Steptoe & Johnson LLP on Tuesday became the latest major law firm to face accusations that it discriminates against woman lawyers.
Ji-In Lee Houck.courtesy photo
A former Steptoe contract lawyer and associate, Ji-In Houck, filed a proposed class action against the firm in Los Angeles federal court, alleging that she did effectively the same work as male and other associates at the firm, but that her salary was only a fraction of what her peers made.
“Despite paying lip-service to diversity in its workforce, and even counseling the firm’s own clients on policies to avoid pay discrimination, defendant Steptoe & Johnson LLP … subjects its female attorneys to unequal pay,” Houck’s lawyer, Lori Andrus of Andrus Anderson, wrote in the complaint.
The suit accuses Steptoe of violating the federal Equal Pay Act and state laws in California. It seeks damages along with court orders that would dictate several changes to the firm’s pay and diversity policies, according to the complaint.
Steptoe issued a statement on Tuesday responding to the lawsuit, saying the firm “is a strong supporter of women lawyers and professionals,” and noting that in 2016 its new partner class was 50 percent women and, in 2017, 80 percent of new partners were women.
The statement also said that women serve on Steptoe’s executive committee and head two of the firm’s four departments, that the firm’s general counsel is a woman and that half of the partners on the firm’s compensation committee, including its co-chair, are women.
“The allegations of associate pay discrimination in this lawsuit by a former junior associate who was hired as a contract attorney and stayed with the firm for less than three years are completely without merit, and we will vigorously defend ourselves against such baseless claims,” Steptoe’s statement said.
Steptoe ranked 141st on a women-in-law scorecard released Tuesday by affiliate The National Law Journal, an annual ranking based on the percentage of female lawyers and female partners at law firms. Data from the ranking show that 32.6 percent of Steptoe’s 373 lawyers in 2016 were women, while 20.8 percent of the firm’s partners were women and 46.2 percent of the firm’s associates were women.
The lawsuit against Steptoe follows other gender bias actions against large law firms, including suits filed in 2016 and 2017 against Sedgwick, Chadbourne & Parke and Proskauer Rose. Those suits, brought on behalf of female current or former partners, generally accused the firms of paying female partners less than their male counterparts and giving them fewer leadership and business generation opportunities. The Sedgwick case has settled, while the Chadbourne and Proskauer suits are ongoing.
Houck passed the bar in 2011 and joined Steptoe in May 2013, coming on board as a contract lawyer with a salary of $85,000. At the time, she had prior experience as an associate at a smaller firm and, once at Steptoe, “immediately began doing the work of an associate,” the lawsuit said.
Although her responsibilities were similar to those of junior associates, Houck alleges that her starting salary was almost half that of other lawyers at Steptoe who had been admitted to the bar in the same year. The suit also said that the junior lawyer routinely received top marks on her annual performance reviews.
Houck’s salary did increase as she stayed longer at Steptoe—in June 2014, the firm officially designated her as an associate and raised her pay to $130,000, and she received another bump up to $160,000 in January 2015. But, the complaint said, that still left her short of male counterparts who at that point would have been making $210,000. Shortly before she left Steptoe in March 2016, the firm gave her another raise to $200,000, which was retroactive back to the start of 2016.
Houck, who is now a litigator at Stalwart Law Group in Los Angeles, also alleges in the suit that she’s not the only woman who was given short shrift at Steptoe. The complaint cites one example of an unnamed female associate. The lawyer, hired in 2013 with nine years of experience, made $190,000 while men at the firm who were licensed to practice law for the same amount of time were making $250,000 to $280,000, the suit said.
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