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She was harassed at a tech conference. Now other women are sharing #MeToo moments

Many women, as well as some men, took to social media to share tales of sexual harassment and assault during glitzy legal tech events.
Luke Chan
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Getty Images
Many women, as well as some men, took to social media to share tales of sexual harassment and assault during glitzy legal tech events.

Stefanie Bier was looking forward to catching up with friends working in legal technology when she headed to dinner near the glitzy Legalweek conference in New York City in late January. But by the end of the night, her group was reporting an alarming incident that sent shock waves through their industry.

Bier, 37, is director of security platform experience at Microsoft and has worked in legal tech for her entire professional career. She is a veteran attendee of such conferences.

This year, Bier and a small group of about 10, including two brothers who work in legal tech, Rachi Messing, 47, and Shimmy Messing, 42, grabbed dinner together on Jan. 31, during the weeklong conference. Then they hit up a bar called The Three Monkeys, not far from the Hilton conference hotel in Midtown Manhattan.

It was there that, as Bier's friend Rachi described it, "Everything was kind of going like normal. And then it wasn't."

Bier was standing at the bar when she was suddenly faced with a man who, she said, seemed very drunk — and intent on spending time with her.

"No, I'm not interested," Bier said she told the man repeatedly, as he ignored her replies.

Looking to help Bier, Shimmy stepped in and told the man, later identified as Robert Cruz, 52, that he should leave her alone.

At the time, Cruz was working for Reveal, an electronic discovery company. Reveal confirmed to NPR that Cruz was an employee at the company but "was not invited by Reveal to attend Legalweek (not a badged attendee)" nor was Cruz "present at any Legalweek-sanctioned event."

Cruz allegedly took out a knife from his pocket, held it to Shimmy's throat and threatened him, Shimmy said. He said he was able to shove Cruz's arm down, get out of the way and get a bartender's attention.

The bar's staff called police, and Cruz was arrested. An officer found a knife in Cruz's jacket pocket, according to police.

Since the conference ended in early February, many women have taken to social media, detailing precarious and threatening situations they were forced to navigate in between the conference's speeches, vendor events, receptions and private parties. Their consensus is that the problems extend far beyond Legalweek. Fed up with what they see as their industry's tolerance of men's transgressions and predatory behavior, women are telling their stories in person, in group chats and on LinkedIn — and calling for change.

Rachi Messing says this still photo from security footage, provided by Messing, shows the incident in which Robert Cruz (in dark clothing) allegedly threatened his brother, Shimmy Messing, with a knife.
/ Rachi Messing
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Rachi Messing
Rachi Messing says this still photo from security footage, provided by Messing, shows the incident in which Robert Cruz (in dark clothing) allegedly threatened his brother, Shimmy Messing, with a knife.

In the hour after the harrowing incident, word quickly spread to other conference-goers, who shared similar, if less dire, stories.

"In that time, probably half a dozen of our colleagues came over" to say they had their own stories to tell, Rachi told NPR.

"'Hey, we heard that something happened,'" Rachi recalled them saying. "'Let me tell you what happened this week.'"

Bier said she and her colleagues dealt with their fair share of harassment in years past. "We had never talked about it until this event took place," Bier said.

ALM, the media and research company that organizes Legalweek,issued a statementsaying it had "been made aware of reports of highly inappropriate behavior including harassment and assault" during the week of the event. The statement said ALM wanted to "vehemently condemn all such action and reiterate our strong position that any such behavior has zero place in any setting."

Jennifer Turney, ALM's vice president and global event director, told NPR in a phone interview, "To the best of my knowledge, nothing was reported to show management, which would be myself, or to Hilton security about any untoward incidents that happened at the conference venue itself. We have heard about issues of harassment, which ALM strongly condemns."

She said the allegations that the company has heard about were regarding inappropriate behavior happening at "outside activities" and not at specific Legalweek-sponsored events.

ALM has a "zero tolerance" policy when it comes to harassment and assault at any of its events and conferences, Turney said.

"Any incident reported to the conference management or the venue security, in this case the Hilton, will be investigated, and immediate action will be taken to make sure that all attendees are safe."

From left to right: Shimmy Messing, Rachi Messing and Stefanie Bier during the Legalweek conference this year.
/ Rachi Messing
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Rachi Messing
From left to right: Shimmy Messing, Rachi Messing and Stefanie Bier during the Legalweek conference this year.

Reveal said after the events of Jan. 31, Cruz was "terminated within hours of the company becoming aware and investigating the behavior, which was contrary to our company policies and expectations."

Additionally, a spokeswoman for Reveal said: "We understand that the individual appeared at a nearby venue, as a local, on the invitation of a former colleague who is completely unassociated with Reveal. Moreover, he was not with Reveal employees at the venue and was present completely of his own accord."

Cruz now faces misdemeanor charges of harassment, menacing and criminal possession of a weapon, according to a criminal court complaint from the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. Cruz has pleaded not guilty in this case.

Johnathan Cartelli, an attorney for Cruz, issued a statement on behalf of his client.

"While we cannot comment on the specifics as to what occurred that evening, we ask that all involved delay judgment until all the facts are known. For years Mr. Cruz has struggled with the effects of alcoholism," the statement reads. "Mr. Cruz has voluntarily enrolled himself in intensive rehabilitative treatment to address this disease. We are aware of allegations of widespread harassment and misconduct that took place at the Legalweek convention. Mr. Cruz condemns all forms of sexual harassment and mistreatment of women, and it has no place in our society."

The "Coachella" of a multibillion-dollar industry

This year's edition of Legalweek was held from Jan. 29 to Feb. 1 at the New York Hilton Midtown. It's considered one of, if not the, biggest conferences within the industry, according to lawyers and legal tech professionals who spoke to NPR for this story.

"Legalweek is the largest event for large law firms and tech firms. It's on the top of the list for businesses in tech and innovation," said Sara Lord, a veteran of the industry who has attended previous editions of the conference. It tends to be a madhouse, with activities, whirlwind drinking and presentations — and it's very expensive, she added.

"It's our South by Southwest or Coachella," Shimmy Messing said of the event's scale.

This year's conference attracted around 6,000 attendees, according to the event's website, including big-time players like judges and partners at major law firms across the United States. Even Hollywood stars make their appearance at Legalweek: Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston was one of the 2024 conference's keynote speakers.

Legalweek's conference attracted around 6,000 attendees this year. It typically brings in big-time players in the legal tech industry, like judges and partners at major law firms.
Jackyenjoyphotography / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Legalweek's conference attracted around 6,000 attendees this year. It typically brings in big-time players in the legal tech industry, like judges and partners at major law firms.

Legalweek brings together marketing and sales teams as well as legal tech experts, judges and executives from major companies to make deals, Bier said: "There's a lot of money switching hands. There's a lot of deals that happen out of Legalweek. It's exposure to the latest and greatest in technology."

Gatherings — both conference events (which can be held by sponsors or businesses in attendance for Legalweek) and casual, nonconference-related events — may involve drinking alcohol, Bier and others said. Some of the reported incidents of harassment came from these external events and reflect an industrywide problem of sexual misconduct, individuals who spoke to NPR said.

"I'm trying to think if I've ever been to any event in this space where alcohol wasn't served. And I don't think I have," Rachi Messing said.

In addition to the conference itself, the gathering features off-site events and sponsored parties at luxe locations like the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center. Those kinds of outings are important to attend, especially for individuals who are just starting their career, Lord said.

"It's expected that you will be hit on. This behavior is expected," even if it's entirely unwelcome, Lord said. "I thought we had gone through the work to make clear this is not acceptable. What are we doing here? It's like they've forgotten it's a professional event."

Lord has attended previous Legalweek conferences but wasn't present at this year's event. She said she heard directly from other colleagues who attended and were harassed at both Legalweek and nonconference events and generally throughout the profession. She has also been part of the community calling for changes.

In response to NPR's question on whether ALM takes any responsibility for bad behavior that transpires at parties held outside Legalweek-sanctioned events and at off-site parties, Turney said: "We condemn any instances of inappropriate behavior. And we believe that that kind of behavior has no place in any setting."

The floodgates opened

Disturbed by the encounter with Cruz, Shimmy Messing took to LinkedIn and shared the alleged details of the incident in two separate posts that spawned more people to come forward and share harassment and assault allegations.

"I quickly started to understand that this was not an isolated incident," he wrote. "While this was an extreme example of an escalation redirected towards me, there was a broader issue and that's where the focus needed to be."

Citing the large number of people coming forward after the incident, Bier said, "It made a lot of us reflect on situations that we had kind of brushed off in the past."

"The incident being so extreme did open women and men up to being comfortable to actually say something," Bier said. "It had very similar vibes to the #MeToo movement. People were finally speaking up, and it was amazing to see. You have some of the strongest legal technology and legal minds in the world, all being impacted by this."

Shimmy Messing's sharing of the alleged details of the incident spawned more people to come forward and share harassment and assault allegations on group chats and LinkedIn.
Basak Gurbuz Derman / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Shimmy Messing's sharing of the alleged details of the incident spawned more people to come forward and share harassment and assault allegations on group chats and LinkedIn.

Deeanna Fleener, a vice president at Deloitte, also shared a litany of harassment stories in a LinkedIn post that sparked widespread interest — and that prompted a flood of responses from women who said the accounts were neither rare nor limited to the conference in New York.

"In a group of 29 women," Fleener wrote, "20 had personal stories of inappropriate behavior at a conference."

Here's a sampling of stories Fleener shared:

"'Last night, I was propositioned in the most graphic way I've ever heard. When I turned him down, he tried to convince me to leave with him by telling me his pregnant wife was on bedrest and I was doing her a favor.'"

"'A leader at a firm showed me a video of 2 girls under 20 in his bedroom naked and and [sic] invited me and the other woman I was with to join him.'"

Another female executive, Samantha Mather, wrote about the trials of more than 15 years in legal tech, from being physically accosted at a company event to countless inappropriate comments and having to avoid one-on-one meetings with some men in her industry.

When she recruited two trusted male colleagues to stay close to her as allies, Mather said, some men pestered her anyway — or asked about her relationship with the pair.

"You literally cannot win," she wrote on LinkedIn.

Legal tech is booming, with billions at stake

Legal technology centers on services promising to make attorneys and law firms more efficient. The stakes can be particularly lucrative when big multinational law firms and corporate legal departments are involved. The field includes everything from document management to artificial intelligence tools.

The industry is often known simply as legal tech. Its global market size was recently estimated at $23.45 billion, according to Grand View Research, and it's expected to grow rapidly over the next decade.

But as of now, the industry itself is still fairly small.

"It is a very niche industry where people become more comfortable with one another. So year after year, you're seeing the same people over and over again," Bier said. "Everybody knows one another."

In Bier's view, that familiarity seems to lend itself to some people feeling more brazen to act inappropriately than they otherwise would.

Calls for change

As the conversation has picked up steam online, many industry insiders, including Fleener, the Messings, Bier and Lord, have proposed making several changes to the conference and beyond to prevent harassment from continuing at Legalweek and the industry at large.

That includes limiting alcohol at the many events held during conferences and other events, as well as a beefed-up security presence at these parties, they all separately suggested.

Bier and Shimmy and Rachi Messing said they were disappointed in the response from ALM, which to them seemed dismissive.

Turney, with ALM, declined to comment on this criticism.

"The organizations that attend this conference do have a vested interest in protecting their people," Bier said. She said she felt fully supported by her employer, Microsoft, which responded with care and urgency as soon as it heard what happened to her. Not everyone gets to work for such an employer that would respond so well, and those employers need to do more, she said.

"If you are signing up for this conference, you are signing up for limiting drinking, no more open bars. And if you're going to have events, then there needs to be additional security in place," she suggested.

Women in eDiscovery, a nonprofit focused on women professionals in the legal and technology industries, announced in the days following the conference that it is working on an initiative "to increase awareness, promote education, and provide protection at events, conferences, and workplaces."

There has also been a newcampaign called the SPLASH (for "service providers leading against sexual harassment") Pledge, created in the immediate aftermath of Legalweek, urging various companies to adopt the promise to address behavior at conferences.

ALM says it has made some changes too.

"This is an important moment in the industry, and so we certainly want to be part of positive meaningful change," Turney said. ALM added its already existing harassment policy to attendee registration so that every conference attendee (including speakers, sponsors, exhibitors and others) must affirm that code during the registration process. The company has also revised sponsor and exhibitor terms and conditions so that they "more strongly state our anti-harassment stance," Turney said.

ALM also plans to create an app that would allow anyone to easily and anonymously report any instances of harassment so that those incidents could be investigated, she said.

Bier said she's hopeful that things will change — because they have to: "Until we change the culture, it's going to continue to happen," she said.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jaclyn Diaz
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.