Pay Up: Female lawyers are working for income fairness—by suing their firms
According to the lawsuit, Andrew Giaccia, then Chadbourne’s managing partner and now vice chair of the U.S. management committee at Norton Rose, claimed Campbell’s 2014 revenues were a “fluke,” and told her that she was “no Andrei Baev.” Baev, who was a new lateral partner, was guaranteed 1,350 points by the law firm for two years, according to the complaint.
A project finance and corporate transactions attorney who worked in the firm’s London and Moscow offices, Baev left in May to join Reed Smith. According to Campbell’s lawsuit, Baev’s total collections since he became a partner were about $101,000. That equaled approximately 2 percent of Campbell’s contributions to firm revenue.
“Nevertheless, under Chadbourne’s male-dominated leadership and compensation system, Baev has easily made many hundreds of thousands of dollars more than Campbell,” the complaint states.
Baev says, “The information about my collections is far from being correct, as [is] most of the other information provided in the complaint by Ms. Campbell, as it was denied by the firm in the firm’s response to the complaint.” He says that Campbell “provided not completed and twisted information to make her personal point without disclosing other relevant parts.”
Baev notes transactional work, with fees collected after a deal is completed, sometimes takes several months to close. “My practice in nature is very different from Ms. Campbell’s practice,” he says.
Baev adds that, “although the exact numbers are confidential, my total collection of legal fees from the matters that I originated for the firm in 2014-2016 exceeded the collections of Ms. Campbell on her originated matters for the same period of time.”
Campbell said that when she joined the law firm, she had the impression that there was only a one-tier partnership. Then she discovered that besides setting compensation, the management committee could hire and promote partners without the general partnership’s knowledge.
“I don’t for one second believe that I have ever been an equity partner. I am nothing more than an employee who was told what to do,” Campbell said. “The management committee hides information from the general partnership, refuses to disclose financial decisions and all compensation decisions are made in secret.”
ATMOSPHERE OF CHANGE
Campbell was asked to leave the firm in 2016, according to her complaint. The stated reason was that her practice did not fit with its strategic direction. It was suggested that she’d be a “partner in transition” and leave as soon as possible. “The management committee decided to ‘incentivize’ Campbell’s speedy ouster,” the complaint says, by making her salary at the firm that of a first-year associate.
Campbell stuck around instead. She tells the ABA Journal that after she filed, the partners in her hall moved to a different part of the floor. Few if any would speak to her after she was asked to leave.
“I have the distinct impression that no one wants to be in the elevator with me,” she said in October. “We are in the business of handling disputes every day. We show professionalism and work through our problems. I feel like this is the opposite of how professionals should conduct themselves.”
Chadbourne tells a different story. In its answer to Campbell’s complaint, it alleges she didn’t generate the revenue that she claims. The November 2016 filing details a high-net-worth client she brought to the firm who allegedly refused to work with her due to dissatisfaction with how she handled a previous matter. He did agree to work with a male Chadbourne partner, according to the court filing, and the matter brought in approximately $1.5 million. Campbell had previously estimated the work would generate $2.1 million and received credit for the amount in 2014, according to the law firm.
In a statement sent to the ABA Journal, Chadbourne denies all claims that Campbell made against the firm:
“No business purpose could be served by deliberately undermining or underpaying a lateral partner,” the statement says. “In fact in the past, Chadbourne has asked other partners—many of whom are male—to transition from the firm when they did not deliver on their business objectives. Much of what this case reflects is the legal profession’s ongoing struggle with lateral hiring as it is well-known that a large number of laterals do not succeed.”
Various motions in the action are pending before the court, Sanford says. In June, Chadbourne lost its prediscovery motion for summary judgment.
While some question whether filings like Campbell’s will be successful, others think they might have a good chance, given case law and the changing structures of law firm partnerships. Over the years, federal courts have held that some workers with a partner title are actually employees under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act because they don’t control the operations of the firm and have their pay and tasks set by others.
In 2002, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Chicago found that a group of Sidley & Austin partners who brought an age discrimination claim against the firm were unlikely to be considered employers under federal law, given that a 36-member committee controlled the firm. The opinion notes that the firm had 500 partners, and only those already on the committee could elect others to the group. The lawsuit settled in 2007 for $27.5 million.
“In this new structure of law firms, where you have a lot of different classes of citizens, from the outside it looks like someone is a partner. From the inside, you need to know what that means,” says Stewart Schwab, an employment professor at Cornell Law School. “If you can show that the male partners are making a lot more money than the female partners, I think those will be good claims.”
According to the National Association of Women Lawyers survey, men account for 82 percent of law firms’ equity partnerships.
Still, if someone wants to continue practicing law in a large-firm setting, suing for gender discrimination is risky, Rossein says.
“I’m always concerned about people being able to move on with their careers,” the CUNY law professor says. “It’s hard to give good advice, but maybe the best advice to give people is the advice to move on.”
Alternatively, the promotion of such fears could be a way to keep people from suing, according to Sanford. Francine Friedman Griesing, his client who sued Greenberg Traurig, now has her own litigation firm. Her law firm website lists 14 other attorneys. Similar clients have gone in-house or joined different law firms, Sanford says, and some have become mediators and expert witnesses.
“It’s a big world, there are a lot of opportunities, and people within the law who are talented and well-trained can do a lot of things,” Sanford says.
ON HER OWN
Campbell is the primary income earner in her family, and she and her husband have six children. Complicating things are partnership contributions Campbell made to Chadbourne before she was expelled. They totaled more than $200,000, and she took out a loan to make the payments. The contributions have not been returned, according to Sanford.
“It’s resulted in a financial disaster for me and my family,” Campbell says. “There are payment terms that have extended into years, and I’ve got these contract agreements to pay interest.”
By July, Campbell had opened her own law firm in Washington, D.C.
Levinson, the University of Louisville law professor, suspects that when a female partner enters arbitration with a firm regarding employment discrimination, the word gets out—despite confidentiality clauses—particularly among other law firms thinking about hiring the partner.
“There’s code speech, like ‘not a team player’ or ‘can’t get along with staff.’ Or ‘doesn’t go to lunch with us every week,’ ” Levinson says. “There’s all kinds of things they can say to signal that someone is a troublemaker, and people know.”
Damrell agrees. “We’re still in a culture where people will judge, and I think the judgment around bringing a lawsuit is gender blind,” she says.
But clients may see things differently. According to both Campbell and Ribeiro, theirs have been supportive.
“They know me, and they know how hard I work and how accessible I am. They have no doubt that I am not being paid equally,” said Ribeiro in November, adding that when her lawsuit got media mention, clients often checked in to see how she’s doing.
“My answer is ‘OK,’ but I’d rather be practicing law with no distractions.”