash flow. Bennie had kept them all together, doing everything she could to make payroll and not fire anyone. Back then, Mary hadn’t been sure she even wanted to be a lawyer, but then she’d found special-education law, which was her true niche. She did well and did good, for children.
“Now here we all are, over a decade later, and all of us partners, and this happens?” Bennie raised the Complaint like a flaming torch, but not like Lady Liberty, more like an angry mob. “You know whose fault this is? Mine, all mine. I’ve been too lax.”
“No, you haven’t,” Mary said, meaning it. She was already thinking along different lines. “Bennie, with respect, you’re on the wrong track.”
“How?” Bennie whirled around. “Are you going to tell me this isn’t a disaster?”
“No, it is. But I have some ideas about how it came about.” Mary gestured to the chair catty-corner to hers, opposite Judy. “Please, sit down. I have a hunch.”
Judy wiped crumbs off her chin. “Good, Mare. I like your hunches.”
“Thanks.” Mary rallied as Bennie stalked over, threw the Complaint onto the polished conference table, and sat down. “So Nick Machiavelli filed this suit against us. He threatened that someday he’d get a rematch, you remember.”
“I remember.” Bennie folded her arms.
Judy reached for the coffee carafe. “I hate that guy, I hate everything about him. He’s a phony, a fraud. Can you imagine, trying to convince people that you’re a direct descendant of the real Machiavelli?”
“It is his real last name, and I know his family from the neighborhood.” Mary had gone to Goretti, a sister high school to Nick Machiavelli’s school, Newman, and his pretensions were the least ridiculous thing about him. “The problem is, the man is an excellent lawyer, mainly because he’s ruthless. Nothing stops him. The ends justify the means, so maybe it’s in his DNA.”
“He’s not going to get away with this. He won’t even know what hit him. I’m going to devote the full resources of this firm to this litigation. We’re going to pulverize him.” Bennie’s blue eyes flashed, in battle mode, and Mary had never seen her like this. She knew that Bennie loved a good fight, but she didn’t know that Bennie loved a good war.
“My point is, think about what’s going on here. We know the shenanigans he pulled on that last case, right? He waged a proxy war. He sent lawyers to oppose me. So now we know how he works. He’s indirect.”
“Right,” Bennie answered, nodding.
“And?” Judy shifted forward in the chair. “Where are you going with this? What’s your hunch?”
“Think about this. Two of these plaintiffs are lawyers none of us met. We don’t even know where their resumes are. We have to go hunt them up.” Mary slid the Complaint over, check- ing the caption. “But the third, Stephen McManus, is the one from that interview with John—”
Bennie interrupted, “I still cannot believe Foxman said what he said. I don’t want to fire him, I want to kill him. How imprudent can you possibly be? And—”
“Wait.” Mary raised a hand, probably the only time she had ever silenced Bennie Rosato. “John told us that the interviewee was chatty. And somehow, the conversation must’ve come around to how it is to work with women. And that’s when John throws in his two cents, that he feels out of place, which ends up in the Complaint. Now what does that tell you?”
“That John should be fired!”
“No, think about it.” Mary got so excited she felt the baby kick, but this wasn’t the time to say so. “We know Machiavelli has wanted a rematch. There hasn’t been another case on which we’re opposing counsel, so he made one. I bet that, one way or another, these plaintiffs were connected to Machiavelli before he became their lawyer.”
Judy’s mouth dropped open.
“Right?” Mary felt the baby kick again. “John advertised for an associate, and I bet that Machiavelli saw the ad, sent McManus to us for a job interview, and coached him to get John talking about what it was like to work with us. And he had the others send in resumes, too. In other words, he manufactured the lawsuit against us.”
Bennie’s blue eyes rounded. “Yes, that’s completely possible. They don’t have much of a case without Foxman’s statement. It’s essentially an admission.”
Judy gasped. “That must be what happened. John was set up.
He was entrapped.”
Bennie looked over. “He still shouldn’t have said it, Carrier.” “I know, and I feel terrible that he thinks that.”
“I don’t care what he thinks, I care what he says.” Bennie snorted. “And it was wrong and disloyal for him to say such a thing to anybody outside of this firm, especially an interviewee. I would’ve fired him if I thought it wouldn’t hurt our defense— or if he wouldn’t file a retaliation claim against us.”
Judy frowned. “He would never do that.”
“Never say never,” Bennie shot back, but Mary wanted to return to the subject. John was a great guy, and she knew he had a great heart, even serving as the devoted guardian of his brother, William, who had cerebral palsy. Something told Mary that John had been taken advantage of by Machiavelli, and all she had to do was convince Bennie.
“So Bennie, my point is that nothing we or John did really caused this lawsuit. It’s not that we’re too lax, and we certainly don’t discriminate against men. We were set up, too—”
Bennie’s smartphone started ringing, and she slid it out of her pocket, checked the screen, and pressed a button to decline the call. “That’s a reporter I know from the Inquirer. It must be about this case. The timing can’t be coincidental.”
“Agree.” Judy’s phone started ringing, faceup on the conference table. She glanced at the screen, declining the call. “And that’s somebody from the ABA Journal.”
Mary’s phone rang, too, but she let it go, assuming it was more of same. The baby kicked again, and she wondered if he or she would be a lawyer or a reporter one day. After he/she stopped causing so much gas.
Suddenly there was a knock on the door, which opened, and Marshall popped her head through. “Excuse me, but there’s media calling for you about the lawsuit. Do you want to take these calls? What do we say?”
“No comment,” Bennie, Mary, and Judy answered, in lawyerly unison.
“Got it, thanks.” Marshall flashed a shaky smile before she closed the door.
Mary heaved a sigh. “Honestly, this is how Machiavelli operates. He’ll try to ruin our reputation. His goal isn’t just to win this lawsuit, it’s to crush us.”
Judy cringed. “You’re exaggerating, right?”
“Not this time,” Mary answered, without hesitation.
Bennie mulled it over. “DiNunzio, come on. The damages can’t be that much.”
“It’s not the damages, it’s what just happened. The press. He’s trying to ruin our reputation as a firm. And it’s so gossipy, they’ll all run with the ball. How do you think potential clients will react? They’ll stay away in droves.”
Bennie bore down. “Then we lock and load. Machiavelli has been circling us for too long, and it’s time that we finished him off, for good.”
Judy nodded. “Agree. We can take him.”
Mary forced a smile, but she knew Machiavelli better than they did, so she was less than optimistic. In fact, less-than-optimistic was her middle name.
Bennie checked her watch. “We need a lawyer, ASAP. We can’t represent ourselves since we’re going to be fact witnesses.”
“Who would you hire, Bennie? Should we go big firm or little?” Mary shifted, trying to get comfortable, but there was a human being on her bladder. “Machiavelli runs his own shop. He’s probably got twelve associates working for him. He’s going to throw everything he has behind this case, too.”
Judy sipped her coffee. “I say small firm. There are plenty of great boutique firms in the city. We want somebody who will dedicate themselves to us. Who identifies with us.”
Mary didn’t agree. “Hmm, I say big firm. We want a show of force. But do we hire a man or woman? I say a man, for obvious reasons.”
“I say a woman, because we want to win.” Judy smiled crookedly.
Bennie scoffed. “I’ll be damned if I pick a lawyer by gender. I never have and I’m not about to start now.”
“Then who?” Judy turned to Bennie, waiting for her answer, and Mary did the same. Even though they were both Bennie’s partners, they used to be her associates and old habits die hard. “We need to think strategically in our choice of counsel. It kills me that we can’t represent ourselves, because we’re the best.”
“I second that emotion.” Judy smiled.
Mary added, “And obviously, we need somebody who’s brilliant, but who won’t be intimidated by Machiavelli.”
Bennie’s eyes narrowed in thought. “Not just somebody who’s not intimidated, but somebody who can deal with how manipulative Machiavelli is and the fact that he plays outside the rules. Machiavelli is intense, relentless, and unconventional, which can throw even the best of lawyers off their game. It’s like guerilla warfare against conventional warfare.”
“You’re right,” Mary said, changing her mind. “So that would leave out most big-firm lawyers because they tend to proceed in an orderly fashion.”
Judy shifted forward. “And come to think of it, it would eliminate smaller firms, too. We need a shop with the horsepower to deal with the crapstorm that’s coming, even the media.”
“I got it!” Bennie snapped her fingers. “I know exactly who we need. Roger Vitez. He’s the lawyer’s lawyer.”
“I’ve never heard of him.” Judy frowned.
“Me neither,” Mary said, worried. She wasn’t sure she wanted to place her legal career in the hands of some unknown quantity.
“Because that’s the way he likes it. He’s a secret weapon.”
Bennie picked up her phone. “I hope I can reach him. He doesn’t have a cell phone.”
Mary didn’t like the sound of that, either. “What kind of lawyer doesn’t have a cell phone?”
“One who doesn’t need the work,” Judy interjected. “Bennie, does he specialize in employment discrimination?”
“No, legal malpractice. Lawyers hire Roger when their ass is in a sling.” Bennie thumbed through her phone contacts. “He’s a little odd, no suit-and-tie, no phone, no watch, but he never loses. He has a great reputation.”
Judy caught Mary’s eye. “Then how come I never heard of him?”
“Think about it.” Bennie lifted an eyebrow. “Didn’t you ever wonder why you never read about legal malpractice cases in the newspaper? Even in the legal journals? Because lawyers who get sued don’t talk about it, the bar takes care of its own and newspapers take care of advertisers.”
Judy frowned. “So legal malpractice is booming, which is good and bad news.”
Mary remained worried. “But does he know employment law?”
Bennie put the phone to her ear. “I’m sure he knows enough, and he’s the strategic choice for this case. The only question is, will he take us?”
Judy scoffed. “Who wouldn’t? We’re arguably the most high-profile firm in the city.”
“Plus we’re nice,” Mary added.
“Speak for yourself,” Bennie said, without a smile.
Vitez, LLC, was housed in a unique office building, a brownstone that had been stripped to its exposed brick walls, then glassed in and dramatically renovated as a glass box, with an atrium in the center that served as a waiting room, furnished with glass end tables and modern sectionals that matched a large square of sisal. Glass balconies ringed the atrium at the second and third floors, where the associates’ offices were located, also with glass walls, through which they could be seen working. All Mary could think was how much Vitez spent on Windex.
Roger Vitez himself looked in his late forties, thanks to salt- and-pepper hair cut in careful layers and long sideburns that tapered to a matching beard, immaculately trimmed. He was tall, trim, and handsome, though his features were precise to the point of delicacy, with a long narrow face accentuated by a long thin nose, intelligent blue eyes bracketed by fine crow’s- feet, and fine lips pursed as tightly as a coin slot turned on its side. He was dressed in a black turtleneck and light gray wool pants, more like an art director than a lawyer. He didn’t have a wedding ring, which didn’t surprise Mary, because he seemed like a super-picky kind of guy, which was her least favorite.
She and Judy remained quiet as Bennie pitched Roger their case, and Mary took in his office, which was equally unique. It was another large glass box, with a glass desk, glass table, and more glass walls. Transparent halogen pendants shone from black tracks that coordinated with the black frames of clerestory windows, and except for Vitez’s laptop, there was no lawyer paraphernalia like legal pads, memos, red accordion files, family photos, framed diplomas, or Lucite awards. The bookshelves were also glass, and the books weren’t the typical Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or Purdon’s Pennsylvania Statutes, but Lao-Tzu, The Way of Buddha, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
“Well, Bennie,” Roger said, after Bennie was finished. He tented his slim fingers and leaned back in his black mesh chair. “Thank you for coming over. I’m afraid I’ll have to decline the representation. With gratitude, of course.”
Mary and Judy exchanged looks, but didn’t say anything, since Bennie wanted to do all the talking. This was a revolting development, as far as Mary was concerned. Bennie had spent the cab ride here raving about Vitez, that he’d graduated from Harvard Law, clerked for the Supremes, and was notoriously choosy about his caseload. Now that he didn’t want them, Mary wanted him even more. She fell for the Supply-Limited sales pitch every time.
Bennie leaned forward. “Roger, you have to take this case.” “I’m very flattered, but I’m sure anybody in the Bar Association would jump at the chance to represent you. You know absolutely everyone. I suggest you give any one of them a call.” “But you are my first and only choice. I want you. We all do.”
“We do,” Mary said, but didn’t say more. “We really do,” Judy chimed in.
“I wish I could, but I can’t.” Roger smiled, tenting his slim fingers, but Bennie was getting frustrated.
“Roger, why not?”
“For starters, I have a bad feeling about this lawsuit. I read the Complaint you emailed me and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. I sense that there’s more here than meets the eye. You know in movies, when they say, ‘this time it’s personal’? I get the same sense about this lawsuit.”
Bennie hesitated. “Okay, you’re right, it’s personal. The attorney on the other side is Nick Machiavelli, do you know him?”
“I’ve heard of him.”
“He’s an old nemesis of Mary’s, and she beat him last case and he’s coming back with a vengeance. We believe he put the plaintiffs up to this matter. He manufactured the case.”
Roger blinked. “So my intuition was correct.” “Yes.”
“Then I decline the representation.”
“Roger, come on. You represent lawyers accused of legal malpractice. How much more personal can it get?”
“This. A personal vendetta.”
Bennie blinked. “How did you even know that from the Complaint?”
“I asked myself why the plaintiffs are proceeding under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act as opposed to Title VII.”
“Our firm is too small to be covered by Title VII. We’re only four employees and three partners.”
Roger raised a hand. “That’s not what’s significant here. Although both the federal and state statutes outlaw discrimination on the basis of gender, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act has sharper teeth. Most significantly, under the PHRA, a plaintiff can sue a defendant personally and individually. That’s what they’re doing in this case. You three were named as individual defendants. That’s not possible under Title VII.”
“Damn, I should have realized that.” Bennie pursed her lips, frowning. Judy and Mary exchanged glances. They should have realized that, too, but they’d been too upset. The baby kicked hard, like a rebuke.
Roger frowned slightly. “This provision weaponizes the statute. You’re personally liable for any damages. It also throws your liability coverage into question. If you’re not covered by insurance, then each of you would have to pay damages personally.”
“Understood.” Bennie nodded, and Mary felt a wave of fear. She and Anthony didn’t have the financial cushion to withstand a personal judgment. And she felt a wave of guilt, too, for getting him, Bennie, and Judy, into this mess. She was Machiavelli’s real target, but they were caught in the crossfire.
Roger continued, “Secondly, under the PHRA, there’s no cap on compensatory damages, as under Title VII. Under Title VII, damages against even a firm of fourteen employees are capped at $50,000. Punitive damages are available under Title VII, but not under the PHRA, but they’re so rarely awarded that it doesn’t make a difference for your purposes.”
“So the exposure is broader.”
“Correct.” Roger untented his fingers. “You have thirty days to answer the Complaint. Though extensions are freely given, I would suggest you do not extend.”
“I absolutely agree. That’s how we litigate. Even as defendants, we’re aggressive. We take the lead and never let go. In fact, we need to file an answer to this, right away.”
“No, you don’t.”
Bennie frowned. “Why? Don’t you want to take the initiative?”
“Yes, I do. That’s why I would wait.”
“How is waiting ‘taking the initiative’?” Bennie asked, but Roger only smiled, somewhat condescendingly, to Mary’s eye. “I have the same question,” Mary said, backing Bennie up. “Then I’ll explain,” Roger answered calmly. “To answer quickly is to react to Machiavelli. When you react to Machiavelli, you give him the initiative by your actions. Under the rules, you have ample time to answer. You respond to the rules, not to Machiavelli. Do you see the difference?”
“Fine,” Bennie answered.
“After the Complaint is answered, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission begins its investigation. As you may know, you’ll be deposed and there will be additional discovery. The focus will be the decisions you made not to hire the plaintiffs, as well as anecdotal or statistical evidence of gender bias in favor of women at your firm.”
“How long do you think that takes? Six months to a year?” “Yes, and after a year, the plaintiffs can go to file suit in court.
Before that, as you know, the Commission will pressure you to settle.”
“We’ll never settle.” Bennie folded her arms, and Mary realized they hadn’t even discussed the possibility of settlement. Still, she felt the same way and suspected that Judy did too.
Roger frowned slightly. “I would advise you to keep an open mind about settlement.”
“No, absolutely not. It would be an admission. I know you’re going to say it’s not, but it is, in reality.”
“Nevertheless. Settling this dispute without prolonged litigation benefits you and the firm.” Roger blinked. “Time is also a factor. The fact that they have a year to investigate prolongs the damage to your reputation, given that they’re off to a fast start. Reports of the allegations are already popping up online.” Bennie grimaced. “That’s why I wanted to meet right away. I also think we should hold a press conference today at the firm. We need to take our case to the media, too. I texted our associate Anne Murphy to set it up for two o’clock this afternoon.”
“Good, go ahead even though you’re not represented yet. In fact, it plays better. Their complaint is colorable, given the admission by your associate John Foxman, and he is the only male lawyer employed by you.”
“It’s not intentional.” Bennie flushed, defensive.
“I’m sure it isn’t. But the optics are poor and the numbers cut against you. In addition, your firm had its genesis as an all-female law firm. You have made many comments to that effect. It’s not an illogical conclusion to think that what you manifested, you intended. The plaintiffs’ position has a commonsense appeal.”
Judy cringed, and Mary was feeling more worried. They needed Roger to take their case, and fast.
Bennie pursed her lips. “Don’t tell me you think they can win, Roger.”
“On the contrary, I do.”
“The hell they will. We’ll fight them tooth and nail. Tooth and nail!”
Roger blinked. “I’m sure that whichever lawyer you go to will be thrilled with the representation. You know everyone and you’ll have your pick.”
“Roger, seriously?” Bennie raised her voice. “You can’t be turning me away. We’ve known each other forever.”
“That’s why another lawyer will do better for you than I would.”
“Why? This case could not be more important to me!” “That’s why.” Roger leaned back in his chair, spreading his elegant hands in appeal. “You’re facing an existential threat to your law firm. For you, it’s your reason for being. Your baby, your way of life. Your emotions are at an all-time high.”
“Of course they are! What else would you expect?” “Nothing else.” Roger turned to Judy and Mary. “I don’t know either of you, but I’m sure as partners, you share her concerns, temperament, even energies. Yes?”
“Yes, we do,” Judy answered, and Mary let it go. She didn’t know whose energies she shared. Lately she didn’t have any energy.
“Thought so.” Roger nodded. “I operate very differently from you three.”
“Oh come on!” Bennie scoffed. “Don’t be such a control freak! We’re all litigators, for God’s sake!”
“True, but we litigate in our own way.” Roger paused. “Ours is a Darwinian profession. Litigators are strong. We self-select. Only the toughest survive, so there’s lots of toughness. Talk of force. Force meeting force. Conflict. Clashes. Battle imagery. War. Fighting. Like this.” Roger smacked his hands together, a harsh sound echoing in the still, quiet office. “In addition, our justice system is adversarial. There’s two teams, two sides. They fight, and one wins.”
“So?” Bennie shot back, and Judy looked over, surprised at the crankiness in her tone. Mary was getting cranky herself, since evidently, Roger spoke haiku.
“I’m strong, but there are different forms of strength. I don’t fight. I don’t use force. I assert my position but I remain flexible. My associates are strong, too. But we’re strong in a different way. I’m not sure the Vitez firm and the Rosato firm are well-suited.”
“Roger, we’re not getting married! We’re not even merging!” “And that’s what I mean.” Roger smiled slightly. “I don’t see things the way you do. I don’t see the labels and divisions. Relationships are relationships. To me, the relationship between client and attorney is no different from the relationship between lovers or corporate entities. It’s about my relationship to myself, ultimately.”
“Oh please.” Bennie groaned, but Judy tilted her head, obviously intrigued. Mary tried not to throw up again, thinking of all the money that was about to go down the tubes because of Machiavelli.
Roger shifted forward. “Bennie, to achieve a successful result, we need to work together. I don’t think we’ll work together well.”
“Of course we will!” Bennie threw up her hands. “We’re a dream client!”
“Or a nightmare client.”
“How dare you!” Bennie spat out, and even Mary was taken aback. Only Judy was still listening.
Roger put up a palm. “Bennie, don’t mistake me. It’s not personal. That’s exactly my point. A personal lawsuit means drama. I call plaintiffs like this ‘paintiffs’ because that’s what they want to inflict.”
“That’s cute, but all plaintiffs cause pain and drama.”
“Not like this. I abhor drama. It dissipates energy and squanders clarity.”
“Why won’t you take us, really?” Bennie bore down. “It’s because you don’t think I’ll listen to you, is that it? You think we’ll have a power struggle?”
“No. I don’t seek your obedience, I seek your cooperation. Not everything is binary. Yet that’s how you see the world. You will be unhappy with my representation. Inevitably. As I will be unhappy representing—”
“If I may, Roger?” Judy interrupted. “I understand what you’re saying. I agree that we have a difference in our energies. I know that our philosophies aren’t necessarily compatible.”
“Oh?” Roger tilted his head, and for the first time, Mary thought his blue eyes showed signs of life.
“Yes, and it’s demonstrated in this very meeting. Bennie wants to argue you into taking our case, but she can’t.”
Bennie looked over with a frown, but Judy kept talking. “I’ve done a fair amount of reading on Eastern philosophy, as you have. I own most of these books, too. I’ve studied them.”
Judy gestured at the shelves. “After college, I was even thinking about becoming a Buddhist nun.”
“What?” Mary blurted out, incredulous. She thought she knew everything about Judy. She’d even seen her bra drawer, which was a mess. Meanwhile, Mary’s sister was a nun, but a Catholic nun, like normal. Mary didn’t even know that Buddhists had nuns.
Roger beamed at Judy. “So why didn’t you pursue becoming a nun?”
“I felt I could do more good as a lawyer. I handle the pro bono work that Bennie brings into the firm. I think of that as my reason for being, not the firm, the service. I follow The Way.”
“You do?” Bennie’s eyebrows lifted. “Which way?” Mary asked, bewildered.
“The Way of the Tao,” Judy answered with an unusually placid expression.
Mary looked at Judy, nonplussed. She knew her best friend had pink hair and minored in woo-woo, but Judy had gotten even wackier since she’d bought a loom. Mary wasn’t sure how these two things were related, but nobody needed to weave things you could buy woven.
Roger folded his slim fingers on the glass desk. “So then, Judy, you understand. Your firm’s way of doing things, and the fact that this lawsuit is so personal, counsels against my involvement.”
“Perhaps,” Judy said, equally calmly. “I see your position.”
Bennie’s eyes flared in anger. “Carrier, whose side are you on?”
Mary was pretty sure that Bennie was proving Vitez’s point. Meanwhile, she’d never heard Judy say perhaps before. Mary didn’t know what was coming over her best friend and prayed it helped the cause. That is, she prayed to the real God, not whoever they were talking about.
Judy nodded. “I do understand, Roger. It’s interesting, though, that one of my favorite lessons from Lao-Tzu is about the Sage and his philosophy of service.”
“How so?” Roger asked pleasantly.
“Lao-Tzu teaches, ‘the more the Sage helps others, the more he benefits himself. The more he gives to others, the more he gets himself.’ That is The Way of the Sage.”
Roger didn’t speak for a moment, and Mary was totally confused, since she thought they were talking about the Way of the Tao, not the Way of the Sage, and in any event, she had been raised Catholic, which was My Way Or The Highway.
Judy paused. “So I hope you’ll revisit your decision not to represent us. After all, in the words of Lao-Tzu, ‘The flexible are preserved unbroken.’”
“Excuse me, ladies.” Roger closed his eyes and sat perfectly still for a moment.
Judy said nothing. Bennie said nothing. Mary held her breath.
Roger opened his eyes. “I have reached a decision.”