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Cronyism? Or Just Plain Sex Discrimination?

Vivia Chen

October 16, 2016


Maybe I've been around the block too many times, but I can't get that excited about the news that male partners make 44 percent more than their female counterparts. (That's the finding of a recently release survey of big firm partners by Major Lindsey & Africa.) Law.com reports that "women partners make on average about 69 cents for every dollar male partners make."

That's a crying shame. But, really now, is that news?

As I often say, I feel like the Bill Murray character in Ground Hogs Day who keeps reliving the same old stuff over and over again. In my case, I'm always reporting that women aren't making progress in Big Law (or, frankly, anywhere else).

But buried in MLA's survey is something I find quite intriguing: Though 24 percent of the partners attribute pay inequity to "cronyism," only 10 percent say there's gender bias. What's that about?

"Everybody points to cronyism," says MLA managing partner Jeff Lowe, who spearheaded the survey. "We don't define it, but it's understood to mean friends taking care of friends."

I get that cronyism is a big factor in how money and credit get doled out in law firms, and that both men and women are affected. And in most firms, compensation is determined by a small group of partners (usually men) who are quite chummy with each other. That said, the gender gap in compensation is a big, fat glaring problem.

So why do people seem so reluctant about pointing the finger at gender bias? Does it sound too harsh, too angry? Are we in denial that gender bias is more pervasive than we like to believe?

To Kamee Verdrager  there's little difference between cronyism and discrimination. She calls cronyism just "another name for implicit or reflexive bias." A plaintiff in an on-going sex discrimination lawsuit against Mintz Levin, Verdrager adds, "calling it cronyism is admitting gender bias; it is just doing it in a way that conceals the admission of bias. . . People don’t like to admit gender bias because they understand that discrimination is 'bad'."

Indeed, I think it's hard to admit that you're working at a place that might be guilty of discrimination. It tears at our notion of free will and personal responsibility.

For instance, remember that curious letter by the female partners at Chadbourne & Parke in response to the lawsuit filed by Kerrie Campbell, one of the firm's female partners? Though it didn't dispute Campbell's claims of sex discrimination, the letter accused her lawyer of filing a complaint that was "patronizing and patriarchal." The letter also says that the complaint "makes a group of very accomplished, assertive and intelligent professional women look like they are victims unable to hold their own with their male colleagues."

No one wants to believe that they put up with this kind of discrimination. Worse, few of us want to admit we feel we have few recourse. Or that we lack the courage to take action.

David Sanford, Campbell's lawyer, advocates taking a cool look at the facts. "Partners in law firm simply do not know the reason for these extraordinary comp differences," he warns. But he adds, "when we look at the numbers and examine the circumstances giving rise to the numbers, we come to one ineluctable conclusion: gender is a compelling inference to the best explanation."

Time to call a spade a spade?


Photo: Madmen


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You wrote, "No one wants to believe that they put up with this kind of discrimination." A similar phenomenon occurs around claims of sexual harassment in law firms. Those women who don't press claims often assert there is no problem.

Psychologists attribute this response to a desire on the part of those women to believe they're in a safe and fair environment where sexual harassment doesn't occur. Of course, that represents denial.
In this case, denial results in discrimination being described as cronyism.

Why are you using cronyism and discrimination like they're different? That's like trying to justify the discrimination against people of color by attributing it to the old boys' network.

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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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