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Sued for Gender Bias, Yet Named to "Best Law Firms for Women" List

Vivia Chen

August 20, 2018

Business-3349806_1280
Talk about awkward timing! Guess which firm is on the 2018 Working Mother and ABA Journal's "Best Law Firms for Women" list? Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, the labor and employment firm that's now facing a $300 million gender bias suit.  

I have no idea how the case will shake out, but I'm willing to bet that some of Ogletree's female lawyers—current and former—are balking (or barfing) at the "best" label. The complaint, filed earlier this year, alleges that the firm "pays its male shareholders approximately $110,000 more than its female shareholders, in target compensation and bonus alone." Plus, there's been a steady exodus of female partners out of Ogletree (10 have left since January, when the case was filed, according to ALM Intelligence).

And just a few days ago, the firm took the unusual step of singling out one of the plaintiffs, Tracy Warren, a former partner who's now at Buchalter, for criticism. "Ms. Warren was terminated from the firm following a client complaint of unprofessional and unethical conduct. Following an investigation by both the firm and outside counsel, Ms. Warren was expelled on a vote of the equity shareholders," said the firm in a statement to Law.com. (The firm did not name the client nor the outside counsel for the investigation.)

"Unprofessional." "Unethical." "Expelled." Ouch. Not exactly a sign that all's well with the women folks at the farm. 

So how does a firm with these troubled relations with women get on that "Best Law Firms for Women" list? Well, it starts with a self-selective process in which the firm nominates itself. (This is true for many "best" list.) According to Meredith Bodgas, editor-in-chief of Working Mother, firms that make the cut "are remarkable for their long-term commitment to retaining and promoting women lawyers," adding that all these firms "provide flexible work arrangements and 57 percent of them offer sponsorship programs for high-potential women lawyers." 

While all 60 firms on that list might provide awesome flexible work arrangements, I'm not so clear how that "long-term commitment to retaining and promoting women lawyers" is measured. Several firms on that list show female equity rates that are well-below the current 19 percent national average, including Kirkland & Ellis (15 percent), Vinson & Elkins (14 percent), Dechert (14 percent) and Lowenstein Sandler (14 percent)—to name a handful. Are these stellar examples of long-term commitments to retaining/promoting women? Or are they more indicative of long-term problems?

But let's get back to Ogeltree. When I asked for comment, a firm spokesperson directed me to its press release, which touts the firm's women's initiative and how it supports female lawyers in three key areas: " 'Power' (identification and attainment of leadership positions), 'Access' (access to meaningful internal and external development opportunities), and 'Results' (maximizing professional success and fulfillment)." 

David Sanford, who's representing the female plaintiffs in the suit against Ogeltree, isn't impressed. He emailed me: “Ogletree can attempt to hide behind vacuous lists and ineffectual task forces, but the lawsuit will shine a spotlight on the gender differences in pay.”

Nor is Sanford impressed with the Working Mother list: “Working Mother also put a major pharmaceutical company on their top list of companies for working women in 2010," alluding to a big case his firm tried that year against Novartis for gender discrimination that resulted in a $253 million verdict against the company. 

As for Working Mother, a spokesman had this to say about Ogeltree's inclusion: "We would remove a firm if there was a certified class action or if there was a settlement indicating discrimination. This has not been certified yet as a class action."

Not exactly a ringing endorsement. I can practically visualize the folks at Working Mother tiptoeing away from this honoree.

My hunch: Ogeltree won't be on next year's list. 

vchen@alm.com

Twitter: @lawcareerist 

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About The Careerist

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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