Tuesday, May 08, 2007

What do you know? Actions do have consequences.

Even when those actions are inaction when asked to take action on an issue.

I am talking about the story about how a lawfirm withdrew their job offer to a 3rd year law student, who used to moderate a forum, supposedly for debating law related issues, but in reality a free-for-all nest of bigots and misogynists.

The story was covered by the WSJ blog, and was picked up by several other blogs.

To sum the story up briefly, Anthony Ciolli was one of the two executives behind the forum AutoAdmit, the self-billed "most prestigious law school admissions discussion board in the world". While there undoubfully happened real discussion related to law school admissions, the discussion board was more well-known for it's racist content and outright misogyny (Brian Leiter covers that here). Something which the Washington Post wrote about in this march 7th article.

Coilli, and the other person running the board, Cohen, defended the language and behaviour by saying that they believed in free speech. The same reason was given for not moderating comments that published the personal information of female law students, or that linked to pictures that had been used in breach of copyright.
At the same time, the duo of moderators actually did delete posts that posted personal information (such as the identity) of regular posters to the discussion board, or which their friends asked them to delete. A clear double standard regarding their respect of absolute free speech.

Back when the Washington Post article was covered by Jill (who has been frequently targetted by the discussion board) , I wrote this comment:

If there is any justice, there will be absolutely no jobs for Anthony Ciolli and Jarret Cohen when they have finished their studies. Their current and past behaviour shows them completely wrong for dealing with other people, as lawyers obviously have to do. And they obviously have a very limited understanding of the law.

At the time I didn't realize that Jarret Cohen wasn't a law student, but rather self-employed, so my comments didn't apply to him. Ciolli on the other hand is a law student, and it turns out that I'm not alone in feeling that way. He had a job offer from the law firm Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge, who asked him to explain himself.

On April 11, just over a month after the WaPo story ran, DeWitt sent a letter to Ciolli stating that the firm had recently learned of the controversy involving AutoAdmit, in particular its “off-topic” message board, and that “the information we now have raises serious concerns about your joining our firm.”

DeWitt wrote that the content of the messages on the board are “antithetical” to the values of the firm and the “principles of collegiality and respect that members of the legal profession should observe in their dealings with other lawyers.” DeWitt pointed out that in an online letter to another blogger, Ciolli and his partner Jarret Cohen identified themselves as AutoAdmit’s administrators and defended its “free, uninhibited exchange of ideas.”

DeWitt continued: “We expect any lawyer affiliated with our firm, when presented with the kind of language exhibited on the message board, to reject it and to disavow any affiliation with it. You, instead, facilitated the expression and publication of such language. . . . ” He wrote, his resignation from the site was “too late to ameliorate our concerns.” He asked that Ciolli respond in writing.

DeWitt didn't blame Ciolli for the comments on the discussion board, but instead for not disavowing himself from them, and asked him to explain why he hadn't done so. Something Ciolli obviously didn't get.

Ciolli, in a letter dated April 16, recounted the history of AutoAdmit and his joining as education director to “develop educational content and publications” for the site, including a working paper on which law schools place the most graduates at elite law firms, well after the site was founded in 2004. He played down his ability to control content on the site. “While I was free to give input and act in an advisory manner–which I often did, with mixed results–Mr. [Jarret] Cohen always had final say over all rules and policies related to the message board,” and that Cohen “rarely granted” his requests to remove offensive material.

Ciolli added that he was “still in the process of assessing all the lessons to be learned from this incident,” including “the importance of good judgment and proceeding with caution,” values he would appreciate “to a greater extent than a typical first year associate.” He suggested deferring his start date at the firm by a year to “allow me time to develop a series of positive contributions to the legal community that would go a long way toward strengthening my reputation and allaying your concerns.”

Notice something? Nothing addresses why Ciolli didn't disavow the comments. He does say that he can learn the "importance of good judgment and proceeding with caution", yet he cannot even figure out how to address the points raised by DeWitt, nor even say that he has learned these things (note that he said "to be learned").

DeWitt was obviously not impressed by all this

In a letter dated April 20, DeWitt responded that “none of the information you provided resolves the concerns I expressed in my letter regarding your past affiliation with the site,” and that the firm “terminates the employment offered you” on August 16, 2006.

Now, this might seem harsh to some, but I haven't changed my position on this issue at all. It was the right call by the law firm.

Jill has written about the firing, and she is a much more gracious person that I am.

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