Do Law Firms Discriminate Against Female Attorneys?

Sex Discrimination
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Lawyers should be upstanding people who not only know the law but also follow it. We may represent clients who break the law, but we ourselves would like to be seen as law-abiding, good citizens, just like everyone else (if not better). It doesn’t always work that way, though. There are law firms that have discriminated against female lawyers and staff. Fortunately, they can be held legally responsible, just like any other employer.

Law firms are increasingly finding themselves the targets of lawsuits filed by female attorneys claiming unequal pay and treatment by their largely, if not exclusively, male management, who may not want women playing important roles in running their law firms. Of course, just because a discrimination lawsuit has been filed doesn’t mean that the defendant has, in fact, broken the law.

Sedgwick LLP Accused of Underpaying and Not Promoting Female Attorneys

A nonequity partner (a partner who hasn’t invested capital in the law firm and therefore has fewer rights than an equity partner) at Sedgwick accused the firm of systemic discrimination against women and retaliation in a purported class-action lawsuit filed in California state court in July 2016. The plaintiff, Traci Ribeiro, alleged that a “male-dominated culture” prevents female attorneys from earning equal pay and equal partnership status at Sedgwick, according to Law.com.

Ribeiro, who specializes in insurance law, joined Sedgwick’s Chicago office in 2011. She alleged that despite being the third-highest revenue generator at the roughly 300-lawyer firm, she had been denied a promotion to equity partner since 2012. The ability to generate income for a law firm is normally a major consideration for promotion. A male attorney who brought in only about 10% of the revenue that Ribeiro did was nonetheless named an equity partner at Sedgwick in 2015.

Ribeiro claimed that she and other women “cannot crack the glass ceiling at Sedgwick” and that partners there have made sexist comments about her. While about half of Sedgwick’s associates are women, women represent less than 20% of the firm’s equity partners. Some female associates earned up to $50,000 less annually than their male counterparts (though these associates later received raises to make their pay comparable).

Ribeiro still works for Sedgwick in Chicago. The firm has denied discriminating against her or other female attorneys, stating that Ribeiro is paid in the top 10% of all partners at the firm, which grossed $183 million in in 2015.

Female Partner Files Lawsuit for Sex Discrimination

Kerrie Campbell, a partner who specializes in litigation for Chadbourne & Parke LLP, filed a $100 million purported class-action sex discrimination and retaliation complaint against the firm in August 2016 in New York federal court. Campbell described the firm as being managed by an “all-male dictatorship,” paying female partners less than their male counterparts and providing them with fewer leadership opportunities than men, reported Law.com. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Campbell and about 26 other current and former female partners at the firm.

The suit alleged that Campbell joined the litigation department in January 2014 and since then had billed more than $5 million for the firm. Starting in late 2014, Campbell raised her concerns about the inequities facing female attorneys in a memo to the management committee and at meetings with firm leaders. Specifically, Campbell noted that female partners were paid less and received smaller bonuses than their male counterparts. They were also excluded from positions with decision-making authority. Campbell claimed that she was told in early 2015 to leave the firm quietly, and her pay was cut to $180,000, which is about what a starting associate would make. Campbell’s productivity and billing are consistent with Chadbourne’s top-performing male partners, but her pay puts her at the bottom ranks of male partners, including those who have generated far less or even no revenue for the firm.

Chadbourne denied the claims, stating that it is committed to the advancement of women and that Campbell was only asked to leave the firm because her practice did not fit with the firm’s needs. In 2014, 17.6% of Chadbourne’s equity partners were female. The legal action seeks $25 million for back and front pay, $25 million for compensatory damages, and $50 million in punitive damages. The proposed class of plaintiffs is female partners employed by Chadbourne in the United States since August 2013.

The Math Doesn’t Add Up

Looking at the numbers of women who work as attorneys and the number of women attorneys who make their way into the legal industry’s top ranks, something is clearly not right. Here are some pertinent facts, according to Bryan Olson, the chief human resources officer of a major law firm, writing for Bloomberg Law:

  • Women obtain more than 47% of law degrees and are about the same percentage of associates in law firms.
  • However, only 18% of law firm equity partnerships are held by women.
  • The typical law firm’s highest U.S.-based governance committee is 22% female.

Olson describes the math problem facing law firms: if nearly half of the potential partners are women, but less than one-fifth of equity partners are women, are law firms actually choosing the best candidates for partner positions? Olson answers his own question: “The answer: statistically, probably not.” He argues that law firms’ male-dominated power structure needs to be involved in solving the equation, and he blames, at least partially, implicit or unconscious bias against female attorneys seeking advancement.

Another explanation for the lopsided numbers is the existence of explicit, conscious bias against female candidates, which can lead to illegal sex discrimination. This discrimination can involve double standards being used to screen out female candidates and stereotypes that women aren’t capable of managing law firms at a high level.

Summing It Up

If you are a female attorney and you feel that you’re not being paid as well as your male counterparts, or if you feel that your sex is a factor in denying you career advancement at your firm, you may have grounds for a sex discrimination case. If possible, obtain evidence concerning the following:

  • the compensation of other lawyers at your firm,
  • the qualifications of lawyers accepted or rejected as partners, and
  • any statements by partners, especially managing partners or those belonging to an executive committee, showing a bias against women.

While employers have wide leeway when making compensation and promotion decisions, sex discrimination is illegal. Because law firms should know the law, attorneys making discriminatory decisions may be better able to cover their tracks, but that doesn’t mean that discrimination claims against a law firm can’t succeed.

If you have any questions about sex discrimination or feel that you need legal representation to protect your rights at work, contact our office so that we can talk about what’s going on and how we can help you.