Maybe it's because I'm female, a minority member and an ex-lawyer that I'm riveted by lawsuits for gender or racial discrimination against law firms and companies. But even discounting for identity politics, those lawsuits offer some juicy glimpses into how those in power think and behave. Who wouldn't want to know what really goes on in those exclusive (white) boys clubs?
For those of us who follow these suits like serial dramas, this past year has been spectacular. The most high-profile case, of course, was the one brought by Kerrie Campbell (above) against Chadbourne & Parke. Claiming that she was paid unfairly as a partner, Campbell called Chadbourne's management an "all-male dictatorship." Since filing her class action in August 2016, two other female partners have joined the suit, thickening the stew. And this spring, the firm officially ousted Campbell.
Then, just a month ago or so, Proskauer Rose was sued for $50 million by "Jane Doe," a partner in its Washington, D.C. office for gender bias. (Ironically, Proskauer is representing Chadbourne in the Campbell case.)
Laden with human drama and often packed with sensational tidbits (oh, the inappropriate things partners say!), those lawsuits naturally get a ton of media attention. But here's the question: How much of a reputation hit do firms take as a result? Enough to lose business?
Not exactly. Though gender equality and diversity seem to top everyone's priority list these days, being slapped with a discrimination claim has surprisingly few repercussions. For instance, Chadbourne's legal problems didn't scare away Norton Rose from the merger table (the two firms merged recently and are now known as Norton Rose).
Indeed, industry insiders say clients and recruits seldom get bent out of shape over these cases.
"Corporations face these type of suits as well," explains Tom Sager, DuPont Company's former general counsel who's won accolades for promoting diversity. Now a partner at Ballard Spahr, he suggests that these lawsuits are more or less routine. "Unless there's a "compelling reason [to look into them], clients should not be in a position of sitting in judgement of their firms."
As for attracting lateral recruits or merger partners, these lawsuits also have limited impact. "I'd bet there's a bunch of suits out there against big firms," says Jeff Lowe, a managing partner of recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa, alluding to disputes that are settled quietly. "What's unusual with the Chadbourne matter is how public it's become." Most lawyers, he adds, won't reject firms that are sued because "they see lawsuits as being part of the bundle of risks." He adds, "firms are big enterprises so the exposure is small."
Even if the firm doesn't lose business, these lawsuits create tensions below the surface, say those who are suing the firms. "You won't see an effect on the bottom line, and you won't see a noticeable shift immediately," says Kamee Verdrager, a former Mintz Levin associate who sued the firm for gender discrimination. (She finally settled with the firm last December after a 10 year ordeal.)
Yet, Verdrager believes these lawsuits trigger firms to reexamine their business methods and change. "There's huge gossip factor, and that affects firms internally," she says. "Clients will ask what's going on, and those discussions are uncomfortable and embarrassing. It's a huge distraction."
Over time, "some firms will take a more objective look at how women are paid or reviewed," says Verdrager. "At first, firms [that are sued] are defensive. It's deny, deny, deny. But the conversation does change eventually, and the suit provides a platform for having some difficult conversations."
David Sanford, the lawyer representing the women in the Chadbourne and Proskauer suits, agrees: "I would imagine part of the collateral damage is difficulty in recruiting, morale issues affecting current employees, business disruption and a negative impact on some clients." If nothing else, he adds, "we find a positive impact often on total compensation for females after we sue."
The way I see it, changing the hearts and minds of those in power is nice. But getting paid fairly is way sweeter.