Pay Up: Female lawyers are working for income fairness—by suing their firms
If female law partners think they are being treated unfairly, bringing legal action may not be the best way to advocate for themselves, says Lauri Damrell, an employment partner with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in Sacramento, California. Damrell, whose clients include law firms, advises getting as much feedback as possible and being self-reflective.
“If you have concerns early on, talk with mentors and understand the reasons for their decisions,” she says. “Don’t get to the point where you feel like you’re on your last rope.”
“To say that there’s not discrimination out there is foolish,” Damrell says, “but I’ve also seen instances where the employee bringing the claim had some issues where they were not self-aware.”
Even if someone is an excellent attorney, she adds, that does not mean the person would be the best partnership choice for a law firm.
“What is valuable to one firm may not be valuable to another, depending upon their mix of lawyers, practice areas, clients, geography and so many other factors,” Damrell says. As far as partnership and promotions, “it’s really hard to write down and specify criteria. Part of the decision is the right mix. You might be a great candidate, but the firm doesn’t need someone in your lane.”
But figures quoted by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession in its 2017 report A Current Glance at Women in the Law (PDF) show more than lane choice may be involved.
The fact is that in October 2015, the National Association of Women Lawyers and the NAWL Foundation reported after a study of the 200 largest law firms that 30 firms’ responses showed a typical female partner earned 80 percent of what a typical male partner did, the commission points out. The commission also notes 2015 figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showing female lawyers’ weekly salary was 89.7 percent that of male lawyers, up 6.7 percentage points from the previous year.
That being said, it seems that all law firms need partners with significant business, and the three plaintiffs claim they have or had that. Some of them claim they had significantly more business than many male partners, yet were compensated similarly as men who had less business than they did. The NAWL found no firms reported having a female as the highest earner.
Ribeiro, formerly a special counsel at the Chicago insurance-defense firm BatesCarey, joined Sedgwick in 2011 as a contract partner. A client suggested the move, and in 2012 she was promoted to nonequity partner.
That same year, Ribeiro discovered that female associates who worked for her earned $40,000-$50,000 less than comparable males at the firm. She brought that to management’s attention in September 2012 and advocated for raises on the women’s behalf.
“What really stood out was that the women were more profitable, had higher hourly rates and billed more hours than the men,” she said.
Later that year, Ribeiro discovered she, too, was underpaid.
“I could tell that the men who had no business made almost the same as me,” said Ribeiro, who suspected that sticking up for her female associates had something to do with her alleged compensation discrepancy.
According to the lawsuit, the head of Ribeiro’s practice group stated at a November 2016 equity partner meeting that Ribeiro “needed to learn to behave.”
“And in order to teach her to behave, [that lawyer] recommended lowering Ribeiro’s compensation for the year,” the lawsuit states. It goes on to assert that he labeled her as a problem employee, although he never had any personal interactions with her.
Sedgwick did not respond to interview requests.
According to the complaint, no other equity partners made efforts to correct the group leader’s behavior. However, a female equity partner did tell Ribeiro that based on generated revenue, she should have received significantly more compensation.
Between 2012 and 2015, Ribeiro said, she tried to work with the firm regarding her compensation and continued to pursue an equity partnership. In 2015, she met with the recently elected chair of the firm. When she shared concerns about what she saw as unfair treatment, the complaint says, he implied that it was her fault that she had not yet made it to equity partnership.
He did not have suggestions about what she could specifically do to improve, according to the lawsuit, but did ask if her caseload could keep less productive partners in the California offices busy.
The lawsuit, which sought $200 million in damages, compares Ribeiro to the plaintiff in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, a landmark suit in which plaintiff Ann Hopkins claimed she was denied partnership at the accountancy firm due to sex discrimination because the firm saw her as not fitting its idea of what a woman should look or act like. In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the Title VII ban on sex discrimination includes treatment of those who don’t conform to gender norms.
‘ENOUGH is enough’
Shortly before Ribeiro contacted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Sedgwick promoted one person to equity partner. The lawyer was male, and Ribeiro suspected that he had less than 10 percent of the revenues that she did.
“Ribeiro is decisive and assertive. Those skills enable her to obtain successful client outcomes, which resulted in her being entrusted with additional client engagements,” her lawsuit states. “But because she is a woman, Sedgwick’s male leadership perceives her as a second-class citizen who should be kept in her place.”
“It’s gotten to the point where some of us are willing to say enough is enough,” said Campbell, the former Chadbourne partner suing the firm, who was first interviewed in October, before she was expelled from the partnership.
“I’m bringing the lawsuit because I think discriminatory treatment needs to stop,” she said in a subsequent interview in July. “Many women who have been treated unfairly do not try to seek a remedy because it is difficult. But nothing will change if people do not stand up.”
Campbell, a former Collier & Shannon partner who handles disparagement cases for consumer safety product companies, joined Chadbourne in 2012 after her old law firm merged with Manatt Phelps & Phillips. She brought with her 20-plus clients, according to the complaint, and in 2014 generated more than $5 million in collections for the firm.
Like Ribeiro, Campbell said the firm saw her business generation as a coincidence. Based on the offer letter when she joined, Campbell said, she expected to earn annual compensation of at least $750,000 plus a merit bonus.
“What I actually received was far less than expected,” said Campbell, describing Chadbourne’s compensation system as “vague, murky and confusing.”
Chadbourne based partner compensation on a points system determined by the five-member management committee, according to a court memo filed by Campbell’s lawyers in support of her request for collective action. Until recently the committee had no female members, and the points awarded are determined by anticipated revenues. The committee routinely overvalues male partners’ anticipated contributions, according to Campbell’s complaint. It also alleges that female partners frequently are awarded a low number of points, while men who are equally or less productive receive higher point values.
In the court memo, Campbell’s lawyers assert that the average base pay for Chadbourne’s female partners in 2016 was 21 percent less than their male counterparts. Also, the filing argues that for 2015, only 28 percent of the female partners received merit bonuses. Comparatively, 44 percent of the male partners received bonuses that year.
Campbell claims that she demonstrated the ability to generate more than $2 million in revenues when she joined Chadbourne in 2014, based on her collections at Manatt, and for that she was awarded 500 points. Campbell asked that her points be increased to 850.