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Trading Sex for Good Assignments

Vivia Chen

December 7, 2010

Image[2] Wish you could work in a law firm that's run like a frat house or the Playboy mansion? Well, you might consider packing up your bags for the metropolis of Pittsburgh.

JoEllen Lyons Dillon, a nonequity partner at Reed Smith, is suing the firm in federal district court in western Pennsylvania for discrimination. The complaint alleges that the firm paid women partners less than men, and denied her equity partnership, though she consistently collected over $1 million per year for the firm. (The complaint says that in 2007, "the seven female equity partners in defendant's Pittsburgh office on average earned $129,000.00 per year less than the 49 male equity partners." )

But here's the real eye-opener: Dillion also claims that the male corporate/securities partners at Reed Smith's Pittsburgh office awarded work to "female attorneys who were willing to engage in sexual relations with members of defendant's management or with whom members of defendant's management had sought to engage in such relations." (Global head of personnel, Robert Nicholas, says in an e-mail that Dillion's claim "is completely without merit, and her portrayal of our Pittsburgh office is inaccurate, unfair, and irresponsible." The e-mail also states that "the percentage of women partners firmwide significantly exceeds the national average for firms of our size.")

Indeed, Reed Smith may be doing fine by women in the firm overall. But is there something rotten in Pittsburgh--specifically with its corporate/securities group there?

Dillion's lawyer, Samuel Cordes, says yes, and that he's got a strong case. Having to trade sex for good assignments hardly contributes to professionalism, he suggests: "I’d call it a situation where the terms and conditions of employment are predicated on playing the game--in a nasty sense."

But what Cordes calls "really egregious" was the statement that Reed Smith partner David DeNinno allegedly made to Dillion when she complained about her compensation being cut after she returned from her maternity leave. According to the complaint, DeNinno responded by asking her if she was "done having babies."

Finally, a case where the allegations involve nice old-fashioned sexism and blatantly inappropriate behavior! Lately, discrimination suits filed by lawyers against major law firms have become a bit boring--and almost totally devoid of sexual shenanigans. (Check out the recent discrimination suits against Clifford Chance and Akin Gump.)

But thank goodness that Pittsburgh is still churning out discrimination cases with flagrantly naughty partners. You might recall that partner Alyson Kirleis made similar allegations of discrimination in her suit against Dickie McCamey & Chilcote (see "Sometimes a Girl Can't Win"). Kirleis was allegedly told by a male partner that working mothers should give up their partnerships and just work part-time. Moreover, Kirleis describes the annual firm Christmas party as a hostile environment to women "because of the sexually explicit nature of the entertainment including skits, songs, pornographic materials, and props."

While big-firm lawyers in the rest of the country seem to be practicing more subtle forms of discrimination, Pittsburgh partners are still whooping it up like it's still 1985.

Guess Pittsburgh just has more of that retro charm.

Related post: "Sometimes a Girl Can't Win"


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what an amazing story! congratulations for taking on this topic ...

Pittsburgh has always been behind the times. Favorite quote about the 'burgh: "When the end of the world comes I want to be in Pittsburgh because it'll take 10 years to happen there."

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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: [email protected]

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