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The 500 Lawyer Limelight: Adam Klein

Law Dragon Inc—Xenia Kobylarz

As head of Outten & Golden’s employment class action practice, 2012 Lawdragon 500 member Adam Klein has successfully challenged employment practices at some of the largest companies in the world, including Wal-Mart, IBM and Verizon. These days, the 1990 graduate of Hofstra Law has set his sights on the financial services industry, where he said there are “massive differences in pay between men and women and whites and minorities.” Klein is co-lead plaintiffs’ counsel in lawsuits against Goldman Sachs and Bank of America/Merrill Lynch.

He’s also litigated nationwide, class action discrimination lawsuits against Smith Barney and Morgan Stanley and went after MetLife with a “glass ceiling” gender discrimination class action.

Currently, he’s busy litigating a potentially mammoth employment class action against the federal Census Bureau, challenging the agency’s use of arrest and criminal history records as a screen for employment.

Lawdragon: You have an undergraduate degree from Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Is this the reason why you have focused on employment class action litigation?

Adam Klein: Historically, the ILR School's primary focus was on traditional labor interests both from the union and management perspectives. In the mid-1980’s, the ILR School didn’t consider individual worker rights to be part of that mandate, largely because statutory rights for individual workers were extremely limited. Within a year of graduating from law school, however, three major civil-rights statutes were enacted into law that radically changed the U.S. workplace – the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and Family and Medical Leave Act of 1992.  In combination, these three new employee-rights statutes led to the creation of a plaintiff-side employment bar and the advent of employment class action litigation. It was a natural fit to apply my ILR training to this new field.

LD: What do you consider the most challenging aspect of your practice right now?

AK: No question that ESI – electronically-stored information – discovery is the single biggest challenge in the legal profession today. We are literally overwhelmed with information – every email, every electronic document and database is potentially discoverable. We are now faced with artificial intelligence search capabilities and the need to understand and utilize advanced search technologies that look more like the NSA than what lawyers only 20 years ago could imagine. I tell law students that they should skip their third-year law courses and take computer programming instead. The legal profession is about five steps behind the technology.

LD: You are currently handling an employment class action suit against the federal Census Bureau. What makes this case unique from other major cases you’ve handled in the past?

AK: First, the size. The putative class is estimated to be around 400,000 people. Since the Supreme Court decision in Dukes v. Wal-Mart, courts have expressed added concern about the size of a class action in terms of its viability and manageability. The other unique aspect of this case relates to suing the federal government. In every other employee-rights class action that I’ve handled, we have considered the federal government to be supportive of our interests. For example, the United States Department of Labor recently filed a helpful amicus brief at the 2nd Circuit in a lawsuit against Gristede’s. Here, the federal government is the defendant and no other federal agency may participate in this case for any reason. 

LD: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned that has aided you in your practice?

AK: Trust your instincts, but never worry about changing your mind when faced with new information. Also, managing talent is a critical skill within a law firm. The lawyers and other employees within our firm are critically important to our success – it is an undervalued asset.

LD: Does handling massive employment class action cases make you cynical about U.S. workplace conditions? How have things changed or stayed the same in this area of law?

AK: We are making progress. I remember the days before Anita Hill and the idea that workplace harassment was unlawful. I remember growing up in a racially segregated community in Riverhead, N.Y., and not thinking twice about the plight of people who lived on the wrong side of Main Street. There are still many challenges in terms of racial and gender equality in the workplace, but we have made real progress. 

LD: Is there an industry or sector that you think still has a particularly long way to go in terms of leveling the playing field?

AK: Several. The number of racial minorities working in professional positions within the financial services industry is miserably low. We continue to see massive differences in pay between men and women and whites and minorities. I was recently told by a management-side attorney that women are paid less than men in the financial services industry – but we can’t pursue a legal remedy unless we are able to isolate a particular employment practice that is causally related to the compensation disparities. It’s an interesting dynamic. 

LD: What was your favorite subject in law school?

AK: My favorite subject was my job working as an investigator with the New York Attorney General’s office. I would periodically go undercover in a sting operation – I miss those days.

LD: Did you have a mentor when you first started out as a lawyer? If so, how did you cultivate that relationship?

AK: I’ve had a few people who mentored me as a young lawyer. My first boss, Malcolm Davis, was a positive influence. Rick Seymour was another; he was and still is indefatigable.

LD: Is there a class you wished you took in law school or you think should be offered by law schools that would have helped you launch your legal career faster or made legal practice easier during those early years?

AK: Practical experience would have been a big help in law school. The practice of law and law school are ships passing in the night; we aren’t doing a very good job matching the needs of the legal profession with the skills taught at American law schools.

LD: What do you do to unwind?

AK: I’ve been watching a lot of high school wrestling these days. My son just took third in Sectionals and is aiming his sights on a New York State title next year.