Earlier this month, six women sued Jones Day over alleged gender discrimination. The timing of the lawsuits coincides with the end of a yearlong research partnership between the American Bar Association and ALM Intelligence that looked into the experience of women working in Big Law. Depressingly, the findings from the research project and the details of the lawsuits have much in common.

The lawsuit against Jones Day includes details on a list of alarming behavior, including allegations of gender stereotyping during pay and promotion decisions and name-calling. In one instance a male summer associate allegedly received applause and high-fives after pushing a female summer associate into a pool at an event hosted at a partner’s private home. The lawsuit also describes a woman’s maternity leave experience. Upon returning from her first maternity leave she was subjected to a salary freeze and negative reviews, the suit said. After her second maternity leave, she was told to look for another job. Another suit filed last year claims the firm’s compensation and performance review systems purposely discriminate against women.

In Their Own Words

The details shared in both of these suits—repercussions when returning from maternity leave, sexual harassment, verbal abuse, unfair review and compensation processes and denied opportunities—unfortunately are not unique.

Over the course of 2018, the ABA and ALM Intelligence partnered on a research project to better understand the different experiences of women with 15-plus years of legal experience compared with their male counterparts. In addition to collecting data, female attorneys shared, in their own words, their first-hand experience working in Big Law. These comments provide a snapshot of what many women experience during their legal careers:

“To this day, I am mistaken for being the court reporter, paralegal, secretary, etc. I have had judges call me sweetie in open court.”

“The day I made partner (we had one tier at the time), one of my male partners came to my office to congratulate me. He closed the door and planted a big wet kiss on my lips and said, ‘I have been waiting for years to do that….now you can’t sue me.’”

It’s bad enough that these experiences happened and continue to happen. What makes it all the more disturbing is how much goes unreported for fear of retaliation.

“A client became very touchy and hands-on. I had just arrived at the firm and did not feel I could report it without it becoming an issue and me being labeled as ‘that troublemaker’ and ultimately losing my job.”

And, this fear is warranted, not an illusion.

“As a young associate, my direct supervising attorney made numerous advances, inappropriate comments, etc. I did not report anything for fear of retaliation until my exit interview. And then the retaliation was massive. He wrote all sorts of BS crap to HR saying that in my final week or two that I had been insubordinate, that I had left tasks undone, that I was ‘refusing’ to do certain things, that I was ‘abandoning’ projects and causing client harm, etc.”

“I had male partners when I was an associate grope me in the office and at firm events after they had been drinking and told me not to be upset. … In fact a shareholder told me I should be flattered and if I was ‘more appreciative’ of the attention, he and others were the shareholders who would one day vote on my partnership. When asked out, the male partner said I did not work for him specifically/not assigned so it’s OK. … I told him I did not date those I work with and I was engaged. He said to relax, kissed me and groped me and when I did report this the firm said they would transfer me to another office or I could live with it.”

While this is deeply troubling, it’s worth noting that there are firms responding accordingly and taking action to improve the situation.

“A potential client wanted to be more than a potential client. He was the potential client of a senior partner that I did not know well. I was not sure what would happen when I declined the invitation to Mexico but my senior partner gave the appropriate response: We do not want clients like that and do not behave in that manner.”

“Advances in an office party setting from someone who had had too much to drink. I told him off and when he persisted, I simply left the event. When I heard that after I had left, the person had turned his attention on a young associate in his group, I reported him to senior management. He was met by senior management and told that his behavior was inappropriate and banned from parties.”

These comments aren’t unique, the research project collected over 200 quotes like the ones featured above. The majority of the quotes collected described multiple incidents per individual. Beyond these comments detailing individual offenses, many women declined the opportunity to describe a single event and, instead, wrote that “there are too many incidents to recall.” Such a response isn’t a dismissal of the offenses these women experienced. It is a recognition that no single event can adequately summarize years of demeaning comments or inappropriate actions. The fact that so many women, unprompted, wrote “there are too many incidents to recall” is a powerful reminder that the quotes above are a snapshot of the daily abuses that many women experience within Big Law.

In total, over 900 female attorneys with over 15 years of experience in the legal industry responded to the ABA/ALM Intelligence survey. The data confirms that the experiences women provided, in their own words, is an accurate portrayal of life inside Big Law for women. Four out of every five female attorneys with more than 15 years of experience (80.9 percent) reported that they have been mistaken for a lower-level employee. Seventy-four percent said they have experienced demeaning comments; 66 percent have had a lack of access to business development opportunities; and 63 percent have been perceived as less committed to their career.

The list of offenses female attorneys have had to endure over the course of their career goes on (see Figure 1 above). Women are more likely than their male counterparts to be denied salary increases or overlooked for advancement. They are also more likely to be used as token representatives at client meetings or public events. They are more likely to receive unwanted sexual advances and less likely to report them due to fear of retaliation. Worryingly for the future of the legal industry, women report that they have less access to sponsors and are more likely to miss out on opportunities due to clients or colleagues asking for “someone else” to be staffed on an engagement.

The data and individual accounts collected through this research project all point toward the same conclusion. The difference in experience between female and male attorneys is astounding. This needs to change.