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Lawyers hammer each other during Pao v. Kleiner Perkins closing arguments

The closely watched sex discrimination case is winding down, but both sides know that whatever the jury decides could have far-reaching implications.

A sexual discrimination suit from Ellen Pao, left, is being closely watched in Silicon Valley. Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Is Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the influential Silicon Valley venture capital firm, run "like a boys club"?

It certainly is if you ask Alan Exelrod, a lawyer representing a former junior partner at Kleiner Perkins, Ellen Pao. She was wrongfully punished and eventually fired for questioning the firm's treatment of women, he said. To her, Kleiner Perkins judged male and female employees differently, an illegal double-standard. Now she's claiming discrimination in a lawsuit for $16 million in lost wages and potential earnings, and possibly tens of millions more in punitive damages.

"The law is meant to protect people who stand up. In Kleiner Perkins' culture, when you stand up, you get slammed down," Exelrod told a packed San Francisco courtroom during closing arguments Tuesday. "Kleiner Perkins, however powerful and successful it is, cannot be above the law."

But Kleiner Perkins lawyer Lynne Hermle disputes that notion. She called Pao's claim of working on an uneven playing field due to gender bias, "perhaps one of the most meritless, frivolous allegations you heard in this lawsuit, and there were a lot of them."

The implications of Pao's accusations go far beyond Kleiner Perkins, a leading venture capital firm which backed notable tech companies from Amazon to Google to Zynga. Critics say Pao's experiences are part of pervasive culture throughout Silicon Valley, which they argue is hostile to women and minorities. Executive leadership at most of Silicon Valley's biggest companies is predominantly male and white, a telling indicator of a larger and deep-seated issue, critics say.

Pao isn't the only one suing, either. In just the last week, a former Facebook employee and an ex Twitter staffer have sued their respective companies claiming discrimination.

The suit between Pao and Kleiner Perkins is being watched closely. The testimony from current and former employees has provided an unusual view of how top venture capital firms in Silicon Valley work. There have also been salacious details, including an affair between Pao and a former co-worker, and possible sexual harassment by another.

Kleiner Perkins contends that Pao wasn't a team player and was a hostile employee. Kleiner also claims it doesn't struggle with gender discrimination, saying about 20 percent of its senior partners are women, three times more than the industry average.

Hermle pleaded with jurors to ignore Pao's accusations. She also argued gender had nothing to do with Pao's dismissal. Hermle displayed slides to dramatize Pao's conflicts with her co-workers.

"Pao's Numerous Conflicts: What is the common denominator?" one slide asked. "Pao Was Not a Good Teammate," said another.

Ultimately, Hermle said, Pao is blaming others for her own failings. Pao chose not to seek mentorship from other senior level women at Kleiner Perkins either, Hermle said. Instead, Pao chose to sue for millions of dollars.

Hermle urged the jury upon its deliberation, "don't leave your common sense outside."

Exelrod, in his nearly three-hour closing argument, repeatedly hammered on his reference to the "boys club" atmosphere. He said Pao was judged by her personality rather than her performance, and Kleiner Perkins all-male hierarchy, including senior partner John Doerr, managing partner Ted Schlein and partner Matt Murphy, set a distasteful tone.

"They ran Kleiner Perkins, and no woman was going to challenge them," he said.

Some of the examples of discrimination Pao and her lawyers presented included important dinners she and other female co-workers were not invited to, such as those held at the home of former Vice President Al Gore. Exelrod said one former partner, Chi-Hua Chien, didn't invite women to the dinners because "women kill the buzz." Chien testified that he never said that.

Pao also described an all-male business ski trip the firm took in Colorado during which she felt uncomfortable on a plane ride with her male co-workers, who she said openly talked about porn stars and the Playboy mansion. Hermle countered, "If you believe (that) in the first place, then you have some credibility resolutions to make."

In deciding whether Pao was indeed discriminated against, jurors will have to answer "yes" or "no" to numerous questions. They'll be asked if Pao's gender and poor job reviews provided a substantial motivating reason for Kleiner Perkins to not promote her to senior partner. Other questions: Did Kleiner Perkins fail to take all reasonable steps to prevent gender discrimination? And, did the firm harm Pao?

Exelrod told the jury that Pao was a "hardworking, incredibly thoughtful and productive" employee during her time at the firm from 2005 to 2012. He said Pao had generated more revenue than any of her fellow male junior partners who were eventually promoted, though he didn't offer specific figures.

She even recommended in 2007 that the firm invest in a young social-networking service called Twitter, he said. She was initially turned down, though the firm did ultimately invest in the company three years later. Twitter is now a public company valued at more than $31 billion.

"The real irony here is...whatever you decide, your verdict is going to be announced to the world on Twitter," Exelrod said.

Exelrod said that if Pao had stayed at the firm for 10 more years, she would have received about $14.5 million in compensation.

He framed a victory for Pao as a victory for justice, pointing to a projection in the courtroom showing a scale, one side tipped slightly by a feather. "All we have to do is tip that scale," he said.