By Cara Bayles
Law360, San Francisco (October 14, 2016, 7:13 PM EDT) — Chadbourne & Parke LLP partner Kerrie Campbell opened up Thursday to a room of Stanford Law School students at a panel event on gender discrimination actions against BigLaw firms, saying she brought a $100 million putative class action alleging pay disparity at her firm in hopes of improving the legal community they will soon enter.
Kerrie Campbell, a media and consumer protection litigation partner in Chadbourne & Parke’s Washington, D.C., office, learned lateral male partners were making nearly twice as much as her, though she’d originated more than 40 matters and brought in $5 million worth of new business, her attorney, David Sanford, said at the event, titled “Litigating the Glass Ceiling: Gender Discrimination Actions Against Big Law.”
Campbell said that she never expected to be sitting in court as a plaintiff, but that her litigation background enabled her to approach the lawsuit with open eyes.
“I know as a trial lawyer what goes into these cases. I think the risk and all of that mess is worth it if at the end of the day it changes something,” she said. “I hope this lawsuit brings a load of sunlight to disinfect gender inequality not just at Chadbourne, but at law firms across the board.”
Campbell is in the awkward situation of continuing to work at the firm she is suing. She said she puts on a brave face, which confuses some of her colleagues, but that it hasn’t always been easy.
Sanford, chairman and founder of Sanford Heisler LLP, told the assembled students that since bringing her lawsuit, managers at Chadbourne & Parke had said Campbell wasn’t a “good fit” for the firm and recommended she leave “to preserve her reputation.” He said they’d docked her pay from $500,000 to that of a first-year associate.
Chadbourne & Parke has categorically denied all of Campbell’s allegations. A spokesperson for Chadbourne said Chapman’s claims about her compensation being lowered are not entirely true, adding that while her compensation was lowered in February, when she was asked to leave the firm, she did not change after she filed suit.
“She is a partner and paid like a partner, which includes a monthly draw,” the spokesperson told Law 360. “Her monthly draw is still higher than that of junior associates.”
Research suggests the gendered wage gap is an industrywide problem. The Stanford event came a day after a Major, Lindsey & Africa study found while partner pay is soaring, women make 44 percent less than their male counterparts.
Deborah Rhode, a professor at Stanford Law School and the director of its Center on the Legal Profession, which organized the discussion, told Law 360 after the panel that she has observed a degree of complacency among her students, who understand gender discrimination in the abstract, but have yet to experience it themselves.
“It’s important for this generation of students to understand that it’s not a level playing field,” she said. “They haven’t been out in the working world. So far, it’s been a meritocracy for them.”
The panel discussed the challenges and the protracted process of litigating the wage gap.
Nancy Abell, a partner in Paul Hastings LLP’s employment law practice, who is usually on the defense side in such disputes, said most matters are resolved amicably before they ever end up in court.
“If David Sanford comes to my firm with an issue, we’ll sit down and have a conversation,” she said. “It’s important always to think about what’s the endgame. Some of the people you see taking stands in lawsuits, people who engage in protracted fights, may come out of it worse off.”
Sanford also said arbitration or mediation was often preferable to litigation, and that for every Kerrie Campbell, there are many plaintiffs who are unwilling to take on the long, public litigation process.
“You can say, ‘Isn’t it better to have this openly litigated?’ I don’t think it’s always the best option. It takes too long, costs too much money and there are risks,” he said. “Now, if a client asks me what I want to do — I always want to go to trial. I would rather be in trial every day than go to a mediation. But I have to answer in terms of what’s best for them.”
The panelists enumerated the pragmatic issues that complicate cases in which attorneys sue their own firms. Abell said privilege and clients’ reputations may be at stake if a plaintiff’s past work and cases are brought into arguments. Deborah Rhode said litigation doesn’t always end well for the plaintiff, citing Ellen Pao’s unsuccessful gender bias suit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers LLC.
Sanford said class actions require careful statistical analysis to prove that there’s systematic discrimination and that attorneys with different experience or in different practice areas are similarly situated. He also pointed to Traci Ribeiro, a Sedgwick LLP partner who brought a class action gender discrimination suit against her firm. Ribeiro, who was sitting in the audience, explained she wanted to litigate her case publicly, but that Sedgwick had argued at a hearing that morning that it could compel her to arbitrate her claims.
Campbell’s suit has already had its share of controversy as well. All but one current female partner signed a letter to Sanford in September, accusing him of using them to inflate the potential damages in the suit without having even asked them about their experiences at the firm. He countered that New York state law prohibited him from soliciting them as clients, and so he couldn’t have spoken with them about the suit before he filed his complaint.
But the day after the Stanford talk, Jaroslawa Johnson, who led Chadbourne & Parke’s Ukraine office until it was shuttered in 2014 and is now president and CEO of Western NIS Enterprise Fund, signed onto the case as a plaintiff.
Campbell said there was a misconception that people bring litigation like this “to prop themselves up for their own personal gain,” but insisted she was looking far beyond her own self-interest. She said she’d done plenty of soul searching and relied on the support and encouragement of her family when she decided to file suit. But she said it was already paying off.
“I’m just going to venture a guess that the women at Chadbourne are going to have a very good year as a result of this lawsuit,” she said. “And that’s a good thing.”
–Additional reporting by Aebra Coe, Aaron Vehling and Kat Greene. Editing by Jack Karp.
Updated: This story has been updated to include comment from Chadbourne.