Revenge served ice cold: Top US law firm outs former partners’ racist, sexist emails

LOS ANGELES -- Last month, Lewis, Brisbois, Bisgaard and Smith, one of the nation’s largest law firms, was rocked by the announcement that two top partners were starting their own boutique practice and taking as many as 140 colleagues with them.

The shock inside Lewis Brisbois’ downtown Los Angeles headquarters soon gave way to anger as the recently departed partners embarked on a press campaign that portrayed their former employer as a profit-focused legal mill that ground down the aspirations of its lawyers.

“We decided we didn’t want to compromise anymore,” one of the partners, John Barber, told a reporter in May. The other, Jeff Ranen, recalled giving a rousing “Jerry Maguire speech” to convince colleagues to follow him out the door.

But over the weekend, Lewis Brisbois struck back.

In an extraordinary move, its management team directed the release of scores of emails in which Barber and Ranen used vile terms for women, Black people, Armenians, Persians, and gay men and traded in offensive stereotypes of Jews and Asians. In one fell swoop, the venerable firm managed to torpedo its new rival, destroy the defecting partners’ careers and send the legal establishment reeling.

The emails, stretching back 15 years, were head-spinning in their coarseness and vitriol. A Superior Court judge was called “Sugar Tits.” Multiple female lawyers were referred to as “c—t.” The epithets “fag” and “faggot” were deployed as all-purpose insults. An Asian job applicant was denigrated for the supposed size of his genitalia. Ranen dismissed another job candidate with, “How about someone who’s not a Jew.”

By Monday, the emails had been excerpted by the New York Post and the Forward, a Jewish newspaper, and the nascent firm Barber Ranen had collapsed.


“The last 72 hours have been the most difficult of our lives, as we have had to acknowledge and reckon with those emails,” Barber and Ranen said in a joint statement announcing their resignations. “We are ashamed of the words we wrote, and we are deeply sorry.”

Barber Ranen’s chief executive Tim Graves, a former Lewis Brisbois attorney, said in a statement that the remaining partners “will form a new firm” and asked for support “while we heal and plan our path forward.”

The roster of lawyers was stripped from the Barber Ranen website, and some had already asked for their old jobs back at Lewis Brisbois, a spokesperson said.

It was not all good news for the firm. Some saw the email release as a self-own for Lewis Brisbois, revealing a culture of bigotry thriving in some corners of the behemoth firm. Many objectionable messages were copied to co-workers, from junior associates to fellow partners.

“I just don’t understand that,” said Ann Park, a corporate litigator and president of the L.A. County Bar Assn. “It just reflects poorly on — obviously these lawyers — but also on their colleagues for not calling it out.”

Lewis Brisbois recently retained a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant to review internal practices, according to a spokesperson.

The men writing the emails were not junior employees, but influential veterans and supervisors. Barber was a member of the firm’s management committee, which governs its nearly 1,700 attorneys in 55 offices around the country, and Ranen had been the youngest person to make partner, according to his former firm biography. Both helped run its labor and employment practice, defending corporations against harassment and discrimination lawsuits.

Though the departure they instigated in early May represented about 8% of the firm’s lawyers, it came on top of an exodus earlier in the year of 30 others. Within days, the firm’s 87-year-old chair, Bob Lewis, who had founded it in 1979, stepped aside for a rejiggered management team.

Meanwhile, Barber and Ranen’s new practice was attracting positive coverage in legal news outlets. According to Lewis Brisbois, it was during this time that the firm received an anonymous complaint about the former partners. It specifically recommended the firm scrutinize the emails of both men, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Firm managers launched an investigation and “were shocked to find dozens of emails … with unacceptable, prejudiced language aimed at our colleagues, clients, attorneys from other firms, and even judges,” the firm said in a statement.

The firm’s leaders consulted ethics experts who laid out a variety of options: publish the emails on the Lewis Brisbois website; share the emails with partners at Barber and Ranen’s new firm; and file a complaint with the State Bar of California, which licenses attorneys, according to the person familiar with the discussions.

Ultimately, firm leaders chose to provide the media with a curated, partly redacted set of correspondence — a decision that was presented as transparency and which many in the legal field saw as revenge delivered ice cold.

Scott Cummings, a UCLA law professor who teaches ethics, said that there was no legal requirement that the firm make the emails public, but that it was the ethically correct thing to do because it informed prospective employees and clients of the repugnant views the men held.

“Bringing these things to light does go toward protecting the public and alerting the profession to conduct that should be stopped,” Cummings said. Even if Lewis Brisbois was motivated by vengeance, he said, the benefits to the field and the public still stood. “These things can happen simultaneously.”

Barber and Ranen practiced in an area where company email accounts are routinely mined for evidence, and racist, sexist or other bigoted messages can translate to costly settlements or verdicts.

Yet both men appeared to revel in their flagrant disregard for professionalism and decency. In 2013, Ranen told Barber that “if you want to have fun for a second,” he should “keyword search the words ‘c—’ and ‘Jew’ on your email inbox and sent box.”

“It’s like you know me,” Barber replied.


The pair injected mundane work correspondence with antisemitism. Ranen repeatedly used “Jew” as a synonym for haggling over prices: “I might be able to Jew them down to $390,” he wrote in 2016. When Ranen alerted colleagues to bagels he had brought to the office in 2014, Barber replied, “Jew c—.”

In a boasting 2012 email, Ranen told Barber, “Gypsy is my new word to describe about half of the minorities in California. Generally with an Armo, Persian or middle eastern flair.”

Over the next decade, Ranen invoked the “gypsy” moniker repeatedly to mock several attorneys, prompting one fellow colleague at Lewis Brisbois to confide in him last year, “Dirty Gypsy is my new favorite epithet.”

Sex was another frequent topic. After a friend promised a 2015 trip to Las Vegas where “debauchery level is unprecedented,” Ranen said he would get a continuance in a federal trial to attend and informed others accompanying him, “We’re going to a strip club or bringing in hookers.”

When a female lawyer asked for upgrades to the firm lactation room, Ranen forwarded it to a male colleague with speculation about her appearance after bearing two children. He then added, “She could be 200 pounds and acne scarred and after all this time I’d still f— her.”

The emails also include a seemingly gratuitous use by Barber of the n-word. After a colleague informed him that another participant in a 2013 mediation objected to the word being spoken, Barber replied, “Got it.” He then spelled out the word.

Lewis Brisbois redacted the names of many individuals who participated in the odious conversations, but the names of some maligned are visible. One is Linda Miller Savitt, an employment lawyer at a rival law firm who Ranen described as “a real c—” in a 2018 email to two other lawyers.

“It’s very disappointing to learn this about colleagues, even if they are competitors,” she told The Times. Savitt represents the newspaper in employment litigation.


Jonathan Delshad, an attorney who opposed Lewis Brisbois in a 2016 case, found out from The Times on Tuesday that Ranen had written of him to a co-worker, “Tell him that he’s the reason why most people hate Jews.”

“I make it a point not to get caught up in personal disputes,” Delshad said, adding, “I do my best to treat every human being with dignity and respect regardless of our position on a legal dispute.”

Merle Vaughn, an attorney and legal recruiter specializing in finding diverse candidates, said that the emails raised the question of what office life had been like for women and minorities.

“If they were putting that in writing, what were the quote-unquote microaggressions they had to endure to keep their job,” said Vaughn, the managing partner in the L.A. office of Major, Lindsey & Africa.

Their apparent comfort in putting offensive ideas in writing was evidence, she said, that “they believe they are above it and they won’t get caught.”

Barber seemed to recognize as much. In 2015, he told an acquaintance, “There is no ‘NSFW’ for me,” abbreviating “not safe for work.”

“My average email would get someone fired,” he added.