Most Big Law partners would probably hesitate to file a lawsuit or pursue a dispute in arbitration against their firms. After all, it’s likely to present that lawyer with in an unenviable choice: continuing to work alongside fellow partners as the legal claim remains active, or attempting to move elsewhere with the hope that the suit doesn’t stain future job prospects.
For those reasons and others, litigating a dispute against one’s employer is typically considered a last resort, said Anne Golden, a now-retired name partner at Outten & Golden who specialized in representing executives and other individuals in employment disputes.
“Litigation is a very destructive process,” Golden said, adding that the process is often “more destructive to the employee” than the employer. “The employee has the burden of proof, and if the employee goes public, they’ll never work again in many cases.”
Despite the personal and professional repercussions, employees sometimes reach that point of last resort and file suit. In recent years, three women partners at large firms—the now-defunct Sedgwick; Chadbourne & Parke (now part of Norton Rose Fulbright); and Proskauer Rose—opted for litigation against their firms based on allegations that they experienced gender discrimination in pay and business development opportunities.
The women—Traci Ribeiro, formerly of Sedgwick; Kerrie Campbell, formerly of Chadbourne; and Connie Bertram at Proskauer Rose—all stayed at their firms during a period when their suit was pending.
Ribeiro, who launched her suit in the summer of 2016, remained at Sedgwick until at least several weeks after her case was resolved in arbitration in April 2017, before landing in the Chicago office of Foran Glennon Palandech Ponzi & Rudloff.
Campbell, meanwhile, remained at Chadbourne for part of her suit’s run but was expelled from the partnership with an April 2017 vote. After settling, Campbell started her own solo practice, KCampbell-Law, and has stayed committed to the gender equality struggle she pursued in the Chadbourne case.
Bertram, who brought her gender bias suit in May 2017 and settled with Proskauer earlier this month, remains at the firm and continues to hold practice leadership roles within the labor and employment department, according to her online firm biography.
Golden said those types of circumstances aren’t unique, as it’s relatively common for an employee who brings such a claim, whether against a law firm or another kind of employer, to remain at work even as the dispute is pending. In fact, Golden said, it can be advantageous from a legal standpoint if the employee can withstand the pressures and potential mental health toll of staying on the job as the dispute plays out.
“If the employee keeps showing up for work, it’s very uncomfortable for the employer, so that’s leverage,” she said.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy or comfortable for the employee. Golden said she typically counseled her individual clients that they may face retaliation from their employer or colleagues.
“The individual has to be aware of that possibility,” she said. “It’s a natural human reaction to resent someone who’s bringing a complaint against you.”
Ribeiro, Campbell and Bertram didn’t comment for this article. But, previously, Ribeiro talked to the ABA Journal about suing Sedgwick while remaining at the firm, reportedly saying, “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?”
Campbell, in previous conversations with ALM, also discussed some of the considerations she kept in mind while pursuing her case. In April, she said that she ultimately settled her dispute with Chadbourne after weighing several factors, including that she wasn’t the only one with an interest in how the case turned out.
Campbell’s suit was brought as a proposed class action, with former Chadbourne partners Mary Yelenick and Jaroslawa Zelinsky Johnson also serving as named plaintiffs. They all had to consider the reputational, family and other impacts of a protracted court battle, Campbell said in April.
“I felt very much that there was a purpose for doing this that was greater than myself,” Campbell said. “That kind of perspective—I had to tap into that. The fighter wanted to keep fighting.”
Also in April, Campbell told The American Lawyer’s Careerist columnist Vivia Chen that once she filed suit against Chadbourne, “almost no one” in her local professional world acknowledged the case, or the broader gender inequality issues it brought attention to.
Still, it appears Campbell believed the sense of isolation was worth it.
“I believe anyone leading the way for change must be willing to withstand solitariness,” Campbell said in April. “I went into the litigation with eyes open and I had tremendous support from family.”