New Sheriff in Town

Patricia G. Griffith, a Lady Bulldog at UGA, is also a bulldog in court

Published in 2012 Georgia Super Lawyers — March 2012

The settlement offer on the table was seven figures, but the plaintiffs—three women bringing claims of sexual harassment against their employer, an Ohio car dealership—turned it down. The case was headed to trial.

“I was asked six weeks before trial to come in,” says Patricia G. Griffith, an employment partner at Ford & Harrison in Atlanta, who is known across the country as a crisis preventer for companies facing situations that threaten the health of their businesses. The dealership faced allegations that the women were forced to watch graphic pornography and endure sexual propositions and advances. Griffith went to the plaintiff’s lawyer.

“I said, ‘New sheriff in town. Do you want to talk settlement again?’”

It wasn’t about the money, they told her.

So she offered a high/low bargain: “Your ladies get to have their say in court, let everybody hear them, and we’ll guarantee them X dollars as a floor. But they won’t get more than X amount of money.” The plaintiffs declined.

At trial, Griffith told the story of the women: They likely did put up with some sexual harassment but also embellished their claims. “They were exaggerating and grasping for more than they were entitled to,” Griffith told the jury. “Don’t reward them for that; punish them for that.”

The jury agreed. The women got nothing.

Raised a yellow-dog Democrat from Elberton, Griffith has Southern charm and a practical philosophy toward life and the law. “I don’t believe in somebody getting something for nothing,” she says. “I believe you work hard for what you get. And you help other people out.”

Griffith’s philosophy comes from her parents. Her father was the principal of Griffith’s elementary school while her mother was a secretary-turned-compliance-officer for the Department of Energy. “For her day, [she] was just an unbelievable feminist,” says Griffith. “She wore an ERA pin to work. She always told me: Get your own education; don’t rely on anybody else. My dad was the same way.”

Huge social change came about during Griffith’s youth, and she was all the happier for it. In 1971, her high school became integrated. “It increased the level of competition, for one,” she says. “And it improved your ability to learn how to get along in the world, not to be so sheltered, which is what we all were.”

In the mid-1970s, Griffith, who played point guard for the Lady Bulldogs at the University of Georgia, remembers signing a Title IX petition outside the athletic director’s office. “I don’t think any [women] at that point were asking for more scholarship money,” she says. “It was just about the ability to pursue your sport.”

She earned her J.D. at UGA, clerked for federal Judge Thomas Clark, and then came to Ford & Harrison.

Back then it was called labor law. Over the years, Griffith watched the practice area evolve into employment law. Ten years ago, her own practice shifted considerably. She now deals less often with discovery and the nitty-gritty of cases, and is called in when trial is imminent.

“I start reading the depositions and coming up with the theories and the themes, and how to approach the different witnesses,” she says. “Then I go in and talk to the jury.”

The advantage, she says, is not getting caught up in the minutiae of a case. By this point, it’s all about the story. “I think, as a Southerner, you learn to be a good storyteller,” she says.

Her clients range from small to large employers in industries across the board: health care, airline, auto, retail. She still counsels clients on the smaller issues—preventative strategies, firings—but she’s mostly called on in a crisis.

And how does the liberal background stack up in representing Goliath in the scenario?

“I have been asked that a lot,” she says with a laugh. “I’ll defend you if you are in the right. And if you’ve got some liability, we’ll pay. But if [the plaintiffs] are saying they want $3 million and they don’t deserve $3 million, then you have to try it because then they’re in the wrong. The pendulum swings the other way. If somebody’s scammin’ the system, liberal as I am, I don’t think that’s right.”

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