Death By A Thousand Seating Charts

When Kleiner Perkins’ head legal counsel Lynne Hermle pulled up a seating chart from the firm’s December 2011 offsite on the court’s projector during her cross examination of Ellen Pao yesterday, the courtroom remained respectfully silent.

But there was a collective groan in the online backchannel of reporters who have been covering the Pao Vs. Kleiner Perkins trial in San Francisco’s Superior Court for the past two and a half weeks.

The seating chart has become a bit of an inside joke among the courtroom press corps, as a symbol of how the details of even the most salacious lawsuit can become almost absurdly mundane after they’ve been discussed for what seems like the umpteenth time.

The unique trouble with this case is it seems like the more that such details are pored over, the more obscure the truth seems to be.

Ellen Pao’s legal complaint is punctuated with eyebrow-raising anecdotes that illustrate her claims of gender discrimination and retaliation: Wine-fueled conversations about porn stars and the Playboy Mansion on a private jet, exclusive male-only dinners at Vice President Al Gore’s luxury condo, come-ons from an older married senior partner, an offsite in which female partners were seated in the back row while their male peers sat up front.

These stories packed a punch when they were first revealed in the case’s first legal documents three years ago. They attracted intense interest once again when the trial got underway nearly three weeks ago.

But over the course of the past few weeks, the jury has heard varied accounts of each of these stories with each new witness who takes the stand. And in turn, the initial black and white nature of many of these anecdotes has blended into a more muddy shade of gray. A few examples:

  • According to witness Ted Schlein, the situation with the Playboy Mansion story lasted for perhaps ten minutes out of a 6.5 hour flight, and consisted of Chegg CEO Dan Rosensweig recounting a meeting he had with the 62-year-old CEO of Playboy Enterprises Christie Hefner– not a Playmate or grotto in sight. (He says he heard no talk about porn stars.) Pao has maintained on the witness stand that the conversation was very offensive and sexual in nature.
  • Hermle asserted during her questioning of Pao that Al Gore has hosted more than one dinner at his apartment, and that a number of female executives as well as Kleiner partner Mary Meeker have been among the invitees.
  • Also according to Hermle’s line of questioning, Randy Komisar gave Pao a copy of Leonard Cohen’s “The Book of Longing” simply as a nod to their discussions about Buddhism, after Pao had previously presented him with two similarly themed gifts (a small plastic Buddha, and a game from the raw and vegan food restaurant Cafe Gratitude.) Pao has maintained on the witness stand that the book, which contains nude drawings and includes sexual poems, was an inappropriate gift that made her uncomfortable.
  • The much-discussed seating chart indicates that while Pao was indeed seated in the back row on the second day of the two-day offsite, so were several of Kleiner’s most senior staffers. And, on the first day of the offsite, the seating chart shows that Ellen Pao was actually assigned a seat in the “coveted front row.”

Hearing the narrative of the case described by Pao in her own words earlier this week was riveting and convincing. But after several days of Pao’s cross-examination by Hermle, an easy and clear conclusion has still not emerged just yet. Maybe it never will. After all, if it were easy to come to an agreement on what happened here, this case might have been settled long ago.

In the end, the jury will have to sift through the nuances and decide what’s right, and they’ve got a remarkably difficult road ahead — a road that will surely include a few more looks at that damn seating chart.