Legal News Analysis: Gender Discrimination in Pay Leads to Headaches for Big Law

Sep 15

As it appeared on Thompson Reuters
Erin Arvedlund

Show me the money. That’s what female attorneys at law firms are saying in so many words, having filed three major suits against their employers so far in 2016, based in large part on differences in compensation levels between men and women attorneys.

That’s according to one lawyer —Kamee Verdrager, formerly an associate with Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo who is now a solo practitioner. Verdrager is also arguing her own gender discrimination case against Mintz Levin, where she worked in their Boston office. (In June, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Verdrager’s suit can move forward.)

“We’re seeing women who’ve made it over all the hurdles [in law firms], only to discover the final insurmountable hurdle,” she said. “Our only next step is litigation.”That final hurdle? Not getting paid as much as their male counterparts —for no apparent reason.

Most recently, Chadbourne & Parke’s Kerrie Campbell, a trial lawyer and lateral partner who specializes in defamation/product disparagement, First Amendment and consumer product safety, last month sued the firm. (See the Chadbourne complaint here.) Since joining Chadbourne in 2014, Campbell originated 40 new matters for more than20 clients, altogether generating as billing partner more than $5 million in total collections, according to her lawsuit. But her pay “consistently places her at the bottom ranks of male partners who have originated far less, and in some instances, zero revenue as a billing partner,” according to the suit.

In another gender bias lawsuit filed in July, Sedgwick attorney Tracy Ribeiro brought a proposed class action in California state court, in San Francisco, against the firm after initiating a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (See the Sedgwick lawsuit here.)

All this recent activity isn’t lost on Verdrager, who originally brought her suit in 2009. “My suit is very relevant to today. People are tired of it not changing,” she said. “How many decades have women been 50% of law school classes —and there’s no progress in the equity ranks?”

That other women are suing has given her confidence to wage war on the gender discrimination battlefield. “It’s not that women aren’t committed,” she noted. “It’s the collision of the increased expectations on women, to be twice as good to get half as far. In my case, one of my accusations is they didn’t make any women partner in my office in Boston — that’s not disputed. Then, you work years, you’re a star partner, but your reward is deferred? That’s an insult.”

Murky Pay Scales
At least three major U.S. law firms have been hit with gender discrimination suits so far in 2016, a phenomenon fueled by often unclear and subjective methods of determining partner pay that are standard in the legal industry. In addition to Chadbourne and Sedgwick, Jones Day was sued in June by a long-time business development and communications manager who claimed her pregnancy, gender and age were all factors in her termination.

“In law, the problem is subjective determination in law firm culture — evaluations, assignments, and murky pay packages,” Verdrager said, adding that evaluations are often subjective, as is how matters and credit are assigned.

“I’ve yet to hear of a firm with a plan to make sure work is doled out equally.”

Verdrager said with some much of the compensation picture common knowledge around the firm, gender bias can become quite obvious. “I’m worked more hours and brought in more business and I’m being compensated less than a male equivalent, she said.“But when I raised the issue, the response was ‘We don’t know why.’ That’s the reason these suits are coming out — women are tired of talking.”

New Studies & Lawsuits in Other Industries
Gender equity pay studies may be prompting new awareness of the disparities in pay —and prompting lawsuits as well.

Some companies that share data revealed major pay gaps in their workforce (including at major newspapers, such as The Washington Post.) President Obama pushed earlier this year for rules requiring major American companies to report salary data based on gender. That new transparency could open up some companies to federal investigations, lawsuits or public embarrassment. The White House this month announced that at least 28 major companies had signed an “equal pay pledge.”

Tina Huang, a former Twitter software engineer, argues in a lawsuit that the company’s culture around job promotions holds back women at all levels of its engineering ranks. Jason Lohr, an attorney with San Francisco-based Lohr Ripamonti & Segarich, expanded the scope of the gender bias class action against Twitter to include all female software engineers.The case, filed in March 2015, alleges violations of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and wrongful termination.

Twitter is being defended in the case by Lynne Hermle, a partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, who grabbed headlines defending venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield& Byers at trial against sex discrimination claims brought by Ellen Pao.

Wall Street is also getting into the act. In a February 1, 2016 comment letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Pax Ellevate Chair Sallie Krawcheck and CEO Joseph F. Keefe requested that the SEC require companies to disclose gender pay ratio information to investors.

In January, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) proposed revisions to the Employer Information Report to include the collection of pay data from employers (including federal contractors) with more than 100 employees to “assist the agency in identifying possible pay discrimination and assist employers in promoting equal pay in their workplaces.” In addition, new equal pay laws went into effect in New York and California in 2016;and in February, the New Jersey Senate proposed equal pay legislation.

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