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It could be the biggest employment discrimination case ever. Betty Dukes, et al. v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., alleges that the nation’s largest private employer denies equal pay and promotions to women. With more than 700,000 possible plaintiffs, and damages that could run into the billions, it’s a potential nightmare for the Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer. But behind the scenes, Wal-Mart’s defense team may have hit some bumps in the road. Even before a class certification hearing was held, two major law firms had exited the case. When the complaint was filed in San Francisco federal court in June 2001, Wal-Mart hired Seyfarth Shaw. Veteran employment lawyer Gilmore Diekmann, Jr., who works in the firm’s San Francisco office, headed the company’s defense. Soon after, Wal-Mart brought in Jones Day, which it selected as lead counsel after interviewing several firms. The team was led by Cleveland partner John Strauch, the coordinator of Jones Day’s litigation group. In April 2002 Seyfarth formally withdrew. Then, last December, Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker partner Nancy Abell took command of Wal-Mart’s defense. Four months later Jones Day filed a motion to withdraw, which the court granted. Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mona Williams says the company does not discuss its selection of counsel. Likewise, none of the defense attorneys would comment on the switches. Lead plaintiffs lawyer Brad Seligman claims these changes have helped his clients. Seligman, who heads a Berkeley foundation called The Impact Fund, notes that Paul, Hastings had the unenviable task of parachuting into a discovery process that was almost over. “They had enormous catch-up they had to do,” he says. Indeed, Paul, Hastings had less than a month to prepare for the depositions of some senior executives. “We were quite pleased with how the last set of depositions went,” Seligman says. “We don’t see it that way,” responds Wal-Mart spokeswoman Williams. Of course, none of this will make any difference if Wal-Mart can defeat class certification. At press time a hearing on the issue was set for September 24.

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