Pay Up: Female lawyers are working for income fairness—by suing their firms

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Woman sitting on a park bench

Photo of Traci Ribeiro by John R. Boehm.

Traci Ribeiro is single and has no children. Practicing law, the Chicago insurance-defense attorney has said, gives her significant joy.

“It’s what I do for fun. So the usual defenses firms use for not paying women fairly, they couldn’t use those with me even if they wanted to,” the Sedgwick partner said last November, shortly after she filed an Equal Pay Act lawsuit against the firm.

The lawsuit initially was filed in the Superior Court of California in San Francisco, where Sedgwick was founded. The firm won motions to move the complaint to federal court and compel arbitration, based on the firm’s partnership agreement. By April the parties had reached a provisional settlement, according to a federal court filing; and David Sanford, Ribeiro’s lawyer, said that neither he nor she would comment on the case further. On Aug. 3, a receptionist with Sedgwick’s Chicago office told the ABA Journal that Ribeiro was no longer with the firm.

Ribeiro is one of two female partners and three former partners who have sued their law firms in the past two years, charging gender discrimination in compensation. All are represented by Sanford, a Washington, D.C.-based employment lawyer, and claim that male partners with comparable or inferior performance earned more than they did.

The lawsuits’ allegations aren’t surprising, but the fact the women came forward is. Although statistical data repeatedly shows that women at large law firms earn less than their male counterparts and have fewer leadership opportunities, regardless of work experience and practice areas, suing for gender discrimination continues to be seen as career suicide for someone who does not want to leave big-firm life or feels she can’t afford to.

Sanford, who has also brought gender discrimination actions against Greenberg Traurig and Howrey (which folded in 2011), said in November he was representing 12 different lawyers charging gender discrimination against their firms. Most of the matters, he said, are not public, but those that are get significant media attention.

“That makes it seem like a new thing, but it’s not for me or my firm,” Sanford said. “What I have observed is that there is an increasing groundswell in interest and support for this kind of action. When courageous people step forward and shine a spotlight on pay and promotions practices in the workplace, a lot of people take note.”

Law firm disputes frequently go to arbitration, and almost all of the agreements require confidentiality, says Merrick Rossein, an employment professor at the City University of New York School of Law. He’s also a member of the American Arbitration Association’s national panel for employment resolution.

“I’ve had a number of different cases, but I’ve certainly seen more gender and age discrimination cases than other cases,” Rossein adds. “One of the patterns in terms of gender is that women complain early on that they didn’t have the same type of mentoring as men and weren’t assigned cases which would lead in a direction where they could be seen in the firm as fully contributing associates. And certainly the very competitive firms are based on old male models. Some of that has been eliminated, but it’s still there in too many firms.”

Two of Sanford’s clients claim they were frequently assigned underutilized associates who often lacked the legal skills of those paired with male partners. All say law firm management was significantly or exclusively male, and the firms had a culture that favored men over women.

“Early on, it became apparent to me that women were perceived to be treated as second-class citizens,” says Kerrie Campbell, who in August 2016 filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against now-merged Chadbourne & Parke. She continued to practice with the law firm until April, when she was expelled by the partnership. Seventy partners voted in favor of the expulsion, Law360 reported, and hers was the only vote in support of her staying. (Norton Rose Fulbright announced its merger with Chadbourne on June 30.)


The choices faced by female lawyers in such situations don’t provide much appeal: Stay silent and see no change. Leave and hope for better opportunities elsewhere. Or sue, facing repercussions no matter whether they leave or stay for the legal battle.

“Should I have gone to another firm and hoped not to expect the same thing? I don’t know if that’s going to be the case, so why not just fight it. It’s about fairness first and foremost,” Ribeiro said in November. “As long as they keep letting me have staff, then I keep making them money. So it’s not in their best interest to push me away.”

Ribeiro, who in her lawsuit claimed to be Sedgwick’s third-highest business generator, sought class action status, but no one had joined her by the time the case settled. Campbell’s lawsuit, which now includes Norton Rose, was filed in the Southern District of New York and also seeks class action status. Its other plaintiffs are Mary Yelenick, a former partner who is now of counsel at the firm, and Jaroslawa Z. Johnson, who previously was managing partner of Chadbourne’s Kiev, Ukraine, office.

The third lawsuit, filed May 12 against Proskauer Rose, has a Jane Doe plaintiff. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia filing, which does not seek class action status, alleges that in addition to the Equal Pay Act, Proskauer violated the Family and Medical Leave Act.

The Proskauer partner joined the law firm in 2013 and claims she was told that if she generated at least $7 million in revenues a year, she would be paid more than $3 million annually, according to her complaint. That didn’t happen, her lawsuit says, and she was rebuffed after expressing an expectation to earn at least $2.75 million.

Last year, Proskauer paid a new male partner about 65 percent more than the plaintiff, though his client originations were only 63 per-cent of what she had, according to the suit. The filing mentions another male partner who earned 40 percent more than she did. She and the man had approximately the same amount of client originations, but she had more than twice as many billable hours, the complaint states.

Interestingly, Kathleen McKenna—an employment partner in Proskauer’s New York City office—represents Chadbourne in the gender discrimination lawsuit filed by Campbell. That’s unusual, says Ariana Levinson, a labor and employment professor at the University of Louisville’s Louis D. Brandeis School of Law.

“Maybe [the plaintiff] realized she had a case against Proskauer when she was working on or heard from colleagues about the Chadbourne case,” Levinson says. “I would think Proskauer might complain that they were targeted by David Sanford in an effort to pressure them not to defend these types of cases, but I haven’t heard anything like that yet.”

According to the Proskauer partner suing the firm, colleagues became increasingly hostile after her compensation complaints, and things got worse when she stepped down as first-chair in a trial one month before it started due to a family emergency.

Like Ribeiro, the Proskauer partner has an arbitration clause in her contract. Sanford, who would not comment on the client’s identity, maintains the arbitration clause does not apply to her situation. The lawsuit claims she was diagnosed with severe hypertension, a heart valve condition and esophagitis. She is seeking more than $50 million in damages.

“The hostile, discriminatory and retaliatory treatment she has faced at work made her sick. The harm she has suffered is part of the compensatory damages we are seeking,” Sanford says.

In a statement about the lawsuit, Proskauer asserts that the median compensation for male and female equity partners is almost identical before the firm considers other factors, like specialty and experience. It also states that out of 49 partners in the plaintiff’s department, she’s been among the top five earners.

“She claims it is unfair that she was 18th in client originations among equity partners, yet only 32nd in compensation for 2014-2016,” the statement reads. “Here’s what she is not telling you—in that same three-year period, she ranked 32nd in revenue generation and 134th in realization among all partners, which reflects the lower profitability of the revenue for which she claims credit. In 2016, she ranked 40th in revenue generation and 165th in realization.”

Released May 15, the statement also claims the plaintiff’s lawsuit is “riddled with situations that never occurred.” And it notes that the woman has worked with different law firms. Like Ribeiro and Campbell, the Proskauer plaintiff is a lateral partner.

“The plaintiff left each of her two prior firms after just four years and just completed her fourth with ours,” the statement reads. “That might be her view of partnership. It is not ours.”

Proskauer filed a summary judgment motion in June, arguing that the plaintiff is an equity partner, not an employee.

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