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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Thursday, September 7, 2017

How Top U.S. Law Firms Get Away With Paying Women Less

Bloomberg Businessweek, How Top U.S. Law Firms Get Away With Paying Women Less:

In January 2014, the law firm Chadbourne & Parke hired Kerrie Campbell to work in its Washington office. After 27 years in the business, she’d finally reached the pinnacle of private law practice: partnership at a top-tier firm—a century-old stalwart of the elite New York bar. In a press release, Chadbourne said, “We are thrilled to welcome her.”

After two years, the thrill was gone. Chadbourne’s managing partner, Andrew Giaccia, and Abbe Lowell, its head of litigation, appeared together at Campbell’s office. Her time at the firm had been rocky. Still, she says she was shocked by what they had to say. The firm’s five-member, all-male management committee had decided that she didn’t “fit” at Chadbourne. She wasn’t being fired, exactly, but she ought to find a new job, they told her. To “incentivize” a swift departure, her compensation would be cut about 60 percent, to $9,000 a month, less than that of a first-year associate right out of law school. Giaccia and Lowell suggested that, to preserve her reputation, she leave quietly.

It felt like “someone smacking a baseball bat into your gut,” Campbell, 55, says. The firm denies her version of events.

Campbell—a “pit bull,” according to her son Tyler—did not leave quietly. She filed a sex-discrimination suit in August 2016 alleging that Chadbourne treated her like a second-class citizen, paid her much less than male partners, and—when she objected—showed her the door. Indignant, Chadbourne denied wrongdoing and lashed out. It said in court papers that Campbell lacked basic competence, alienated colleagues, and drank too much at firm social events—all accusations she denies.

For a profession dedicated to lofty concepts such as “equal protection” and “due process,” the practice of law has allowed unequal treatment of women to fester for decades. A 2016 survey of the 350 largest U.S. law firms found female partners on average received $659,000 in annual pay. Male partners, meanwhile, averaged $949,000, or 44 percent more.

Campbell v. Chadbourne & Parke LLP has riveted the legal world, and rightfully so. It’s a window on what can still go wrong for women even at the top. Historically women lawyers haven’t gone public with discrimination claims—and lawsuits are uncommon. Law firms make for pugnacious opponents, and suing was once considered career suicide. In the past 20 months, though, other women have taken the same risk as Campbell. ...

The uptick in lawyer gender-bias cases reflects a broadly felt frustration, says Professor Deborah Rhode, director of Stanford Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession, related in part to surveys showing substantial, persistent pay and promotion discrepancies. “Studies find that male lawyers are two to five times more likely to become partner than female lawyers,” Rhode says. “I think a lot of women lawyers are fed up.”

But industrywide statistics won’t be enough to vindicate Campbell. Lacking direct proof in the form of biased comments or policies, she’ll have to rely on circumstantial evidence that she was treated worse than “similarly situated” men at Chadbourne. Two retired women partners at the firm have joined her lawsuit, but a larger number of current women partners have actually condemned it. ...

The Campbell case reveals not just differing interpretations of unhappy workplace events, but two diametrically opposed realities. In one, Campbell, a highly competent lawyer, respected by peers, joined Chadbourne in good faith only to be rudely denied the compensation she was promised—and then was punished for speaking up. Campbell receives credible-sounding reinforcement from the two retired partners, Mary Yelenick and Jaroslawa Johnson, both of whom assert that for decades the firm routinely paid women less than comparably accomplished men. “I wrote memos about the disparities, spoke up at meetings, told the management committee—the firm was on notice it had a problem,” says Yelenick.

Chadbourne’s version is that Campbell’s treatment had nothing to do with her gender. Instead, the firm contends she turned out to be a disaster. Campbell became “notorious” among associates “for giving false deadlines, disappearing, and being incommunicado for days or weeks at a time, and creating unnecessary last-minute fire drills for routine court filings,” the firm says in court papers. Chadbourne and its senior leadership declined multiple requests for interviews about the litigation or its own allegations. In a written statement, the firm calls the lawsuit a collection of “baseless claims in the cynical pursuit of a big and undeserved payday.” ...

Chadbourne says that Campbell misunderstood the compensation system. “Productivity, originations, and revenues are incomplete indicators of partners’ contributions,” the firm says in court papers. Subjective factors such as “teamwork,” “partners who have been of help to one another,” and “assumption of firm responsibilities” are taken into consideration and may help explain any apparent disparities. ...

Campbell acknowledges she’s unlikely ever to work again for a large law firm. She’s put out feelers, but they’ve gone nowhere. For the first time, she’s setting up a law office at home and hoping clients will take a chance on a sole practitioner.

As for the lawsuit, she says she expects it will go to trial, as neither side seems inclined to settle. “I don’t think this case should be about Kerrie Campbell at a Christmas party,” she says. “This is about how anti-discrimination law applies to big law firms, how women as lawyers are treated.”

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