Firing back at gender bias allegations filed by a former associate, Steptoe & Johnson forcefully denied Thursday that it has a pay disparity between women and men and urged a Los Angeles federal judge to send a suit against the firm to arbitration.
Steptoe lodged a motion to compel arbitration as its first substantive filing since former associate Ji-In Houck accused the firm of discriminating against female lawyers in a class action complaint filed on June 23.
The firm—defended in the suit by Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer labor and employment head David Reis and partner Dipanwita Deb Amar, both of whom are based in San Francisco—argued that Houck’s claims should be sent to arbitration because she had twice “signed written agreements to arbitrate any disputes she might ever have with the firm.” Steptoe also maintained that those agreements prohibit Houck from pursuing a class action against the firm.
Beyond the push to arbitrate, Steptoe’s defense team criticized the allegations levied by Houck, who joined the firm as a contract lawyer in 2013 and was later elevated to a partner-track associate position. Steptoe’s lawyers wrote on Thursday that Houck’s path at the firm was unusual, adding that it has “strictly gender-neutral” pay and promotion practices for both contract lawyers and associates.
Houck’s “attempt to conflate her dissatisfaction with her own atypical career at the firm with the sweeping conclusion that Steptoe is a place where women lawyers are paid less and receive fewer opportunities than their male counterparts is both unfair and unsupported,” wrote the firm’s defense team. “The firm remains committed to gender equity and will continue to pursue practices and initiatives to advance that goal. If this case is allowed to continue, the evidence will flatly refute plaintiff’s claims.”
Lori Andrus, a former partner at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein and now a name partner at San Francisco-based Andrus Anderson, is representing Houck in the suit. Andrus did not immediately return a request for comment Friday.
Houck, a 2011 graduate from the Georgetown University Law Center now working as a litigator at the Stalwart Law Group in Los Angeles, alleged in her complaint that she did similar work as male and other associates at Steptoe, but received a salary that fell short of her peers.
After joining Steptoe in May 2013 as a contract lawyer in Century City, California, Houck made $85,000 per year, according to her suit against the firm. In June 2014, Steptoe designated her as an associate and raised her pay to $130,000 per year. She subsequently received another salary bump to $160,000.
By that point, Houck’s complaint claims that her counterparts at Steptoe who joined the firm as full-fledged associates would have been making $210,000 per year. Shortly before Houck left Steptoe in March 2016, the firm gave her another raise to $200,000, which was retroactive to the start of that year.
Houck’s complaint alleged that Steptoe subjected women to unequal pay “despite paying lip-service to diversity in its workforce, and even counseling the firm’s own clients on policies to avoid pay discrimination.” Steptoe, which opened its Century City office in 2006, is accused by Houck of violating the federal Equal Pay Act and California state laws.
When Houck sued in June, it marked the latest in a string of gender bias cases filed against large law firms. A trio of other recent suits filed in 2016 and 2017 by current and former partners has targeted Chadbourne & Parke, Proskauer Rose and Sedgwick.
The Sedgwick case, which was sent to arbitration after it was filed, settled quietlyearlier this year. The suits against Proskauer and Chadbourne—the latter now part of Norton Rose Fulbright after a combination that became official in June—remain ongoing in federal court.