Game Changer

The #MeToo Lawyer Fighting for Women in the Workplace

Tina Tchen is building up the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which already has more than 2,000 potential clients.

Tina Tchen.

Photographer: Molly Cranna for Bloomberg Businessweek

In its early days, #MeToo looked like mostly a celebrity movement. Tina Tchen, head of the Chicago office of white-shoe law firm Buckley Sandler LLP, wanted to expand it beyond Hollywood. “When people were first coming forward with their stories, they were getting threatened with legal action,” she says. “And the fastest way to make sure that someone isn’t getting bullied by a lawyer for someone rich and powerful is to make sure that person has a lawyer, too.”

Tchen visited Michelle Kydd Lee, chief of innovation at Creative Artists Agency, who was already involved with what would become Time’s Up, the antiharassment movement with starry backers such as Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon. After brainstorming with Lee, Tchen pitched the National Women’s Law Center on the idea of administering a pool of money to help victims defray legal expenses. And that was that: The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund (TULDF), the group’s flagship initiative, was born.

Tchen demurs on her role—“It all just kind of came together,” she insists—which doesn’t surprise NWLC Chief Executive Officer Fatima Goss Graves. “That’s what’s so great about her,” Graves says. “She’s really a collaborative leader.” Tchen is also arguably the most well-connected person working in women’s rights today, thanks to her six years as an assistant to President Barack Obama and as first lady Michelle Obama’s chief of staff.

As executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, Tchen was also deeply involved in addressing issues of gender in the professional sphere. “What’s important to emphasize is that sexual harassment is a symptom of more fundamental issues around workplaces that aren’t equitable, aren’t truly diverse, and aren’t providing safe workplaces for employees,” she says. “The real solution here is to address the many structural barriers that keep women and minorities from advancing.”

Employment law is particularly treacherous for the nonwealthy: Many attorneys who represent victims in harassment disputes are at small firms and can’t afford to work pro bono. And the cases often generate little, if any, settlement money.

With 600 lawyers signed up and $21.7 million raised, the TULDF has more than 2,000 potential clients so far seeking legal counsel and representation as well as PR advice. “Public relations can be as much a minefield to navigate through as legal processes,” Tchen says, pointing out that some victims have been outed against their wishes.

She also wants to remind Bloomberg Businessweek readers: “We still need more lawyers and PR professionals to volunteer. We still need more resources at the GoFundMe page, because though $21.7 million is an impressive amount of money, anybody who has dealt with legal bills knows it’s not going to be nearly enough.”

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