Tragic trip: Recruiting junket turns deadly


Katie Leicht was there for dinner November 13. The second-year UVA law student was being wined and dined by a prestigious New York law firm at one of Charlottesville's best inns.

The dinner at Clifton Inn wasn't an official UVA Law School function. Willkie Farr & Gallagher sent seven attorneys and two recruiters to sway the handpicked second-year law students who hadn't yet accepted the law firm's offer to work in its summer program.

It probably wasn't a hard sell to get the Willkie lawyers to fly down to Charlottesville to stay at the elegant inn. After all, six of the seven were UVA Law School graduates, so it was a homecoming of sorts, especially for the three members of the class of 2002: Jordan Alpert, Michelle Clark, and Margaret Mansouri.

Willkie, an international firm with offices in Paris, Milan, London, and Rome, employs 461 lawyers and ranks 51st in gross income among the nation's law firms, according to Steve Hopson, the career services dean at the law school.

"Willkie is an old– what they call a white-shoe firm," says Hopson. Former New York governor Mario Cuomo is a partner, as was Wendell Willkie, who unsuccessfully challenged Franklin Roosevelt for the presidency in 1940.

"It's one of the more popular firms for our graduates to take jobs," says Hopson. The firm has hired 12 UVA law grads in the past three years.

And while law students traditionally have until December 1 to choose their summer job, if all went well, Willkie would get them to sign up that night at Clifton.

Katie Leicht estimates that maybe eight or nine law students were there for dinner, along with the nine-member contingent from Willkie and some law students who'd previously worked there as summer associates, bringing the total party to around 25 to 30 people.

"Just as we were sitting down for dinner at around 8, the power went out," says Leicht. The dinner proceeded by candlelight, since the power didn't come back on. "It was out when we left around 11:30," says Leicht.

"Before the power went out, we had tall dinner candles. And then they just brought out everything they had- including pillar candles," says Leicht.

"It was a great dinner and a fun evening," she says. "The firm has a reputation of being very friendly. We were impressed they'd brought so many lawyers down."

Leicht left the Clifton Inn still undecided between Willkie and another law firm. She found out about the tragic fire that took the lives of two Willkie recruiters when a partner in New York called her the next morning with the news.

Trish Langlade, 45, recruiting coordinator, and Billie Kelly, 48, head recruiter for the firm, were staying upstairs in the main building when the fire broke out downstairs.

Hopson says Langlade, the mother of two school-age daughters, had orchestrated the entire visit and was well-known to members of his staff. Rescuers were unable to resuscitate her or Kelly, and the state Medical Examiner's Office identified the cause of death as acute carbon monoxide poisoning.

Margaret Mansouri was more fortunate. The 2002 law school graduate was taken to UVA Medical Center where her condition was initially described as critical.

After visiting her in UVA's intensive care unit, Hopson said she was "in pretty good shape. She was speaking in very low tones, and I asked her why, and she said it was because of all the tubes they've been sticking down her throat."

Mansouri was released from the hospital on Monday, November 17.

The other UVA grads who escaped the burning building are associate Dave Karp, class of 2000, and partners Steve Seidman, class of 1990, and Bill Grant from the class of '70.

The award-winning Clifton Inn has long had ties to UVA Law School. Class of '76er Mitch Willey, who lives in Alexandria, opened the inn in 1985 and the restaurant six years later. "He wanted to get law firms to use the inn," says Hopson, "and they've used it routinely."