As a firm, Sullivan may be even more hard-core than most. “It’s not a very nice place,” says one lawyer who left, “and that’s the leadership of the firm, from the top down. They’ve turned a blind eye to it for years.” Says another, “Many partners think they’re gods, and they think the associates are worthless shit.” The attitude has led, some say, to unusually low associate morale: In the past few years, the attrition rate for Sullivan’s associates has been higher than the national average for large firms.
None of this excuses Krautheimer’s alleged comment, but it does provide context: It’s possible that the partner didn’t know Charney was gay—that his “bend over” remark was just another way of making Charney feel subservient, of belittling a young hotshot. But to Charney, the incident went to the heart of everything he feared about being a gay man at a corporate law firm. He’d only just come out of the closet, when he was 25 years old, and though plenty of people at the firm were openly gay, including eleven partners (three of them in the M&A group), the question of how to be a gay man and a corporate lawyer at the same time was something Charney still hadn’t entirely worked out. He went into his office, closed the door, and cried. “I was upset, confused, hurt, frightened for the consequences to my career,” he says.
Charney was still trying to figure out what to do the next day when, he says, Krautheimer performed something of an encore. According to Charney, the partner handed him another document and said, “I just took a shit while reading this, and some might still be on there for you.”
Though neither party knew it at the time, these comments would set off a chain reaction over the next year and a half that would lead Charney to file a $15 million anti-discrimination lawsuit and Sullivan & Cromwell to fire back with charges that Charney leaked confidential documents and tried to squeeze the firm for $5 million. The case has captivated the legal world, both for its juicy portrayal of the harsh life of underlings at a stodgy firm (the offhanded bigotry, the boardroom conspiracies, the intimidation, the retaliation, the betrayal) and for its complicated protagonist, who comes off alternately as a noble civil-rights crusader and a paranoid kid with a persecution complex. Is Charney out for justice or a quick payday? Is he Anita Hill or Paula Jones?
When he opens the door to his apartment, Aaron Charney is without shoes, his black Gold Toe socks exposed. It is a Thursday afternoon, two days after he filed his lawsuit, had his BlackBerry disconnected, and was placed on paid leave—and two weeks before he would be served with a countersuit and fired. Now 28, he looks younger, thin in a purple fitted dress shirt, a Rolex on his left wrist. His underdecorated one-bedroom in midtown has a view of the Statue of Liberty.
In conversation, he’s friendly but guarded, especially when it comes to talking about his personal life. He says he’d never had a gay experience until he was 25—“I wouldn’t call it a relationship,” he says. He wanted all his ducks in a row—the B.A., the J.D., the secure career track—before reckoning with that part of his identity. “You come to a point where you realize that issues are no longer malleable, and you know who you are, and you make a decision,” he says. “You have to really know yourself before you make a decision like that. Because you don’t want to regret it later.”
Long before he knew he was gay, Charney knew he wanted to be a lawyer. The only son of an owner of a small chain of men’s clothing stores in the Syracuse area, he grew up in an upper-middle-class suburb; his teachers remember a hard worker who loved debate and research and writing. At Brown, friends say, he set himself apart from the pack by coming out not as gay but as proudly, passionately conservative. Unlike many secular Jews, he was unequivocally pro-Israel. He had a libertarian streak, urging limited government and no minimum-wage increases. Though Charney was never exactly an activist, he loved to debate. “He said it helped him learn to articulate his positions,” says one friend. “He enjoyed the fight. The fact that he was a conservative while at Brown shows he’d fight the fight.”
At Columbia Law, his conservatism caused him to go “toe to toe with some of the more liberal professors,” a friend says. When he got a lousy grade in a first-year law class, his friends say, he confronted the professor, Eben Moglen, believing he’d been singled out for his conservative beliefs. “I remember he was livid,” says one friend. “He felt like he was wronged. He took it to the administration, and they told him there was no appeals process.” It would be too much to draw a direct line from Charney’s storming the law-school administration to what later happened with Sullivan & Cromwell, but there is one commonality: a sense of entitlement that Moglen says he sees in a lot of law students. “It goes beyond thinking the world’s a meritocracy,” he says, “to thinking you’re entitled to something because of your own merits.” From there, it’s a short leap to feeling wronged whenever things don’t go your way. “It can lead,” the professor says, “to a form of smugness.”