By: Lizzy McLellan
Cohen Seglias Partners Paul Thaler and Chris Carusone were interviewed by Lizzy McLellan for her Legal Intelligencer article, “For Law Firms, Higher Ed Probes Mean Opportunity—And Risk”, and discussed the opportunities and risks in Title IX cases.
Even for law firms with experienced internal investigations practices, Title IX and sexual assault investigations pose a particular challenge. But lawyers who specialize in the practice said the volume of such investigations is likely to increase, and law firms will find ways to standardize their approach as a result.
A lawsuit filed last week highlights the risks law firms face when conducting sensitive, highly charged investigations at colleges and universities. A former Baylor University football director, Colin Shillinglaw, sued Baylor and Pepper Hamilton for libel, alleging that he was defamed by reports that said he failed to address sexual assault allegations against football players. Shillinglaw was fired after Pepper Hamilton investigated the sexual assault reports and presented its findings to Baylor.
Pepper Hamilton is facing another lawsuit over the same investigation, brought by a former associate athletic director.
The firm also faced public backlash in 2012 when it issued a report, along with Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan, about Pennsylvania State University’s response to sexual assault allegations against Jerry Sandusky.
“There have been suits filed against any type of lawyer for just about any type of work,” said Paul Thaler, a partner at Cohen Seglias Pallas Greenhall & Furman who does internal investigations at universities. But “because Title IX matters have been in the news … the repercussions of handling those matters also are newsworthy.”
Gina Maisto Smith, who led the Baylor investigation with Leslie Gomez, noted that practices like hers are relatively new at law firms. Smith, Gomez and two other lawyers recently left Pepper Hamilton for Cozen O’Connor to start a new practice group focused on institutional response to sexual and gender-based harassment and abuse. Their departure from Pepper Hamilton was unrelated to the Baylor litigation, Smith said.
Smith said when she first came up with the idea for such a practice, in 2005, it was seen as unnecessary and had a slow start. Now, “I think that as more lawyers do it, I think we’re going to have a better framework around it,” Smith said. “But it is new and as with anything that is new you see the legal responses adjust.”
‘Deeply Emotional Issues’
Thaler noted that Title IX sexual assault matters are relatively new to internal investigations practices at law firms. And they come with a unique set of stakeholders, circumstances and obstacles.
The stakeholders include not only alleged victims and those accused of wrongdoing, said Christopher Carusone, who also does investigations with Cohen Seglias. The university has its own interests, he said, and could be at risk of losing federal funding. The surrounding university and alumni communities may become invested as well.