David Sanford.
David Sanford. ()

Big Law has a major gender equality problem, according to David Sanford, the chairman of Sanford Heisler Sharp.

Sanford is in a position to know. His firm is taking action to address the disparities he sees—it currently represents about a dozen woman partners­, and it is pursuing bias claims against at least five firms in cases that are not yet public. He’s also handled many cases that ended in confidential settlements­­—deals that when added together, he says, enabled female partners to recover tens of millions of dollars.

“Certainly some firms are worse than others,” Sanford said. “But I think it’s also fair to say that the legal industry has a problem as an industry. The numbers aren’t good across the country in Big Law.”

As ALM publications have reported, Sanford is the lead attorney in a trio of gender discrimination cases brought by current and former female partners against Sedgwick, Chadbourne & Parke and Proskauer Rose. Those suits all seek millions of dollars in damages, and generally allege that the firms gave female partners short shrift on leadership opportunities and compensation.

The most recent suit, which Sanford filed May 12 against Proskauer on behalf of an unnamed partner in the firm’s Washington, D.C., office, seeks at least $50 million. In addition to pay equity issues raised in the other suits, the Proskauer partner alleges she’s been subjected to inappropriate comments from male colleagues.

Sanford’s efforts to correct bias in the legal industry don’t stop with those three suits, however.

The Washington, D.C.-based lawyer is representing roughly a dozen woman partners from “Big Law” firms in connection with allegations of gender bias, and his firm is actively pursuing bias claims for eight or nine partners—all involving different law firms. That group includes the three suits already in court and others in pre-lawsuit negotiations, he said.

While three recent suits have become public—and Sanford expects others may emerge in the coming months—he said that “more often than not” his clients have resolved disputes with their firms outside of court.

“When that happens you never find out about it,” he said. “We’re obliged to keep those details confidential and even the fact of that happening confidential.”

Although mum on specifics regarding past confidential settlements, Sanford did say that he has represented both individuals and groups of partners in those mediations. And taking all of those confidential deals in total, the recoveries for female partners are in the range of “tens of millions of dollars,” he said.

While the legal sector has serious gender discrimination issues­, Sanford said that Big Law’s problems are emblematic of those in “virtually every other industry” his firm has examined. In many sectors, he said, women are more likely to be passed over for promotions or receive lower pay than their male counterparts.

“So I don’t think that the legal industry has a special problem,” said Sanford. “But I do think it has a representative problem.”

When it comes to large law firms, he added, gender disparities tend to heighten as lawyers move up the ranks. Although he’s seen instances of woman associates receiving lower bonuses than men, the lockstep approach that most firms use to set the base salaries for associates can put a check on differences in pay at that level, Sanford explained.

But higher up the chain, employment conditions for lawyers often depend heavily on decisions made at the top of the firm, Sanford said. Firm leaders, for instance, decide whether to make a particular lawyer a partner. And they have control over compensation, deciding how bonuses are administered or which partners receive credit for originating a matter.

“We see the differences arise at those key moments of discretionary authority,” Sanford said. “And that discretion is typically administered by males.”

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