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Claiming Discrimination, Lawyer Sues Own Firm

A former associate in the New York office of one of the world’s largest law firms has sued his old employer, claiming he was harassed, and ultimately fired, for observing the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.

Norman David Schoenfeld filed a complaint in federal court last month against Allen & Overy, a London-based firm that, according to the publications The Lawyer and The American Lawyer, has the seventh-largest revenue of any law firm in the world. Schoenfeld claims that his former boss, Mark Wojciechowski, repeatedly abused and harassed him about taking days off for religious observance and demanded that he work on Jewish holidays. Schoenfeld claims that after he complained to a managing partner about the harassment, he was promptly fired.

In his complaint, Schoenfeld charges that “[a]lthough Wojeie-chowski [sic] was aware of and purported to agree to an accommodation for this religious observance, plaintiff encountered resistance and discrimination from the beginning of his employment at the Firm because of his religion. Indeed, on the first Saturday morning plaintiff worked at the Firm, and subsequently on other occasions, Wojeiechowski [sic] wrote electronic mail on Saturday morning demanding plaintiff respond immediately.”

Ian Shrank, a co-managing partner at Allen & Overy, denied that the firm had discriminated against Schoenfeld. “We think there is just no case here at all, and we’re actually quite surprised that it turned into a lawsuit,” he told the Forward. “The termination was based solely on the performance of Norman. We hate to talk about that publicly, but he’s forced that on us.”

Anne Vladeck, who recently represented Anucha Browne Sanders in her successful and highly publicized lawsuit against New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas, is representing Schoenfeld. (Vladeck’s law firm, Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard, is the general counsel for the Forward Association, which owns this newspaper.) Vladeck told the Forward that Schoenfeld would not comment, on advice of counsel, and that she had no comment beyond what was stated in the complaint.

The lawsuit presents a clash between two mainstays of life in large corporate legal firms — long hours and Jewish lawyers. The New York offices of such firms as Allen & Overy are famously well populated by Jews; both Shrank and Michael Feldberg, the other co-managing partner of Allen & Overy’s New York office, are Jewish, as are a substantial number of the office’s 160-plus lawyers, including several who are Sabbath observant. Like many of the largest firms, however, Allen & Overy demands long hours, commonly extending the workweek into the weekends.

Schoenfeld worked at Allen & Overy’s New York office for just two months, having been recruited from another firm by Wojciechowski. According to Schoenfeld’s account, his work was adequate but his practice of taking off for the Sabbath, and for the spate of Jewish holidays in September and October, caused his boss to complain, curse and ultimately reduce Schoenfeld’s responsibility.

The upshot, Schoenfeld claims, was a meeting with Shrank in October. Shrank raised complaints about Schoenfeld’s work, and Schoenfeld complained that he was the subject of religious discrimination. Five days later, Shrank fired Schoenfeld.

Shrank said that Allen & Overy has strong policies protecting employees from discrimination. The problem, he said, was Schoenfeld’s performance, and also the employee’s failure to disclose in his employment history a 32-day stint at a different New York law firm.

The complaint doesn’t specify damages, but it did say that “the matter in controversy exceeds the sum of $75,000.”

Erwin Dweck, an observant Jew who is currently an associate at Allen & Overy, said that he has never had any problem with Sabbath observance during his two years at the firm.

“It’s been nothing but wonderful,” he told the Forward. “They’re very accommodating; they’re very understanding. They make all sorts of arrangements, whether it’s travel or food.”

Dweck said that when he had to travel abroad on business, Allen & Overy paid for extra days, provided him with more expensive plane tickets to make sure he didn’t have to travel on the Sabbath and made sure to provide kosher food. Though he wasn’t familiar with Schoenfeld’s suit, Dweck said that he knew several other Sabbath-observant lawyers who likewise had had positive experiences.

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