Talking With One of the Key Lawyers Behind the $16 Million TIME'S UP Legal Defense Fund


There was one refrain repeated over and over again by Hollywood’s (white) female winners at the Golden Globes on Sunday night: “Time’s up.”

Both a warning and a movement, TIME’S UP is the nebulous confederation of organizations working towards equality for women in and outside of Hollywood, which debuted a week ago today. And while the debate rages on about whether or not TIME’S UP’s first action—the wardrobe “blackout” at the Golden Globes—was successful, its participants have said that its core mission lies with its legal defense fund.

The fund, which has raised $16 million so far, is meant to provide legal resources and services to women facing workplace sexual harassment or abuse across industries. It’s the brainchild of Tina Tchen—former Chief of Staff for Michelle Obama and Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls—and Robbie Kaplan, an award-wining attorney who represented LGBTQ icon Edie Windsor and was instrumental in the fight to legalize same sex marriage.

“There were many women out there, women in blue collar, service professions who suffer from these issues every single day,” Kaplan told me over the phone last week. “There just aren’t sufficient resources out there in terms of legal support or representation to get these women the help they need.”

The fund will be housed at the National Women’s Law Center’s Legal Network for Gender Equity, which was established in October 2017. Over $16 million has been donated since the fund was created on December 20, surpassing the original goal of $15 million. And while the fund has received large donations from celebrities—$2 million from Steven Spielberg and $500,000 from Meryl Streep being two of the flashiest—over 14,000 people have made donations of varying amounts.

“I think I’m a pretty acute observer of legal and political issues in our country, but even I with my cynicism was shocked by the outpouring of support here,” Kaplan said. “And I think to be honest, I too have been shocked by the prevalence of the problem—and those two are related.”

The germ of the idea came after Kaplan agreed to take Melanie Kohler—a former talent agency employee who was threatened with a defamation lawsuit by director Brett Ratner after Kohler named him as her alleged rapist in a Facebook post—as a client.

“I heard from all of the women who were organizing this in Hollywood that Melanie Kohler needed a good lawyer given what was happening with her, and so I agreed immediately to represent Melanie,” Kaplan said. “And then as Melanie’s case proceeded, and they sued her, and we got involved in dealing with a formal lawsuit, we realized that Melanie wasn’t going to be alone.”

The TIME’S UP Defense Fund doesn’t necessarily directly interact with other more Hollywood-centric arms of the TIME’S UP movement, like 50/50by2020 and the Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace, but Kaplan said that meaningful change requires a push on all fronts.

“This shift has to happen on so many levels,” she said. “It’s cultural, it’s entertainment, it’s lobbying, it’s protesting in the street, and it’s court cases. But they all have to happen on the same side.”

While the details are still being worked out, the fund is meant to cover various legal costs for eligible cases—including out of pocket costs like court filing fees and traveling fees. It is also meant to cover legal fees, although all lawyers participating are doing so on a reduced fee basis.

Kaplan said that an “enormous” amount of women have applied for legal assistance, although neither she nor the National Women’s Law Center could provide me a specific number. And while the Legal Network for Gender Equity had already recruited over 200 lawyers, Sunu Chandy, the NWLC’s legal director, told me that dozens more had signed up since the announcement of TIME’S UP.

There have been a few issues raised with the fund’s acceptance of donations by talent agencies like ICM Partners, the Creative Artists Agency, William Morris Endeavor and United Talent Agency. As Christina Cauterucci pointed out at Slate, agencies have long been somewhere between complicit and active in endangering actresses and not protecting them from known serial abusers. The donations from these companies lie somewhere in the quagmire between a token of good faith and a quick image retouch. But Kaplan is choosing to see it in a positive light.

“I’m a religious person, and I believe, as part of my religion, that everyone has the capacity to change and to become a better person, and that goes for individuals and for organizations,” she said. “So if there’s organizations that may have had these issues or have these issues, and want to help fix the problem by donating to our funds, more power to them.”

She also claimed that the money would not prevent the fund from taking on cases against any agency or individual, even if they had donated.

Only time will tell what cases the money is actually used for. But TIME’S UP is a testament to the potential of women across industries coming together to work toward a single goal. It’s also a depressing reminder that we live in a world where such huge movements are needed; that women must continue to volunteer their time and efforts to something so fundamental; and that the majority of labor in bringing about change continues to come from women.

“If you look at any moment, from the environmental movement to wage issues to you name it, it’s almost always women who have been volunteering at the forefront of, excuse my language, making shit happen,” Kaplan said. “Is it a shame that women have to spend all this time doing it? Yeah, but it’s also important to solve the problem.”

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