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Fired female associate at Kirkland alleges biased treatment by 'discriminatory cadre' in IP group

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Male associates in the intellectual property litigation group at Kirkland & Ellis were allegedly treated better and paid more money than a fired female colleague, even though they did similar work and had similar experience, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

Zoya Kovalenko alleges in her federal lawsuit thats two IP partners “led a discriminatory cadre of Kirkland’s IP litigation group” whose disparate treatment of female associates produced “an alarmingly high turnover of female associates relative to male associates.”

Within her tenure of less than a year at the firm, the suit says, Kovalenko learned that seven female associates left her litigation group. She is aware of only one male associate who left during that time.

Kovalenko “experienced a clear discrepancy in treatment” with respect to “workload, support provided for assignments, access to partners, benefits and overall treatment,” the suit says.

Kovalenko says she was fired in September 2021 after complaining about disparate treatment and was then falsely told that poor performance was the reason that she was let go. Negative evaluations of her work were defamatory and a pretext for her firing, the suit says.

The suit says Kovalenko had graduated in 2016, but the firm placed her in the class of 2017 for the purpose of compensation and reviews. Other male associates in the class of 2016 didn’t have to accept lower pay, and they performed the same kind of work that Kovalenko was doing, the suit says.

Kovalenko says the law firm gave her substantial work before scheduled travel on weekends and a vacation, even though supervisors were award of her plans. The supervisors “did not show a similar disregard for male associates’ travel plans, holidays and planned time off,” the suit says.

Kovalenko says she was praised for her work in a patent infringement trial, even as she had to devote part of her time to a separate matter and even though she joined the legal team at the last minute. She was replacing another female associate who abruptly resigned before the trial, the lawsuit says.

A male associate’s schedule, by contrast, was cleared for the trial. The male associate was also given additional support from two junior associates, while Kovalenko got no such help.

During the trial, the lawsuit says, Kovalenko was humiliated when a female partner complained to a damage expert that “I’m stuck with this” while waving her hands “in a derogatory gesture” toward Kovalenko. The partner also asked Kovalenko to order food, a task usually assigned to an assistant or offices services personnel, the suit says.

After the trial, the suit says, Kovalenko and another female associate were booked on a commercial flight home in economy seating. The male associate got to take a charter flight home with partners in an “all-boys’ club flight,” the suit says.

“Clearly, the defendants were more than happy to use women and to leave them behind—literally and figuratively,” the suit says.

The suit alleges violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, California employment law and a San Francisco anti-bias ordinance.

Law360, Bloomberg Law and Reuters were among the publications covering the lawsuit.

A Kirkland & Ellis spokesperson told Law360 and Bloomberg Law that Kovalenko’s work performance fell below its standards, and her allegations were “found to be entirely without merit” after an investigation. Lawyers named as defendants in the lawsuit “are known for their integrity and commitment to mentorship,” the spokesperson said.

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