David Sanford, the lawyer who's made a name suing Fortune 500 companies and law firms for discrimination (he represented 7,000 female employees in Velez v. Novartis, resulting in a $253 million verdict, the largest employment verdict in U.S. history), invited me to his office in midtown Manhattan for a little chat. We were 10 minutes into our conversation about his latest client, Kerrie Campbell, the Chadbourne & Park partner who's suing the firm for gender discrimination, when he suddenly laced into me. "What you wrote was a disservice!"
He was talking about my post, So You Want to Sue Your Firm, in which I wrote about the pitfalls of suing a law firm or company for discrimination. Based on my reporting, there's hell to pay if you sue your firm. At the end of the process, you could end up isolated with little career prospects.
Admittedly, it was a downer piece, and it didn't lift my spirits to think that victims of harassment, gender discrimination and so on could end up with so little. So if Sanford wants to challenge my conclusion, that's fine with me.
Here are excerpts of my meeting and follow-up phone conversation with Sanford:
You got on my case for being too pessimistic about suing firms for discrimination. How would you have written the article?
Let's applaud people who have the courage to right wrongs and effectuate change. These are people who feel they've been wronged, want compensation for the wrong and want the system changed.
That sounds noble, but what about the personal cost of bring a law suit? What about the risk that the litigation can drag on and that you ultimately won't succeed?
There are risks in everything. You can go a dentist for a root canal and something can go wrong but that doesn't mean you don't go. Look, 80 percent of the cases we take on settle, and people are happy with the result. Very few go to trial.
So why hasn't this case settled? You'd think a big law firm would do everything to prevent airing the mess about how partners are paid and fired.
Maybe [Chadbourne] thought we wouldn't file. But if they think that about me, they didn't do their homework.
How did you decide to take this case?
I like Kerrie a lot and I'm confident that the jury will find her compelling. I only take 5 percent of the cases that come my way. We only take the ones we’re prepared to take all the way to trial.
You say that Kerrie's case is a typical gender discrimination case. How does it compare with others you've seen?
It is the strongest I've seen. It is strong on numbers, strong on witnesses and strong on documents. We say there is discrimination based on gender because there's no other reason for [men and women] who are similarly situated to be paid differently. [Campbell asserts in her claim that she billed more than $5 million since she lateraled into the firm in 2014 but was paid less than men who generated far less revenue.] If you don't track compensation to revenue generated, what are you tracking it on? There are only so many objective factors to consider: hours billed, collectibles, collections and origination. I don't think these cases are complicated.
With partners, you can look at what they've generated as a measure. But what about associates whose only record is their performance reviews? Do they have a hell's chance of claiming gender discrimination?
It is tougher. Firms will say they make decisions about year end bonuses and promotions based on billables and quality of work—and quality is subjective.
Kerrie is still at the firm?
Yes. She's doing work, doing appeals. She's a hard worker. There are uncertainty and challenges. She's really strong.
It must be weird to work at a firm that you are suing. Do people speak to her?
And what do you think of that letter to you from 14 female partners at Chadbourne telling you off—that you don't speak for them in this class action lawsuit?
It is notable that the women do not contest the underlying allegations of gender discrimination. Other partners and associates have contacted us with support.
So what advice do you have for people who are thinking of suing their firms? Should they be prepare to kiss Big Law goodbye for a new life?
Most people in law are like lemmings. They go to good schools, go for the prized big firm jobs and think—in a profoundly wrong way—that it's the only context to be a lawyer.
The typical story in this situation is that a person takes a courageous stand and discovers there's another world. People write me that they're much happier out of big law firms.
The reality is that it's a big world. And you don't have to work at Chadbourne to be happy.