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Discrimination or Ineptitude—or Both?

Vivia Chen

January 28, 2013

Scales_%c2%a9Gina%20Sanders_%20Fotolia.comLet me say that I'm a bit stunned that Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr has been hit with a $5 million gender and age discrimination lawsuit by a former lawyer. That's because I've been covering women in the legal profession for years now, and Wilmer has emerged as one of the more enlightened firms for women.

For starters, it has a very good record on promoting women—last year, 23.2 percent of its equity partners were women. (Remember, the national average is about 15 percent.) Recently, I even singled out Wilmer and some other elite firms for their good track records on women. (Click herehere, and here for other posts about Wilmer and women.)

So what's going on? Have we all been hoodwinked into thinking Wilmer is a swell place for women? Or is the lawsuit just a fluke?

Pamela_LevinsonHere are the facts of the case, as laid out in Pamela Levinson's complaint against Wilmer, reports Legal Times: Levinson (at left), 53, lateraled into Wilmer's D.C. office as a fourth-year associate in 2004. Until she was fired in February 2012, she had received positive reviews (the complaint says that Levinson got "excellent" or "impressive" evaluations).

But here's the really noteworthy part: She got axed while she was in the middle of a four-and-a-half-month adoption leave.

Levinson's lawyer, David Sanford of Sanford Heisler, tells me: "It's a simple case of a big law firm that was unwilling to accommodate a woman on protected leave who went to China to adopt a child." Sanford adds, "There's also an age component and a gender component." ( Wilmer declined to comment about the case; however, it issued a statement denying the charges and vowing to defend itself.)

I know it's too early in the game to say whether Wilmer acted improperly. The facts need to be fully aired. And I'm sure there will be all sorts of parsing about the kind of reviews that Levinson got. But even giving the firm all the benefit of the doubt, you have to wonder how it could have fired someone in the middle of a maternity/adoption leave. Just as a public relations matter, it looks awful. 

But back to my original point: Wilmer's admirable record on promoting women and how that might color the case. Sanford, for one, doesn't sound too impressed: "If that's true, good for them. If this was a class case, those [favorable] stats would be relevant. But this is an individual claim with individual circumstances and players. It doesn't say that it's a terrible firm and that the high-level people are scoundrels." He adds, "The timing [of her firing] was at a minimum curious . . .Wilmer has a lot of explaining to do."


Related post: Sued for Sexual Harassment Yet Lauded for Being Family-Friendly.


Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email chief blogger Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com. 

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You think this is bad? I know an atttorney at another top Boston-based firm who was fired when the firm found out the attorney had a recurrence of cancer. The firm told the attorney the attorney was not on "partner track" and gave the attorney two months to leave. Was the attorney supposed to be looking for a new job while dealing with life-threatening health issues? There is only one word -- disgusting! The people running these firms have no soul.

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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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