The law firm of Arnall Golden Gregory recently moved into the upper reaches of a new Atlanta skyscraper, and its spacious offices are decorated in beiges and creams — an elegant backdrop for the bold splashes of color in its collection of abstract paintings.
“The firm is well known for its art,” explains Henry Perlowski, an employment law partner in the firm’s Litigation Practice Group, who knows better than most of us how much appearances matter. “We have some fairly significant modern artists and a phenomenal photography collection.” He leads his visitor into a conference room with a black marble table and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the picture-perfect landscape of Atlantic Station, a trendy mixed-use development that is revitalizing Atlanta’s Midtown neighborhood.
Perlowski, in blue shirt and tie, silver-rimmed spectacles and a beige jacket with a single loose thread hanging from the bottom, looks much less intimidating than his surroundings. He is handsome without being slick, and at 37 he still has a whiff of boyishness about him. As co-chair of Arnall’s Employment Law Team and a member of its Business Litigation Team, Perlowski counsels employers on some of the juicier aspects of corporate law, such as accusations of discrimination, sexual harassment and theft of trade secrets.
“I’m not dealing with esoteric disputes like infringement of software,” Perlowski says. “I very much like handling competition disputes and discrimination cases because the facts are always interesting and everybody can relate to them. It’s real life.”
Much of Perlowski’s job involves educating employers, by writing articles and holding seminars, about ways to avoid lawsuits. Among the topics he has focused on recently is the growing risk of appearance-based discrimination cases faced by employers.
Only a handful of places in the United States have legislation prohibiting discrimination based on personal appearance, including the municipalities of San Francisco and Santa Cruz, and the District of Columbia. A rash of recent cases, however, have used federal legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of a physical disability, religion, age or sex to challenge employer attempts to regulate the appearance of workers. The Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, for instance, was recently involved in a dispute over a requirement that cocktail waitresses maintain their weight at no more than 7 percent of their base body weight. The grievance filed by the employees’ union claims the policy has a disparate impact on older waitresses. Costco faced a lawsuit filed by an employee who said the tenets of her religious organization, the Church of Body Modification, required her to violate the store’s dress code and sport body piercings and tattoos.
“This is not the blue-suit, white-shirt world of prior generations, and employers need to be cognizant of it,” Perlowski says. “Americans are a larger and more diverse people. There’s a lot more tattoos and body piercings than 10 years ago. And attorneys representing employees in these cases are becoming more sophisticated. The law is still very employer-friendly in the area of appearance. But given the social trends in the country, I think you’re going to see more of these cases.
“The amount of sexual harassment claims went up after the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill case,” Perlowski notes. “The topic was in the public domain, and better lawyers started handling these cases.”
So does this mean the corporate boardroom has to get ready for tattooed rockers like Tommy Lee? Not quite. “The concept that employees need to maintain a professional image in the workplace has largely been upheld by the judicial system,” he says. “[But] employers need to have well-defined appearance policies with clear business justification supporting the policies. And they need to consider exceptions to the policy in a reasoned fashion, without viscerally rejecting them. The visceral rejection can be a problem.”
Asked if he has ever considered getting a tattoo or a body piercing himself, Perlowski smiles. “Never,” he says. “But that could be due more to low pain tolerance.”
Perlowski was born in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he spent the first eight years of his life. An only child, Perlowski says he lived with his parents in “a lovely brick house,” shared with his mother’s parents.
Perlowski’s father, Zygfryd (pronounced Zigfried), was born in the Polish town of Biezun, about an hour from Warsaw. Right before World War II broke out, Zygfryd’s mother, who had U.S. citizenship, traveled to New York to earn money for the family, which included four children. Shortly afterward the Germans invaded Poland, and the children’s father died of pneumonia. Zygfryd, who was 11, and his siblings were split up, taken in by various families.
In 1958, Zygfryd immigrated to New York. He had a master’s degree in education in Poland, but in New York he wound up working in a luggage factory. “My father didn’t speak a lick of English when he arrived,” Perlowski says. “He learned it watching baseball and cartoons.”
Perlowski’s maternal grandfather was born in Italy. He describes his mother, Lorraine, as “a Brooklyn Italian girl who still doesn’t know how to drive.”
As an only child who was born premature, Perlowski had a protected upbringing that didn’t fully jibe with the scrappy character of Flatbush. “The neighborhood was going through a transition phase,” he says. “It was struggling.” He recalls an incident when he was 8. “Some firecrackers were shot at me and it made my mother nuts.” For Lorraine Perlowski it was the last straw and the family moved to the safer suburban confines of Staten Island, where Henry continued playing baseball and football — and kept pushing against the boundaries imposed by his overprotective mother. “My mother and I are both very stubborn,” Perlowski says. “We argued a fair bit, about me not wanting to come in for dinner, [and] not wearing my gloves when it was cold.” Such arguments, he says, helped shape his legal intellect.
His father gets much of the credit for instilling in his son a strong work ethic. “I think growing up as the son of a very educated immigrant, who had to start his life over when he came here, gives me perspective,” he says. Perlowski remembers that at Duke University, where he attended school as an undergraduate, “people were driving Mercedeses and BMWs when they were 18. I didn’t have a car until I graduated … [And] there’s something to be said for not having the easiest route to where you are today. You don’t take things for granted.”
He worked as a paralegal for a North Carolina law firm before starting law school, and came away realizing that his New York accent might be a liability when trying to get documents and information from clerks and secretaries in the South. He worked to fit in. Law school at the University of North Carolina helped — it was also where he met his wife, Maureen O’Neill, who grew up in Georgia and is now a lawyer with Paul Hastings — and he has now lost all traces of a New York accent.
The South, in fact, seems a natural fit for the genteel Perlowski. The kid who grew up protesting the need for gloves is now known as a lawyer who goes to great lengths not to take off the gloves in the courtroom.
“There is a time and place for being mean,” he says. “Drawing a line in the sand and being extremely aggressive can be the appropriate course of action — other times it’s not. A lawyer who is a pit bull in every case is not effective. Sometimes the best solution is reaching common ground that the disputing parties haven’t even thought about.”
John Monroe, a partner with Ford & Harrison in Atlanta, describes Perlowski as “aggressive but not over the top.” Monroe recently faced off against Perlowski in a dispute involving a senior executive, whom Monroe represented, and the executive’s former employer.
“There were very strong emotions on both sides of the case,” Monroe remembers. “Henry’s technical court filings, the briefs, the whole fight was well done, but his real value-add was the ability to get his client past the bitterness of the situation to recognize that it was simply a dispute about money. He did a very good job of advocating on behalf of his client, while working hard to get the case to a resolution that was fair to both sides.”
“Henry is tough but fair,” says Doug Kertscher, a managing partner at Hill, Kertscher & Wharton, who recently faced Perlowski in a breach of contract case. “Both of us had very headstrong clients that both wanted to go down path A, when path B was the better one to take,” Kertscher says. “Henry and I were able to work collaboratively, instead of adversarily, changing what could have been a long and contentious process into a better resolution for both our clients.”
While Perlowski enjoys his success as a counselor for top American companies, he has not forgotten his roots. In 2003, Perlowski and his wife took time off from their busy careers to accompany his father on a return visit to Poland.
“He hadn’t been back in 45 years,” Perlowski said. “When he left, the country was just starting to rebuild from the destruction of World War II. It was an amazing source of pride for him to see how cosmopolitan Poland is today. Taking my father back to Poland was the highlight of my life. And it will probably remain the highlight of my life.”