Poisoned Partnership and the Price of My Silence

This is the tale of how the acrimonious and ongoing dissolution of my former legal partnership forced me to face the ways in which women get silenced for the privilege of demanding what is owed to them. One way to break that cycle is to make my silence worthless. So here is my story.
In 2016 I started freelancing for an attorney in Aspen, CO. His name is David A. Bovino of www.bovinolaw.com. Immediately, I was doing a lot of legal research and writing, drafting, and strategizing legal arguments. It was good work which supplemented my budding solo practice. Eventually, he asked me if I wanted to take a share of the recovery in two cases (let's call them Case A and Case B) in exchange for not getting paid hourly. He also said I had to pay him back for what I had already earned on those cases. I found it a little petty but said fine and did so. I now had a share in Case A and Case B. As the weeks went by it became clear that I was doing the heavy lifting in these cases and had an excellent handle on the subject matter.
David eventually asked me to become his partner.
When he first broached the subject, he opened with discussions of $200,000 / year as a salary, a 1-year obligation to be in Aspen but I could move back to Houston after that year, and a percentage of the to-be-created new firm. I would keep my Case A and Case B percentages. These were preliminary terms, that were subject to change, but it seemed like a good deal. He represented that his firm made over $3,000,000 a year. He made other financial representations regarding the general health of his business, which I would be joining, and his book of business.
By the time I had pulled the kids from private school and made arrangements to move, the deal had changed significantly. I was now looking at a $120,000 advance on my draws, no salary, and a percentage of the firm. I would still get to keep the percentages on Case A and Case B. Not as good as initially discussed but I was already on my way to Colorado and based on his representations regarding his business volume, I would still be doing more than okay thanks to the equity. He also eventually agreed to give me a share of another case, Case C.
I asked him for his books time and time again to verify the numbers he was giving me. He kept saying they were "on their way." This was over two years ago. I have yet to see them.
I moved to Colorado in July/August 2016 and got to work.
Once there, I found out, to my dismay, that David does not operate a firm in the traditional sense of the term. A better description is that he receives matters from clients, tells them he will handle it, and then either farms it out to contract attorneys or--more often--co-counsels with another firm which does the bulk of the work. This is not an altogether bad arrangement but it did alter the amount of work I would be doing: all of it. What was more alarming, from my perspective, was that he did absolutely no legal work himself. He didn't write, at all. He did no research, at all. He did not know Colorado civil procedure. He did not know damage caps in Colorado. Rather, he would spend hours talking to clients or rambling in my office and consider that "brilliant" legal theorizing. Most often, however, I would sit there wishing he would leave my office so that I could get back to doing the real work he was interrupting. What became inescapable, though, was that having me there meant he could significantly reduce his out of pocket expenses by avoiding having to share a piece of the pie with so many other outside firms who did the work for him.
He also did no administrative tasks or firm management. I immediately oversaw other lawyers, staff, payroll, vendor payments, invoicing, case management, strategy, while doing all of the in-house legal research & writing. I was in the office every day. He was not. I wasn't offended by the arrangement but it was not what I expected, it eventually created mismatched expectations, and it made it even more important for me to get remunerated from the contingency cases in which I had a share. After all, I was doing the legal legwork.
Nonetheless, during my tenure, which lasted from the Fall of 2016 to September 1, 2017, he repeatedly said we were a "good fit" or a "good team" because I was the managing partner and he was a rainmaker. However, the rain was more of a drizzle and the numbers he had represented at the outset never materialized. His great book of portable business either disappeared or was never there, to begin with. My share in the firm, then, became a liability. Every time I pulled $1 from the firm, the firm owed him $4 which it did not have. Some months he got nothing. Some months, when we did well, he would pull huge sums in a random fashion. (One month he pulled approximately $70,000 while complaining to me that our paralegals were costing too much). Twice he had the firm borrow money from his parents. This meant that rather than joining a healthy firm with a solid book of business, as he had represented to me, we were now in debt--to his parents, no less. It was awkward.
Be that as it may, I kept my head down and did the work that did come through the door. I got licensed in Colorado, hit the books to learn the rules of civil procedure, learned as much as I could about substantive law, and tried to make up for all the things the firm didn't know.
During the time I was there, David wrote himself a check for $10,000 from the COLTAF account. Although I was the one who reconciled the COLTAF account every month (he did not do that) the reason I caught this shortly after he did it was that his father called me and, paraphrasing, said, "My son is having money issues. Please check the COLTAF account for 'strange transactions'. Don't tell him about this call.'" I checked and there was the missing $10,000 withdrawal. He had actually written himself a check. I got on him about replacing the money, obviously, and only became more concerned about his practices. He told me it was a "mistake" and after about a month (I don't exactly recall how long it took) he put back the funds.
During our partnership, he also repeatedly pressured me to give up my $120,000 advance. It was $10,000 a month and already not enough. I was supporting my four kids and my husband, who was a medical resident. I had two Au Pairs for my four kids so I could travel for the cases I was handling for him. And we had the temporary rental in Basalt, CO, in addition to our house in Houston, TX. Some weeks, covering groceries was a struggle. I kept telling him I could not give up my $10,000 a month and just hope we would share the profits and contingencies. (I was also keenly aware, by then, that the equity piece of the deal would probably not be anything more than the advance itself, hence why the advance and the contingency cases took on increasing importance). He kept telling me he wanted someone to "take the risks" with him. Eventually, we lost Case A at trial. He didn't even try the case. Another firm did, with my help and the help of my paralegals (the ones I brought to the firm from my solo practice and which he claimed were "too expensive." They were not.)
Right around this time, we started discussing what to do in Year 2. I told him I was willing to do another year in Aspen, CO, but we had to at least keep the deal as-is. He did not agree. Instead, he started making demands of me: I had to stay in Aspen, CO, I had to agree to be in the office every day (like an Associate) and I had to agree to no advance and no salary. I told him that this would be impossible. Eventually, after negotiations, he agreed to pay me for my work but refused to give me the independence of a partner. I said, "No thank you," gave up two months of guaranteed payments as a sign of good faith, and we began dissolving the partnership. While I was on vacation, and still a partner, he unilaterally locked me out of the firm account, locked me out of my email, and locked me out of Clio.com. As part of my negotiation to leave the firm I retained my percentage of Cases B and C.
True to my word and my obligations, I kept working on Case B because, frankly, who else was going to do it at the firm and I cared about the client. I worked on it until the day we confirmed all settlement terms had been met and the settlement was done. This was less than thirty days after we dissolved the partnership. As a result of that settlement, I am entitled to $41,000. This was in September 2017.
He has since refused to send me my share. He also refused to pay another big firm who he brought onto the case. Now his MO became clear: hire other people to do the work, take the lion's share of the recovery, and leave them hanging. (Did I report him to the bar? Yes. They dropped it because we were "working it out." No action there).
David, through counsel, then began to effectively try to buy my silence with my own money. He demanded that I sign a confidentiality agreement, a non-disparagement agreement, and a no comment agreement to get my money. In other words, the only way to get what I am owed, what I worked very hard for over a period of two years, is to silence myself. $41,000 is the price of my silence, apparently. If I agreed to his terms, I wouldn't be able to discuss him or our partnership with potential employers or partners. I would not be able to explain why my first partnership collapsed in barely a year. I wouldn't be able to discuss the pitfalls of partnership with other female lawyers. And for what? For the privilege of getting what I am owed.
At that point, I was not pleased but open to negotiation.
Eventually, I agreed to his terms with two caveats. I had to be able to discuss the partnership if a court compelled me to do so and if I was asked to do so as part of a lawsuit. Did I think I would be called to testify in a lawsuit? Yes. In fact, I know for a fact I will be testifying against him in August because he has done this to another female attorney (more details about this below) and she sued him. Given this information, accepting money in exchange for silence while also knowing I will have to take the stand against him is so crooked it is nauseating. I would be disgusted with myself if I agreed to limit my ability to speak out while knowing I have to testify on these precises issues. I also repeatedly told his lawyers that this felt awfully close to witness tampering. My hope was that the caveats above provided a good boundary, allowing me to give him what he wanted while protecting my integrity.
After I communicated my agreement to his attorney, everything went silent. This was a few weeks ago. My belief is that he never intended to pay me a dime. (He certainly has not paid other lawyers on the case and continues to argue he is entitled not to do so).
I write this for several reasons.
First, I am not the first person he has done this to and I don't think I will be the last. Another lawyer in California sued him and is going to trial. In a now-familiar story, he had her as a contract attorney, they became partners, he dissolved the partnership, settled a case she had worked on for six years (as well as promising her a share of Case B), locked her out of everything and then argued she "abandoned the case." He said the same thing about me to the Bar (that I "abandoned" the case in the last ten days).
Second, I will not be silenced with my own money. I deserve better.
Third, if the truth is out there, there is no silence left to buy.
Thank you for reading.


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