Firm Nixing Job Offer Shows "Right to Condemn" Israel Views

October 12, 2023

This article was originally published on October 12 by Bloomberg Law and features Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky.

Winston & Strawn’s reversal of a job offer for a law student who blamed Israel for deadly Hamas attacks shows the risks future lawyers take by publicly adopting controversial positions.

People have a right to express their First Amendment views even though “I am saddened and outraged by those who would defend what Hamas did,” Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of University of California Berkeley Law School, said in an email.

“I—and others—have the right to condemn those views,” Chemerinsky said. “And employers have the right to decide that they don’t want to employ individuals who express those views.”

Ryna Workman, president of New York University’s student bar association, wrote that “Israel bears full responsibility for this tremendous loss of life” after Hamas’s mass attack killed more than 1,200 people in the country, with the vast majority of them civilians, including hundreds at a music festival.

Workman lost a job offer because the comments “profoundly conflict with Winston & Strawn’s values,” the Chicago-headquartered law firm said in a statement Oct. 10. Workman, who had been a summer associate at the law firm before returning to school, did not respond to a request for comment.

Universities and law schools find themselves at the center of controversies surrounding the Hamas attack. A letter signed by over 30 Harvard University student groups casting blame on Israel—as well as the university’s initial response—prompted criticism from faculty and former university president Larry Summers.

Apollo Global Management Inc. chief executive Marc Rowan on Wednesday called on University of Pennsylvania alumni to halt donations to the school, saying he saw “sickening parallels” between events at Harvard and Penn.

In Washington, two Georgetown University Law Center groups—Law Students for Justice in Palestine and the National Lawyers Guild—released a joint letter Oct. 9 defending the Hamas action. The groups criticized Georgetown University president John J. DeGioia’s statement condemning what he called an “unprecedented terrorist” attack.

“As law students, we know that resistance under occupation is a legal right and is predicated on the violence of occupation,” the groups wrote.

Winston & Strawn’s decision to renege Workman’s job offer shows the consequences students face over their actions on social media and other forums, said Stephanie Biderman, a partner at legal recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa.

“As a lawyer, you want to support freedom of speech,” Biderman said. “But at the end of the day this is a private law firm and they can do whatever they want.”

"Hot Issues"

Law firms in hiring decisions will make “judgments as to what’s unacceptable” regarding comments about the Hamas attack on Israel, said Tom Sharbaugh, a former managing partner of operations at Morgan Lewis & Bockius. That’s a symptom of of a broader change for corporate law firms that used to try their best to evade political conflicts, he said.

“Just look at the last couple of years—you have some really hot issues,” Sharbaugh said. “There are certain things that just shock the conscience.”

A group of firms, including Morrison & Foerster and Ropes & Gray, in 2022 spoke out on the Supreme Court’s decision eliminating the federal right to abortion, vowing to cover employees’ costs to travel for abortions.

Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison and Dentons in recent days issued public statements condemning the attacks in Israel and offering support for those affected.

“We, as a community, unequivocally condemn the Hamas attack and stand in solidarity with Israel,” Paul Weiss chairman Brad Karp said in a statement issued by the firm.

Israel-Palestine Protests

The Hamas attack is not the first time rhetoric linked to the Israel-Palestine conflict has placed a law school at the center of controversy. In May, Fatima Mohammed used part of her commencement speech at the City University of New York’s law school to criticize what she described as Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.

The speech prompted condemnations from New York City’s mayor, Eric Adams, and CUNY’s board of trustees, which denounced its “hateful rhetoric.” The New York City Bar Association later defended Mohammed’s free speech rights, claiming the trustees’ statement risked “chilling” debate in the legal community. Mohammed also stood by her remarks.

In 2022, UC Berkeley Law School professors signed an open letter denouncing student groups that adopted a bylaw banning speakers with Zionist beliefs.

At New York University, law school dean Troy A. Mckenzie on Wednesday issued a statement “unequivocally” denouncing the Hamas attacks. “Any statement that does not recognize this brutality does not reflect the values of NYU Law,” he said.

Summers said he was revolted by the letter university student groups released on the Hamas attack. But in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, he implored “everybody to take a deep breath.”

“Some student group leaders said they had not known anything about the contents of the letter when they signed onto it. In some case those approving did not understand exactly what they were approving,” Summers said. “Probably some were naive and foolish. This is not a time where it is constructive to vilify individuals and I am sorry that is happening.”

Bloomberg Law