High-profile gender bias lawsuits like the one former Fox News Network anchor Gretchen Carlson settled this week with the network for a reported $20 million are a boon to lawyers because of the fees and media attention they garner.
But a handful of lawsuits filed against law firms this year are drawing attention to the legal industry’s own record when it comes to how women are treated in the workforce. Legal recruiters and consultants say these suits come at a time when talented female lawyers are already seeking out firms that have women in leadership roles, and will only intensify a recruiting problem for law firms where that’s not the case.
Last week, litigation partner Kerrie Campbell sued Chadbourne & Parke, alleging that the firm is run by an “all-male dictatorship” that consistently underpays women, including top earners like Campbell claims to be. The firm denied the allegations in the suit, which seeks class action status and $100 million in damages.
Campbell joined Chadbourne in 2014 with help from the legal recruiting firm Sitcov Director Inc. Cynthia Sitcov, a manager of the firm, said she had been advised by a lawyer not to comment on Campbell, Chadbourne or their case because the litigation is pending, but in an interview she spoke generally about the challenges women face at law firms.
“It’s harder being a woman in a law firm trying to get to a management position than it is being a man,” Sitcov said. She said some firms have successful female leaders, noting Bryan Cave, with Therese Pritchard as its chair, as an example, but others have not promoted women so readily.
“There are certain firms that are all boys clubs,” she added.
Female lawyers are asking whether the firms where they’re interviewing have women in decision-making roles at the firm, legal recruiters and hiring partners at law firms say.
“Women are very aware of the differences [between] law firms and have certainly figured out that those are appropriate questions that they should be asking,” said Jason Kanner, co-chair of Kirkland & Ellis’s recruiting committee. He said Kirkland has several women on its management committee.
Sheri Michaels, a partner at the recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, agreed that female partners looking to switch to a new firm want to know whether there are women leading the firm’s most significant practice groups and committees, such as the compensation and management committees.
“When you look at that next generation of young rising stars, they’ve been brought up networking and building books of business and now they’re looking to capitalize on it,” Michaels said. “They want to be at a firm that’s going to support and reward that.”
Campbell is not the only law firm partner to file a complaint this year alleging that an all-male leadership team is treating women unfairly at her firm. In January, a former LeClairRyan partner, Michele Craddock, accused her firm, where allegedly 19.7 percent of the equity partners are women, of failing to promote and pay female lawyers fairly in a case that was sent to arbitration several months later. Craddock claimed that a small group of men make all policy, compensation and governance decisions and that they treat men more favorably when deciding who should receive origination credits, a supplemental retirement plan, equity partner status and higher pay. The firm denied the allegations.
And at Sedgwick, nonequity partner Traci Ribeiro said in a complaint filed in July that her firm’s “male-dominated culture creates an environment where gender stereotypes flourish.” Ribeiro, who also wants her suit to be a class action, alleged that systemic discrimination at Sedgwick kept her from equity partner status and kept female associates from earning as much as men in the same position. The firm’s leaders denied her allegations and last week asked that the suit be sent to arbitration.
“A lot of these suits—if they have any merit at all—will get settled,” said Susan Blakely, a former litigator who now writes and speaks about women’s issues in the legal industry. “They’re not going to come down to is it true or is it not. So these young women are left with questions: Is that what I can expect? That’s not what you want.”
A gender imbalance among the owners of law firms is generally the rule, not the exception. Women made up 17.4 percent of equity partners at law firms in the United States last year, according to data collected by the National Association for Law Placement.
Unless law firms can ensure that their policies and practices for promoting and compensating partners are fair, other gender bias claims may emerge, said Ida Abbott, a law firm consultant.
“Women are feeling bolder and there’s a much greater awareness around the fact that women are being paid less for comparable work,” Abbott said. She added that as a result of the feeling that they’re not being treated fairly “some women leave and some women sue.”
Contact Nell Gluckman at email@example.com. On Twitter: @NellGluckman