Why I left my corporate legal job to work full-time on #MeToo
Last week, almost exactly a year after Donald Trump was sworn in as our 45th president, I left my job at the prestigious law firm Boies Schiller Flexner. At first blush, Trump’s administration appears to have little to do with the firm founded 20 years ago by a well-known champion of progressive causes who represented Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore during the 2000 recount. But for me, the two have become inextricably connected.
In November 2016, I watched the election results from my desk at Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, where I was overseeing national Election Day operations in the legal department as the deputy voter protection director. After processing the fact that our country had just elected a man who publicly bragged about using his power to sexually assault women — over a more qualified female nominee, no less — I decided to take a step back from politics for a while. So last spring, I joined Boies Schiller’s office in Washington, D.C., as an associate.
Over the following months, I had the opportunity to learn under some of the best litigators in the country while doing meaningful work on important cases. Like many other women living in Trump’s America, I also tried to find ways to use my limited free time to speak out about the challenges women face in our country, especially in the workplace. In the spring, I wrote an article about the impact of Trump’s tax reform proposal on working women. In the fall, as the #MeToo movement took off, I shared my own experience with sexual harassment as an 18-year-old intern on Capitol Hill, and I spoke on a panel at the Harvard Law School bicentennial about the challenges women still face in the legal profession. I was becoming more hopeful about how the aftermath of the 2016 election and the revelations of misconduct in Hollywood, the media and elsewhere might improve the country.
Then, almost exactly on the first anniversary of Trump’s election, I found myself in an unexpected #MeToo moment in my workplace. The New Yorker reported that my law firm had retained private investigators who targeted, lied to and secretly recorded conversations with women coming forward with allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. According to the contract published online, the purpose of this engagement was to “provide intelligence” to Weinstein to “completely stop the publication” of these women’s stories in the media.
Thanks to Tarana Burke, who started the #MeToo movement more than a decade ago, and to the countless women who have shared their stories since, we now know that by leaving individual acts of wrongdoing unchallenged, we have created a culture in which unacceptable behavior has become normalized. So inspired by that realization, I decided to speak up internally. I discussed the role the firm’s actions played in the broader context of the movement with my colleagues. I voiced my disagreement with the notion that this is simply “what lawyers do.” I joined forces with a group of like-minded colleagues — men and women, from a variety of backgrounds — to propose internal policy reforms and specific steps the firm should take to create lasting change, both within and outside our workplace.
The experience was challenging, but it taught me a lot about how to address, in an institutional setting, a problem as systemic and culturally ingrained as workplace sexual harassment. We must continue the work Burke started and others have picked up on to ensure that women feel safe speaking up and breaking the silence, and initiatives such as the Time’s Up legal defense fund are critical to that effort. But much more is needed.
That’s why I’m leaving Boies Schiller to start the Purple Campaign, together with co-founder and tech-industry leader Jessica Patterson. The Purple Campaign’s mission is to end the systemic problem of workplace sexual harassment that exists across every industry in the United States. Drawing upon our relationships on both coasts and experience in business, politics, law and tech, we aim to build a diverse coalition to advance our country’s efforts to solve this complex problem.
We believe that lasting change must come from both the bottom up and the top down. We need employees in all industries to speak up internally and push for change in their own workplaces. We need people in communities nationwide to ask businesses and public officials to commit to creating both cultural and policy change. At the same time, we need to elect lawmakers who are committed to ending workplace sexual harassment. We need industry leaders to take a hard look at their internal practices and policies and make necessary changes to ensure that their workplaces are empowering for women.
This can happen only if we assemble a broad coalition of diverse stakeholders who will advocate for lasting reform. We need businesses, lawmakers, labor leaders and employees to sit at one table, to work together to identify failings in our existing policies, and to craft and implement long-term solutions that will root out the problem. Together, we need to make absolutely clear that workplace sexual harassment should not be tolerated by any political party or in any industry.
Ally Coll Steele is a former Capitol Hill staffer in both the House and the Senate and co-founder and president of the Purple Campaign.
This article first appeared in the Washington Post.
Disclaimer:"The views in the article are of the author and do not represent the views of the Invisible Lawyer"