I’m fascinated by troublemakers, particularly ones who put their careers on the line by taking on establishments like Big Law. One such troublemaker is Kerrie Campbell, who catapulted to prominence when she sued her former firm Chadbourne & Parke (now Norton Rose Fulbright), alleging gender discrimination.
I’ve wanted to interview Campbell since she filed the case back in 2016, but for various reasons—her lawyer’s advice or her own reluctance to talk to a reporter—it didn’t happen. But this March, her case suddenly settled. This time, when I contacted Campbell, she was happy to chat, with the caveat that she not talk about the terms of the settlement.
What’s public about the settlement is that Norton Rose has agreed to pay $1 million to Campbell, plus another $1 million to the co-plaintiffs—ex-head of Chadbourne’s product liability practice Mary Yelenick ($750,000) and ex-Ukrainian partner Jaroslawa Johnson ($250,000) to settle claims under the Equal Pay Act. In addition, the firm will pay $1.08 million in attorney fees to plaintiffs firm Sanford Heisler Sharp. What’s not public is how the plaintiffs resolved their other claims against the firm, pertaining to city, state and federal discrimination and retaliation laws.
When I talked with Campbell on the phone, she was forthright, energetic and humorous. As you’d expect from a woman who called her former firm an “all-male dictatorship” in her complaint, she has strong opinions about women in the profession and the #MeToo movement.
What follows is an edited version of our conversation:
Congrats on the settlement. You must be relieved it’s over. Any lingering disappointments that your case never went to trial?
I feel a bit torn about not going to trial because the threshold issue of whether partners are employees was not resolved. This is a critical issue that requires clarity. Big Law enjoys the financial and tax benefits of big business but claims it should not be held to the same legal standards, like Title VII and the Equal Pay Act. The irony is magnificent. Why should Big Law businesses not be held accountable for complying with anti-discrimination laws like other businesses when modern Big Law “partners” are akin to at-will employees? The nostalgic notion that Big Law partners have meaningful control over complex and global firm finances and business operations is a fiction, completely at odds with the modern legal industry. Consider this: The mega-firm verein business structure —by definition—is not a partnership.
Wow, you don’t sound like you’ve given up the fight. Given your strong views about Big Law partnerships, why didn’t you push for your day in court?
The judicial process can be like pushing steel through mud–a long, messy slog. I felt compelled to consider interests beyond my own, including the weight of two years of litigation on my family. It hasn’t been easy for my kids, husband and mother. I chose litigation as a profession; they did not. I decided to make peace, move on and live with my decision.
Do you think #MeToo had an effect on your case, like pushing Chadbourne to settle quicker.
The Me Too movement emerged after our case had already been pending for over a year. I can tell you that I was moved to tears when the “Silence-Breakers” were recognized as Time Magazine’s “People of the Year.” I get chills thinking about it. Who would have thought that would happen at that moment in time? The Me Too movement exemplifies the power of the collective and transparency to effect positive change in a powerful way.
You brought the suit while you were still working at Chadbourne, which must have been super awkward. Did your female colleagues say anything to you about it?
Almost no one in my local professional world acknowledged the huge elephant in the room. There is a pall on acknowledging [gender bias] in the legal community—never mind rallying against it. I believe that well-established Big Law lawyers, mentors and law firm leaders who remain silent on this issue, or just don’t want the bother of getting involved because it’s difficult or distracting, are a big part of the problem.
And how you dealt with the isolation?
I believe anyone leading the way for change must be willing to withstand solitariness. I went into the litigation with eyes open and I had tremendous support from family.
I found it interesting that Chadbourne extended an olive branch to you after the settlement, given the acrimony during the suit. At the time, the firm played hardball, questioning your legal abilities and suggesting that you were wacky. So what did you make of the statement it issued in which it practically thanked you for raising their consciousness?
I’m grateful for the firm’s positive public comments.
Chadbourne/Norton Rose didn’t make any specific commitments about how it would deal with gender inequality going forward. Do you think your case will have an impact on the firm or others?
It seems a lot of firms closely followed this case and became more acutely aware of the tremendous risks and exposure associated with discriminatory and retaliatory conduct. I have received support and encouragement from women and men around the country who have told me how much this case and cause has meant to them. I can only imagine that responsible firms have taken a closer look at their policies and practices and are treating women better—or at least are more careful to avoid being a defendant in a discrimination lawsuit.
Speaking of moving on, what you are doing now?
Building my new firm, helping clients and continuing to work to make a difference. Nine clients of mine from Chadbourne transferred to KCampbell-Law. I have several new clients, including referrals through the Legal Network for Gender Equity, which is an arm of the TIME’S UP movement.
Do you think the next generation of female lawyers will have it easier than you did?
I spoke at Harvard Law School recently, and my message to the law students—and other sought-after law firm candidates—is that you have tremendous market power. You can use it to facilitate public dialogue and achieve change–more quickly and effectively than litigation or legislation.
Look at what happened when that law professor tweeted about Munger Tolles’ arbitration requirement in its employment agreement. The firm ended up retracting it. Law school students and graduates certainly should not be required to shed their constitutional rights to a public forum and jury trial to be employed by a law firm. Secrecy facilitates and perpetuates sexual harassment and discrimination.
And what else would help ensure gender equality?
U.S. firms should disclose the gender pay gap, the way the Brits do. If top schools in the U.S. demand that information, it can make a difference. And if firms won’t reveal their track record, they should be outed. It’d make a great headline!
The media has power to make a difference. Instead of summarizing report after report confirming the gender pay gap, why aren’t journalists asking Big Law firms good, hard questions about secret compensation systems, pay gaps, poor power and promotion track records, conditioning employment on squelching speech, insisting on secret proceedings and stripping people of their civil rights? Why is any of that acceptable? U.S. law firms clinging to cloak and dagger secrecy about compensation are out of step with an egalitarian culture!
Whoa, you sound like an activist! Guess you don’t regret bringing this lawsuit.
I brought the lawsuit to advance the cause of equal pay, power and promotions for women in the legal profession. I believe this case has made a difference for the good, sparked public dialogue and inspired others to speak truth and take a stand.
Any advice to people out there who are thinking of suing their firm?
Speak truth. Stand strong. We can walk through the storm and come out better on the other side. Accept your life will be different, likely in positive ways that might never have been imagined. Be willing to re-invent yourself. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Keep living, loving and laughing. In the end, it’s all worth it.