Equal Pay and Equity Status: Recent Wave of Litigation Brings Gender Gap at Major Law Firms to the Forefront

In an emerging trend, law firms have found themselves the targets of recent lawsuits alleging gender discrimination against female partners.  Most recently, Kerrie Campbell, a litigation partner at Chadbourne & Parke’s Washington, D.C. office filed a $100 million proposed class action lawsuit on behalf of all female partners at the firm.  She alleges that Chadbourne’s male-dominated culture leads to unequal compensation for women.  The lawsuit, filed on August 31, 2016, in federal district court in New York, seeks relief under Title VII, the Federal Equal Pay Act, and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act.

According to the complaint, Campbell alleges that Chadbourne’s female partners “earn less than men and are virtually shut out of influential decision-making positions” and that “Chadbourne’s all-male dictatorship makes its decisions regarding Firm Partners in a black box, generally without input or scrutiny from the Partnership at large.”  In addition to secrecy, Campbell also alleges that biased subjectivity factors into the pay discrimination that routinely overvalues the anticipated contributions of male Partners, even where female Partners have a demonstrated record of outperforming them.

The Chadbourne suit follows another gender discrimination suit filed against Sedgwick LLP in July 2016 by non-equity partner Traci Ribeiro.  That proposed class action accuses the firm of gender discrimination and alleges the firm’s all-male leadership team denied her and other female attorneys equal pay and promotions. Ribeiro filed her lawsuit in California state court and seeks to represent a class of current and former Sedgwick female attorneys in partnership track positions who were subject to pay or promotion recommendations by Executive Committee.  According to the complaint, Ribeiro, who started at Sedgwick in 2011, was the third-highest generator at the firm in 2015 but is undercompensated compared to her male counterparts.

The complaint also alleged that no formal process exists for applying for partner promotions and that a woman was only added to the Executive Committee after Ribeiro filed her discrimination complaint with the EEOC.  Ribeiro’s complaint also alleges that subjectivity was a key factor in promotion-related gender disparities, noting that Sedgwick’s Executive Committee makes recommendations “based on numerous subjective criteria, such as personal attributes, which are subject to gender bias.”

These proposed class action suits, along with a single plaintiff case filed against LeClairRyan earlier this year, all allege lack of transparency and objectivity in the partner compensation process as the key discriminatory factors.  With three recent high-profile lawsuits, each alleging sex discrimination against major law firms grabbing headlines in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, equal pay in the legal profession will continue to be a hot topic for firms across the country.