Female Lawyer’s Gender-Bias Suit Challenges Law Firm Pay Practices

Aug 31

As it appeared in the New York Times

By Elizabeth Olson

When Kerrie L. Campbell joined the Washington office of the law firm Chadbourne & Parke in January 2014, she brought more than two decades of experience in consumer product safety and product defamation litigation. But she contends that other Chadbourne partners shut her out of leadership positions and paid her far less than male partners at her level.

After being told this year that she would be terminated, she sued in federal court on Wednesday, asking for a total of $100 million on behalf of herself and other female partners who, she said, receive less compensation than male partners even when they bring in more client revenue.

A five-man management committee at the firm arbitrarily awards male partners more points, which translate into higher dollar compensation, than they do to women, she maintained.

“This meant not only that the deck was stacked against her, she was destined to make two or three times less than her male counterparts did,” her lawyer, David W. Sanford, argued in papers filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan.

A spokesman for Chadbourne, Jason Costa, said in statement that the law firm denied the gender discrimination claims. “Ms. Campbell’s complaint against the firm is riddled with falsehoods and, once the facts are fully presented, the firm is confident that her allegations will be shown to be completely baseless,” the statement said.

Ms. Campbell’s case gives an unusually detailed look at closely guarded law firm compensation. Firms are famously opaque because they are private partnerships, not public companies, and set their own pay levels. At elite laws firms like Chadbourne, partners earn hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars a year.

Other lawyers like Ms. Campbell are challenging their firms’ remuneration with lawsuits, accusing management of favoring men and penalizing women.

Last month, Traci M. Ribeiro claimed in a lawsuit that the “male-dominated culture” of her employer Sedgwick, a law firm based in San Francisco that ranks among the 200 largest firms in the United States, resulted in women lawyers being denied equal pay and equal promotions.

She claimed that one partner suggested that she, despite generating the third-highest amount of revenue at the firm, should receive a pay cut and remarked at a meeting of the partners that she “needed to learn how to behave.”

Sedgwick’s chairman, Michael F. Healy, called Ms. Ribeiro’s claims “baseless” and said in a statement that he “was confident there has been absolutely no discrimination or retaliation in the partner compensation process or otherwise.”

Another lawyer at a major firm, Kamee Verdrager, recently won a ruling in Massachusetts allowing her case against her former employer, Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo of Boston, to go to trial. She contends that the firm reduced her seniority by two years — which affected her level of pay — then later fired her. Ms. Verdrager has been pursuing her case for seven years. Mintz Levin said in a statement that “we are confident that the claims have no merit and that we will prevail at trial.”

Law is not the only profession where there have been accusations that women have been treated unfairly. Unequal pay for women has arisen as an issue in Hollywood, Silicon Valley and for the United States women’s national soccer team.

“There is more sunlight now,” said Michele Coleman Mayes, chairwoman of the American Bar Association’s commission on women in the profession and general counsel of the New York Public Library. “Women are no longer going to be cowed into believing that they have to stay silent or suffer the label that says ‘undesirable colleague.’”

Women are graduating from law schools in droves and now make up almost 45 percent of law firm associates. Yet that growth has not been reflected in the higher levels of law firms.

A decade ago, women held 16 percent of big-law partnerships. Today, they are at 18 percent, according to the American Bar Association.

As a result, according to a 2014 survey by the National Association of Women Lawyers, female partners routinely earn only 80 percent of what their male counterparts earn. The roughly $125,000 annual difference amounts to a pay loss of more than $1 million for each female lawyer over a decade.

Such discrepancies are what Ms. Campbell is challenging with her lawsuit. When Chadbourne hired her, she had combined experience of 27 years at two major law firms, and she was a partner and consumer product safety head at each workplace. All three law firms where she worked have annual revenue of $250 million or more.

Chadbourne’s 2015 profit per partner was slightly more than $1.1 million, according to rankings from the American Lawyer legal publication.

Chadbourne offers services including bankruptcy, financial restructuring, corporate and litigation. Its partners include Abbe Lowell, who was counsel to House Democrats during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings.

Ms. Campbell, who is 54, said Chadbourne’s compensation was decided by the management committee which, she argues, “typically awards female partners fewer points than it awards to comparable male partners even when female partners substantially outperform their male peers.”

Last year, she said, 11 of Chadbourne’s 18 female partners, including her, were allotted a significantly lower number of points than male colleagues. Even though the nearly $5 million in revenue she generated placed her among the firm’s leading earners, she said, she received a smaller paycheck and no annual bonus, leaving her in the bottom one-third of partner pay.

She said she had extensive discussions before she joined the firm — and had to buy a hefty partnership stake — but things were rocky from the start.

“I was looking for a solid firm with a national footprint and strong litigation support,” she said in an interview. “It was a very paternalistic culture, which strongly discourages asking questions, raising concerns and proposing any change in the way things have always been done.”

She took her case to the managing partner and to the management committee in January and February 2015, requesting a substantial point increase because, she said, colleagues with similar client revenue were receiving twice the number of points.

The response, she said, was that her 2014 revenue was a “fluke.” After that, she said, her litigation support dwindled, harming her client relationships.

“When I did try to get fair compensation,” she said, “I was disrespected, demoted and effectively terminated.”

In February, the firm’s managing partner, Andrew A. Giaccia, told her that her practice no longer fit the firm’s goals.

Mr. Giaccia gave her a departure deadline of the end of August and reduced her pay to that of an entry-level associate, with no benefits, she said.

Ms. Campbell has not found a new job and continues to work at Chadbourne because, she said, “as a mother of a blended family of nine children, I can’t afford not to.”

But every day, she said, “I wonder if this will be my last day.”

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