I have several gut reactions to the lawsuit filed against Morrison & Foerster by three of its female associates in California. (They accused the firm of discriminating against mothers and pregnant women by denying them career advancement opportunities and paying them less than their colleagues.)
First was my disbelief that a firm with a super-progressive reputation would be accused of being another Neanderthal institution. But once I absorbed the news, my reaction was meh. I mean, is it really so unusual that lawyer-moms face negative stereotypes and that the mommy track is a dead end?
Those reactions don’t cancel each other out. You can be an über cool firm with “woke” family policies and still have individuals within the firm who question a woman’s commitment to work after she becomes a parent. But the question is whether those individual prejudices prove systemic discrimination.
Reading the complaint, I can’t say it’s an easy case. (May I just say I find it frustrating to read a filing in which neither the plaintiffs nor the allegedly offending partners are named? There are probably strategic reasons for this, but I find it troubling.)
But here’s what I find baffling: Why is MoFo of all the fair firms in the land getting slammed as a terrible place for women? Frankly, I can think of far worse places. According to its current chair Larren Nashelsky, it’s ahead of the curve. He said women make up 25 percent of the executive committee and 33 percent of the compensation committee and 25 percent of all partners—though its female equity partner rank is below 20 percent.
“MoFo has been brazenly made a target for a real problem in the industry—the career challenges that parents face,” said former MoFo chair Keith Wetmore, who’s now a managing director at Major, Lindsey & Africa. “I think there are easier targets.”
Wetmore said that MoFo made a genuine effort to be progressive, adding: “During my 12 years as chair, we made at least 15 women partners while they were part time.”
Making that many part-timers into partners sounds impressive, except that it represents just slightly more than one woman a year. In other words, women who make it on that track are the exception.
Yet, we seem to be setting up the unrealistic expectation that the so-called Mommy Track can be a path to success. Why do we perpetuate the myth that it’s viable to avail yourself of every family-friendly offering and never lose your place in the race?
Probably because that’s become a talking point of Big Law and that’s what women (and some men) want to hear. It’s a comforting—even fanciful—notion that you can take time off for children and stay in the game in a highly competitive profession.
According to the complaint in the MoFo suit, the three plaintiffs did not advance with their original class after returning to work after their maternity leaves. They claimed that they were shut out of good assignments, faulted for taking parental leaves, told to hit “unrealistic” billing targets or otherwise treated like second-class citizens. One plaintiff was told by a partner, according to the complaint, that if she chose to go part time, “it would be interpreted as lack of interest in her career and becoming a partner.”
While it’s just plain sexist to impugn lack of ability or ambition with motherhood, is it that unfair to hold someone back after a substantial leave (or several leaves)?
I guess that sort of depends on how the firm is selling itself. If it’s billing itself as a place where it’s possible to have it all, disappointment (and lawsuits) may ensue.
“There’s a risk if you describe yourself as the land of milk an honey,” said Wetmore, “then end up with only skim milk.”