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DLA Piper harassment debacle deepens with email release

Just after Vanina Guerrero joined one of the world’s biggest law firms, she received a late-night email from the star partner who ran her new team at DLA Piper.

“You are helping me reach people I couldn’t before,” Louis Lehot, who helped lead her Silicon Valley office, wrote. Guerrero told him he was “vibrating even higher than before.” According to copies of correspondence Lehot shared with Bloomberg, he wrote her back that week: “Feel the vibrations? The whole organization is working for you.”

One year later, both partners are gone from the firm, though exactly what happened between them is at the heart of an escalating fight that’s provided a vivid picture of a calamitous relationship between Silicon Valley lawyers at the top of their profession. Earlier this month, Guerrero accused Lehot of sexually assaulting her in Shanghai, Brazil, Chicago and Palo Alto. Soon after, DLA Piper said it was parting ways with him but hadn’t substantiated claims from Guerrero, who wasn’t cooperating.

Lehot made a mistake by becoming so close to Guerrero, he said, while denying the key part of her allegations. “I did not assault or harass Vanina Guerrero and she knows it,” he said in a statement to Bloomberg. “This isn’t victim-blaming or victim-shaming. She’s not a victim here.” He added that he deeply regrets “the pain this has caused my family, colleagues, clients and friends,” without elaborating.

DLA Piper’s investigation has found that the two were close. Lehot told an outside law firm that he gave Guerrero jewelry worth thousands of dollars, according to people with knowledge of the probe. Lehot said he propositioned her, that she rejected him and that he respected her decision.

The investigation also turned up a separate claim that Guerrero harassed another colleague, and DLA Piper put her on paid leave while looking into it. Her attorney, Jeanne Christensen, called the firm’s decision “unprecedented retaliation and the worst kind to be hurled at female sexual assault victims.”

She called Lehot’s release of emails “an accused harasser’s go-to playbook. It is a classic shame-and-blame technique that we expect reasonable persons to see right through.”

Since the #MeToo movement erupted two years ago, men have tried to cast doubt on assault claims against them by showing that their accusers were affectionate toward them before and after their encounters. Miscellaneous messages don’t necessarily show whether an assault occurred and activists say they are part of a response meant to embarrass or silence women.

Lehot shared dozens of emails to counter Guerrero’s claims by showing that the two had a long and warm connection. None of the correspondence directly addresses the alleged assault or the firm’s separate claim that she harassed another colleague.

The two had met years earlier while working together at another firm and kept in touch. In February 2018, just before Guerrero joined DLA Piper, Lehot asked her for “books to get educated on meditation and your magic.” (She practices “creative visualization,” according to a biography on a wellness website.) He also sent a list of things she had apparently told him to do, including get a “massage 2x per week,” “listen to Vanina” and “cry.” She responded by saying she adored him: “The more uplifted you are and in harmony the more successful DLA will be.”

Some emails may undercut — and others support — Guerrero’s account, which she’d sent to DLA Piper executives, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and journalists. Guerrero said she avoided traveling with Lehot after the first assaults, out of terror that he would force her to be alone with him. But she asked, in the emails, to book seats next to him on at least three flights and to stay in the same hotel.

She also helped plan a trip for them this March to Machu Picchu, asking which of his credit cards to use and seeking a Michelin-starred restaurant for dinner for two.

The emails show that the two traveled together when and where she’d claimed. In her account of a visit to Shanghai, Guerrero said Lehot told her she needed to change what she wore and bought her a dress without asking. In one of the messages, she asked him how to tailor “my dress.”

She’d also alleged he pressured her to take the California bar exam and failed it because she had no time to study. “I know it’s frustrating to have to wait a few more months,” she said in one email, “but to be honest I need the time to transition and take the bar.”

This month, DLA Piper told Guerrero — who also uses her husband’s last name, de Verneuil — to stay away from its office and clients. It also shut down her access to email so quickly that she didn’t have a chance to see the letter announcing her leave, her attorney said.

An invitation is still available online for lawyers to attend a game next month between the Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors at San Francisco’s Chase Center, sponsored by DLA Piper. The invitation says Guerrero and a colleague will share “M&A war stories.”

Her fight with the firm may not stay public. The firm wants to send Guerrero behind the closed doors of the private arbitration system, though she asked her bosses to release her from an earlier agreement to go there so she can take Lehot to court.

Lehot, a specialist in venture capital and private equity, had clients including SoftBank Group’s Vision Fund, Slack Technologies and Goldman Sachs. He said he hopes to be practicing law again by the new year.