Along the way to becoming one of the city's most influential figures, politically wired attorney Willie Shepherd bullied, belittled, lied, and then some. And his fellow partners at Kamlet Shepherd & Reichert failed to stop him until two junior attorneys took a stand.
II. HAPPY BIRTHDAY
Lukas Staks is a bespectacled, serious-minded young attorney from Utah. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Utah and finished in the top 10 percent of his class at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law. Staks is not the type of guy inclined to think he's having an out-of-body experience. But on the morning of February 27, 2009—six months after the convention left town—as the associate attorney stood in Willie Shepherd's office, it occurred to Staks that this must be what people meant when they talked about such a phenomenon. Physically, Staks was in Shepherd's expansive corner office, with its custom wood walls, flat-panel TV, bar, and bank of windows that provided a breathtaking view of downtown. He was there with the other associate in the firm's environmental division; Willie's assistant, Stephanie Wilson; and the boss himself. It was, as Staks had just been reminded, Shepherd's birthday, and like the rest of his colleagues the associate was now eating a slice of the birthday cake Wilson had baked and making the obligatory chitchat. Mentally, though, he was in another place: All he could think about was what his colleague, Rebecca Almon, was doing at that very moment elsewhere in the KSR offices.
Almon was a non-equity partner. She reported directly to Shepherd, oversaw the environmental associates, and served as a liaison for the group's clients. A mother of three little girls, she had managed to become one of KSR's top billers. While Staks was milling about Shepherd's birthday celebration, Almon was delivering a scathing memo about Shepherd to two of the firm's equity partners. Staks and Almon had been up late into the night the previous two evenings preparing the document, bolstering each other's resolve, reading the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct, telling each other it had to be done. The memo read like a multicharge indictment. Upon delivering the document, Almon would quit, effective immediately.
Staks heard someone in Shepherd's office wish him a "Happy Birthday," and Shepherd said something about not feeling so happy. Shepherd's melancholy stunned Staks. No matter what he and Almon had conveyed to senior partners in the previous months about Shepherd's conduct, it didn't seem to matter. Shepherd seemed gleefully oblivious. If anything, he'd become more unethical, more egomaniacal, and more volatile, capriciously dismissing three widely respected staffers. Only days earlier, when legal administrative assistant Robin Bissantz informed Shepherd she did not have time to take notes in a meeting for him because, as she told him, she was working on a time-sensitive motion for another partner, Shepherd had canned her within the hour. He personally escorted Bissantz to the human resources administrator's office. Bissantz told Shepherd what many KSR employees were aching to say: "You have a big-ass ego. If you don't stop treating this company like your own personal piggy bank, you're going run this place into the ground."
The tepid birthday celebration dissipated. Shepherd remained in his office, and the group adjourned to the interior of the 16th floor. Staks sensed a strange mood in the air. The associate heard the elevator doors opening and closing. It occurred to Staks that the distinct ping-pinging of the elevators was happening with a feverish frequency. Within a few minutes, Staks watched Shepherd emerge from his office with a look of concern and ask the receptionist to page Kamlet. Mr. Kamlet was not responding. Try Reichert, Staks heard Shepherd say. Mr. Reichert was not responding either. He had the receptionist try them again, and, again, nothing. Staks saw the look on Shepherd's face morph into what appeared to be angst. The strange mood, the ping-pinging of the elevators, the unanswered calls—Staks surmised that Almon had done as the two of them had planned, and the senior partners were leaving the building to decide what, if anything, to do about Shepherd.
Within the hour Staks' cell phone rang. He raced into an empty conference room and answered. During the previous week, as he and Almon had been crafting their memo, the two attorneys had been interviewing with a handful of Denver firms. The day before, Almon had accepted an offer from Ireland Stapleton Pryor & Pascoe, and she'd told Staks that it looked like the firm would also hire him. The call confirmed that. Without discussing salary, he accepted. On that Friday morning, the only question the 29-year-old associate asked was when he could start.
Staks had cleared his casework in anticipation of this very moment, though he was never quite sure it would arrive. KSR's human resources director was not in her office, and he couldn't find a senior partner. Staks walked the halls until he finally found an attorney. Staks informed the attorney that he was quitting. Never again, he thought, would he have to abide a lawyer who engaged in the activities he and Almon had witnessed. While Staks phoned his wife and shared the news, Kamlet and Reichert, along with most of KSR's top partners, gathered off-site and finally summoned Shepherd.