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That Greenberg Gender Bias Case—Should Your Firm Be Worried Too?

Vivia Chen

December 4, 2012

Worry-©Rui-Vale-de-Sousa_FotoliaI only read legal documents under duress. But the freshly filed $200 million class action lawsuit against Greenberg Traurig is a must-read. The complaint by former Greenberg partner Francine Griesing against the 1,700-lawyer firm for gender discrimination is both fascinating and lurid. There are allegations of rampant chauvinism in pay and assignments, paternalism (CEO Richard Rosenbaum insisted on ordering food for Griesing while he's about to fire her), plus sexual rompings between partners in the firm's Philadelphia office.

I could go on and on about the details—salacious and otherwise. But let's hear directly from the plaintiff's lawyer: David Sanford of Sanford Heisler, who filed the suit in New York's Southern District. (In response to our request for comment, Greenberg issued a statement, which is posted at the end of this Q&A.)

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found reasonable cause for bias in this case, which you say is very rare. The complaint says only 3.8 percent of single-plaintiff and class cases make the cut. What made this case so compelling?
The EEOC investigated [Griesing's allegations] for over three years, and they satisfied themselves that the firm's statistics on promotions, business credits, and pay made the case credible. It was a statistically based decision.

 

Wait a minute. If the EEOC made its determination based on Greenberg's poor statistics on women, couldn't a lot of other firms also be in trouble?
Greenberg ranked 193 out of 221 top law firms [on the National Law Journal 250] list for female equity partners [the firm has under 10 percent]. It is well down on that list.

But Greenberg wasn't dead last. So does that mean all firms with statistics equal to or worse than Greenberg should be quaking in their boots?
I think so. I have no doubt that the EEOC would come to a similar conclusion in other cases. It's a systemic problem in many law firms. But you have to look at the statistics of a firm and its history—the division of equity and nonequity partners between the genders. There are a lot of other statistics to consider. Look, I don't think Greenberg is the worst firm on the planet.

You're suggesting that other law firms could be in hot water for having bad stats on women. Have you heard from other possible plaintiffs?
I haven't. I'm not planning to file any other lawsuits. I think it is a wake-up call to other firms.

So far, your client is the only member in this class action. Do you expect others to join?
Yes. But it's early. We typically get other people to join after the case is filed, and people read about it and talk about it. That's what happened with Novartis [a 2012 gender discrimination case in which the jury awarded plaintiffs $253 million; Sanford served as lead plaintiff counsel].

The charges in this case seem pretty difficult to prove. So much of it seems to be "she said/he said"—what [Greenberg's CEO] Richard Rosenbaum said to Griesing about women partners being "worthless" and such.
You always have to do discovery and you'll find more information as you go further with the case. We are always better situated at the end of discovery. Also, this is a class case, and we will get statistical data from Greenberg. We are confident that we are right because the EEOC has already looked into it. The most important thing is that the EEOC finds cause here—not so much what you call the "he said/she said" and salicious elements.

If the EEOC finding is so key, wouldn't you expect Greenberg to settle?
I expect Greenberg to take a long hard look at their statistics along with labor economists. The statistics suggest they have a big problem. Unless Greenberg Traurig has a new theory on statistical analysis, they should conclude they have a problem.

Postscript: Since this post originally appeared online, we have heard from Greenberg. Following is a statement from Hilarie Bass, a member of the executive committee on behalf of the firm:

The lawsuit filed by Francine Griesing and her attorneys is an affront to the accomplished, talented women of Greenberg Traurig, who, like all of our lawyers, are compensated based on merit. It is nothing more than a financially motivated publicity stunt without merit, backed by neither fact nor law. Griesing’s complaint paints a false picture of the work environment at Greenberg Traurig and the facts surrounding her initial claim to the EEOC. What her press release calls “the EEOC’s rare finding of class-wide discrimination at the firm” were in fact very narrow findings limited to one office and seven women, in a setting where in which Ms. Greising was the sole complainant. Griesing refused to submit her claim to arbitration as required by the firm’s Shareholder Agreement and instead filed in Federal court.

Accordingly, the firm filed a petition in federal court in Philadelphia to compel arbitration. Greenberg Traurig has an exemplary record of fairness and advancement irrespective or gender, race or creed.  Our history of recruiting, retaining, and promoting women and our law firm reflects that. The firm intends to vigorously defend our practices against her lawsuit and we fully expect to prevail.

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Comments

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Its obvious that Greenberg is discriminating when one looks at all the great achievements by women in the history of the world, like, uh, er, ... uh ... hmm... well, gimme enough time and I'll come up with something....maybe.

Somehow my comment got mistyped in entry. I tried to say that the firms with fair rules for parents entering the top ranks are usually <100 lawyers. The article is sited correctly.

I believe both that the rules for advancing in many law firms are extremely rigid, and that there are regularly even more troubling reasons. Getting people in powerful positions to look at themselves is difficult. Good news: some firms (usually http://www.city-journal.org/2012/22_4_alpha-female.html.

It does seem to me that once you've discarded all the other possible explanations for why women aren't advancing in law firms, you do have to consider the most obvious one...

All law firms should be worried. These kinds of claims can bring down a firm financially and reputation wise. It only takes a few substantiated claims to cause a ruckus and in this case, that ruckus was backed by EEOC investigation. It could mean big problems for the law firm and any future law firms that find themselves in those positions.

Gender inequities have been reported year after year in the the National Association of Women Lawyers survey on retention and promotion of women in the law. However, the hubris of big firm management has made them numb to these issues. A sizable award and public embarrassment of another Biglaw may motivate them to change. They will be chagrined to learn even lawyers -- no matter how brilliant or powerful -- must obey the law.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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