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Closing arguments in Kleiner Perkins sexism trial: Two wildly different views

March 25, 2015, 12:57 AM UTC
Ellen Pao, Therese Lawless
Ellen Pao, center, leaves the Civic Center Courthouse along with her attorney, Therese Lawless, left, during a lunch break in her trial Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015, in San Francisco. A jury heard opening arguments Tuesday in a multi-million dollar sexual harassment lawsuit filed by the current interim chief of the news and social media site Reddit against a prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firm. Pau is seeking $16 milion in her suit against Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers, alleging she was sexually harassed by male officials. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Photograph by Eric Risberg — AP

Attorneys in the sexism case against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins painted vastly different pictures of the prestigious investment partnership in their closing arguments Tuesday.

Pao’s lawyer portrayed his client as victim of sexist partners, retaliation and a web of lies.

“Kleiner Perkins discriminated against Ellen Pao because she’s a woman,” Alan Exelrod, Pao’s attorney, told the jury. “Kleiner Perkins, however powerful or successful it may be, cannot be above the law.”

Lynne Hermle, Kleiner Perkins’ attorney, responded with an impassioned defense of the firm, saying that it gave Pao more opportunities than others in similar positions at the firm. Moreover, the attorney accused Pao of inventing all the slights against her as a way to make money.

“Ellen Pao’s version of these events turned up when, and only when she hired Brendan Dolan, her lawyer, and she wrote her complaint,” Hermle said.

The start of closing arguments, following four weeks of testimony, gave both sides a last chance to make their case in the high-profile trial in San Francisco Superior Court. The closing arguments are expected to end Wednesday, at which point it will be up to the six man, six woman jury to reach a verdict.

The case has cast a harsh light on the inner workings of Kleiner Perkins, an early investor in companies like Google and Genentech. Emails, performance reviews and testimony have shown a firm filled with bickering, egos and disorganization. The trial has also focused attention on the wildly skewed demographics in the venture capital industry. Although venture capitalists espouse innovation, their ranks include few women as if they are a relic of 19th century.

During his three hours of closing arguments, Exelrod, Pao’s attorney accused Kleiner Perkins of turning a blind eye to mistreatment of women and denied Pao the promotions she deserved. He started his presentation with a tinge of reticence, but then eventually found a more confident rhythm. Exelrod described Pao’s qualifications and operating experience that he said exceeded that of male partners who were hired around the same time. He also described her accomplishments at the firm, year by year, and what he called her sharp investment instincts including early meetings with Twitter, which Kleiner Perkins initially passed on but invested in a few years later.

Although Pao’s claims of discrimination are against Kleiner as a whole, Exelrod singled out senior partners Matt Murphy and Ted Schlein in particular for helping to push Pao from the firm.

“He wanted her gone because of her gender,” Exelrod said in reference to Schlein’s testimony earlier in the trial in which he said she was unable to see the grey areas inherent in venture capital. “In a moment of revelation, we heard what Mr. Schlein really thought. Ted Schlein said it was Ellen Pao’s genetic makeup that prevented her from being a good venture capitalist.”

Exelrod also accused Schlein of fabricating “fraudulent” performance reviews about Pao to derail her Pao’s career at Kleiner. The attorney compared summaries of comments left by partners about Pao with those of male partners. Both focused on personality traits and whether they aligned with the firm’s expectations for successful investors. But when it came to promotions, only Pao and a fellow female partner seemed to be penalized for negative feedback.

“Are there different standards for men and women? Exelrod said. “The comments are similar, the result is different.”

Exelrod also called out the testimony of Stephen Hirshfeld, the workplace investigator Kleiner hired in early 2012 following a harassment complaint from a second female partner, Trae Vassallo, and whose investigation Pao has called biased. Exelrod warned the jurors against taking Hirschfeld’s conclusions too seriously as they were presented with far more evidence during this trial than he had.

“He’s there to defend companies. He’s not there to represent employees,” Exelrod said.

Kleiner Perkins attorney rebutted Pao’s allegations. Speaking in a loud, steady, and confident voice, Hermle reminded the jury that while Pao testified that she wanted to change Kleiner’s culture and help other women at the firm, no other female partner, include the several who testified during the trial, joined her in this lawsuit. And that was because Kleiner did not in fact mistreat women, Hermle said.

“All of the emphasis about other women, the finger-pointing, was designed to distract you from one thing only: The clear lack of evidence supporting the claims of Ellen Pao,” she said.

Hermle also countered the argument that Ellen’s weaknesses were held against her while male partners with similar challenges were promoted. She showed the jury several slides that compared and contrasted Pao’s attributes and skills with other junior partners, concluding that she was simply less qualified than them and unwilling to improve.

“Unlike these men and women, Ellen Pao would not accept that outcome — whether because of her success from 10 years in academia, she rejected criticism of her not being promoted,” Hemle said.