WATCH: Women's rights attorney Gloria Allred traces the evolution of sexual harassment in the US and defends use of NDAs

  • Women's rights attorney Gloria Allred has represented victims in high-profile sexual misconduct cases, like those of Harvey Weinstein and Michael Jackson.
  • Allred has earned some criticism for frequently seeking nondisclosure agreements for her clients, which some argue can help cover abuse.
  • Allred maintains that NDA settlements are critical for protecting victims and their fundamental rights.
  • In an exclusive interview with Business Insider Weekly, Allred defended the practice and traced the evolution of sexual harassment law in the US.
  • View more episodes of Business Insider Weekly on Facebook.

Women's rights attorney Gloria Allred has represented victims of sexual abuse and harassment for more than 40 years. 

She has made a career of securing justice and financial compensation for her clients, marshaling legal frameworks with cultural moments like the #MeToo movement. And she's championed the expansion and protection of women's rights within US courts. 

But Allred has gotten this far without earning a few critics. Business Insider Weekly sat down with the pioneering attorney to discuss her use of non-disclosure agreements in sexual misconduct cases, which some say may contribute to covering up abuse. She also discussed the evolution of how the public views sexual harassment and her roles in some of the most high-profile cases in recent memory.

Sexual harassment hasn't always been illegal in the US.

Sexual harassment has not always been illegal, or even a recognized violation under US law. 

In 1974, Lin Farley, director of Cornell University's "Women's Section," circulated a benign survey to diagnose incidents of harassment and intimidation in her workplace. Her survey revealed a pattern of harassment so widespread that Farley went on to testify about her findings before the New York City Human Rights Commission in the summer of 1975.

This testimony, and the discussions that it sparked, earned a headline in The New York Times that summer, putting the term into public circulation.

That same year, Allred passed the California bar exam and went on to start a law practice with fellow Loyola graduates Michael Maroko and Nathan Goldberg. 

"The Civil Rights Act said nothing about sexual harassment in employment at the time," said Allred. "Sexual harassment is what the courts say it is, and that has been evolving over the years."

Allred and her colleagues followed the early legal wins, when the 1976 Williams v. Saxbe case ruled that quid pro quo sexual harassment was a form of sex or gender based discrimination. A year later, Barnes v. Train determined that women should not suffer employment losses for refusing to submit to requests for sexual favors.

Ten years later, Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson became a landmark case on sexual harassment, laying out what Allred called "blueprint guidance about what is necessary to prove sexual harassment."

Allred's career has evolved along with the legal framework for sexual harassment.

Allred's legal counsel has shifted with the times. 

"When I was in the workplace in the sixties, I just knew that sexual harassment was something that women were suffering, but I didn't know who was doing anything about it," Allred said. Nowadays, Allred said, she believes that "younger women are even more disappointed than women of my generation, because they actually expect to be treated equally and to be free of sexual harassment and sex discrimination."

Allred described the transformation of women's rights since then as an "evolution, rather than a revolution."

Some of the laws have improved, she said, and yet Allred still relies on every available tool when representing her clients, including the nondisclosure agreements that have earned her many critics.

"The notion that women are just poor victims of their attorneys and must enter into confidentiality clauses is completely in contradiction to the facts," maintains Allred. "I will stand up for a woman's right to choose, even with confidential provisions in the settlement."

She dismisses critics who say her practice of seeking NDAs for her clients gives cover for abusers.

The attorneys at Allred, Maroko, and Goldberg have marshaled legal frameworks to represent hundreds of victims of sexual harassment and assault in some of the country's highest profile cases — including those brought against Jeffery Epstein, Harvey Weinstein and billionaire Alki David, for which accuser Mahim Khan received a record $58 million award in 2019.

Allred maintains that the eye-popping sums awarded to women like Khan inspire other victims to come forward and seek justice in court.

"That case has inspired many victims of sexual harassment to speak up, to speak out, and to contact us," she said.

While holding workplace abusers accountable is an admirable contribution to public safety, there is also an underbelly to Allred's line of work. 

Following the 2019 publication of the New York Times bestseller "She Said," a Harvey Weinstein accuser and former client of Allred's firm, Ashley Matthau, came forward to speak with authors Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey about the legal advice that she received from Allred's firm in 2004.

"I was offered a $125,000 settlement, and John advised me just to take it," she said.

By signing a nondisclosure agreement as part of the settlement, Mattau was prevented from ever speaking about her experiences of abuse. Even her therapist was beholden to a confidentiality clause. 

Fifteen years later, Mattau was troubled when she saw Allred representing several of the accuser's in Weinstein's highly publicized trial. She told The Daily, "It's funny, because she didn't really have the time [for me] back in 2004. But then all of a sudden, once it was a news story, then she was representing, like, 14 [of the accusers] or something?"

In the wake of Kantor and Twohey's reporting, Allred and her colleagues have taken heat on the ethics embedded in their legal counsel and selective representation. Critics have called their motives into question, especially when clients like Mattau note that Allred's firm netted 40% of her settlement award. 

Allred maintains that her primary responsibility is to safeguard the health and well-being of her clients. 

"My job as a private lawyer is to support the choice of my client," she said. "If she wishes to have her privacy, God bless her. And if she prefers to have a public lawsuit, which can go on for years and which she will testify publicly instead of entering into a confidential settlement, she gets to do that."

Allred sees nondisclosure agreements as a critical tool in preserving each victim's agency.

"Their choice has been taken away from them by the accused sexual predator, and I'm there to support her having a choice," Allred said. "Not to have that choice taken away from them by some member of the press who encourages them not to enter into an agreement whereby they might be able to obtain millions of dollars to help them to go on with their lives."

Although Allred's position may be unpopular in a climate where nondisclosure agreements have allowed long-time abusers like Harvey Weinstein to continue to work, Allred believes that settlements can still play an important role in securing justice and furthering women's rights. 

"Of course, I believe in the cause of women's rights and to be able to have a workplace free of sexual harassment. I will take the heat from people who want to criticize me for helping women to enter into settlement agreements," she said. 

"But it is not my job to sacrifice my clients to a cause — even a cause to which I firmly believe, and for which I have advocated my entire life."

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