During her drive to work, Debra Katz tunes in to National Public Radio and savors its signature mix of hard news and features. Then she parks her car, switches off the radio and sues the network.
In fact, Katz and her partner, Lynne Bernabei, have turned lawsuits against NPR into a firm specialty and a perpetual migraine for the staple of the FM dial. Since 1988, the law offices of Bernabei & Katz have represented roughly 15 NPR employees in a variety of race and sex discrimination matters and lawsuits, most alleging that bosses passed over an African American or female employee to promote someone white, male or both.
"I do listen," said Katz of the network. "It's harder to listen now that folks on the air have positions that my clients should have had, but I do listen."
B&K is in many respects the anti-Washington legal operation. For starters, it's headed by two women, a rarity in the still-male-dominated profession. It fights against large corporations rather than for them. It's based in a three-story town house near Dupont Circle rather than an office building. And it brawls with little regard for the standard rules of civility that govern most legal confrontations, giving Bernabei and Katz reputations in the corporate legal world as two of the most annoying lawyers in Washington.
"I don't put a high premium on getting along with opposing counsel," she said, with a chuckle.
All the NPR suits have been settled privately and confidentially, so there's no telling how successful the firm has been in winning cash for its clients. Still, the firm's longevity -- it's now 12 years old and has a total of seven attorneys -- suggests that it has enjoyed at least some financial windfalls from NPR-related suits as well as others.
NPR is not B&K's only target of choice. It has also repeatedly filed against Georgetown University and the Tennessee Valley Authority and has gone after United Press International, Howard University, the University of Maryland and the Central Intelligence Agency. Along the way it has tripped up some heavy-hitting D.C. firms; B&K says it has bested Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker and uber-litigators Williams & Connolly in out-of-court settlements.
Style-wise, B&K tends to be aggressive -- really aggressive. By Katz's own admission, when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, politesse isn't high on the firm's agenda, and if opponents don't feel the love when the bullets fly, that's tough.
Opponents, not surprisingly, have found B&K's tactics borderline rude, and in at least one case, borderline unethical. Lawyers for Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin, which represents NPR, suggested in a court filing that B&K stepped over the bounds when it allegedly "shopped" for a sympathetic judge in a still-pending NPR case. B&K filed, withdrew, then refiled a complaint, according to Miller Cassidy, without disclosing that it had done so, violating a rule of procedure.
Katz said the firm wasn't judge-shopping but was merely worried that the judge assigned to the case had an overloaded docket. And she said that when the firm refiled the case it was unaware that a rule required B&K to disclose to the court that it had filed the suit once before.
Opposing lawyers also say Bernabei and Katz pitch themselves as crusaders for justice but are actually just legal opportunists. The firm's shtick, these opponents contend, is assisting people with stalled NPR careers in frivolously shouting racism and suing for damages.
In a statement released to Hearsay last week, NPR officials said, "None of the lawsuits filed against NPR by Bernabei & Katz has resulted in a court finding that NPR has been in violation of any laws. NPR remains in compliance with all relevant federal and state anti-discrimination employment laws."
Whatever the merits of their suits, there's little question that B&K has almost single-handedly created a genuine public relations problem for NPR. The firm contends that the network's politics might be warm, fuzzy and left-leaning but that its personnel decisions are stuck in a bygone era, when blacks and women were marginalized and underpaid compared with their white colleagues.
Katz said all of the firm's allegations are backed up by internal NPR studies, which the firm claims have found pay disparities and a newsroom filled with minorities and women convinced that only white males can get within grasping distance of the ladder's top rungs.
A few of the NPR-related cases, Katz said, have been resolved after the firm sent the network a menacing letter. Other times the firm files a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which jump-starts negotiations. If that fails, the duo litigates. Right now, the firm has a pair of cases winding through the courts, one on behalf of reporter Sunni Khalid and another on behalf of executive Sandra Rattley-Lewis. Meanwhile, it has two active complaints against NPR with the EEOC.
Last week, the partners of Rogers & Wells, a New York firm with a booming Washington office, finally got an opportunity to vote on whether to merge with British mega-firm Clifford Chance. The final tally is being kept a secret, but on Saturday the firm made public the result: The deal was approved. Clifford Chance Rogers & Wells, as the firm will be known, will have roughly 2,400 lawyers, making it one of the largest firms in the world and the first truly transatlantic legal venture.
At Sixes and Sevens
In the latest sign that Northern Virginia is home to a legal gold rush, Piper & Marbury last week snared William Chambers, the general counsel of Celerity Systems Inc., a high-tech company in Tennessee. Chambers joins 35 other lawyers in Piper's ever-expanding venture capital practice.
"This will make it six lawyers in our Reston office," said Ned Martin, leader of the firm's Washington technology practice. "Though by the time he actually gets there, it will probably be seven."
Zuckerman, Spaeder, Goldstein, Taylor & Kolker lost a longtime partner last week when Stephen H. Glickman left the firm to join the D.C. Court of Appeals. Glickman joined Zuckerman in 1980 and has handled both criminal defense and civil litigation during his career. He and Eric Washington, formerly of D.C. Superior Court, were sworn in last week and presented with their commissions from President Clinton by Charles F.C. Ruff of the White House counsel's office.
Reached at his new chambers last week, Glickman seemed to already have mastered the judicial art of deflecting attention and keeping public comments as bland as possible. "I'm very honored to be entrusted with this responsibility," he said.
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CAPTION: Debra Katz, left, and Lynne Bernabei aren't known for sparing opponents' feelings during battle.