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Fear of Career Damage Led Woman to Sue Proskauer Anonymously

May 17, 2017, 3:03 PM

Proskauer Rose has become the latest Big Law firm to be hit with a gender discrimination lawsuit by a female partner.

The plaintiff brought the case under a pseudonym, highlighting how some women who speak out against their firms continue to fear damaging their career.

According to the redacted complaint filed Friday, the plaintiff, an unnamed partner in Proskauer’s Washington, D.C. office, was objectified by male partners who made inappropriate comments about her physical appearance, paid less than male partners who were similarly or less productive than she was, and excluded from projects and client development activities once she began complaining.

“From 2014 to 2016, plaintiff ranked 6th among the firm’s over 180 equity partners for her billable hours and ranked 18th for her robust client originations,” the complaint says. “Yet, when it comes to her compensation, plaintiff ranks only 32nd among equity partners.”

Proskauer called the suit “groundless” and “meritless.”

The partner filed the case as a “Jane Doe” out of fear a public case would “affect [her] professional reputation and ability to secure comparable employment opportunities,” according to a memorandum filed by her attorney David Sanford. The firm knows who she is because of pre-suit negotiations, Sanford said.

This fear rings true, according to Philadelphia-based employment attorney Mandy Rosenblum, who runs her own practice. “It is very difficult to go back to someone else after you’ve sued a firm,” she said. “It is a big deal to sue, because you put your career at stake.” Other women who have sued their former law firms previously told Big Law Business that they were essentially cut out of the industry after bringing their claims.

Chadbourne & Parke, which is currently facing gender discrimination claims from three former partners, has made public comments questioning the motives and professional competency of some of the women who brought claims. Kerrie Campbell, the first plaintiff in the proposed collective action, was recently voted out of the partnership. David Sanford, who also represents the plaintiffs in the Chadbourne case, recently argued in court that the vote was retaliation for Campbell’s lawsuit. Chadbourne and its attorneys have said the firm asked Campbell to leave long before she brought the claim.

Rosenblum also said a request for anonymity can be an “effective strategy to keep the focus on the allegations rather than on her, because often what happens is once a case is filed it becomes about the person.”

However, part of the difficulty in remaining anonymous in this particular case is that there are so few women partners in the firm’s D.C. office. Of the 13 partners in the Washington, D.C. office listed on Proskauer’s website, only two are women: Connie Bertram, head of the firm’s Washington, D.C. labor and employment practice, and Ann Ashton, head of the D.C. litigation practice.

Professional details about the plaintiff not redacted from the complaint , such as awards won (fromChambers USA, The Legal 500 United States, Washington, DC Super Lawyers, Washington Business Journal,andWashingtonian Magazine) and years she won them, jurisdictions in which she is admitted to practice law, and the language used in the press release announcing her hiring, apply to Bertram and not to Ashton.

Bertram joined the firm in 2013 ,and Ashton joined in 2012, according to Proskauer press releases. The complaint states the plaintiff joined the firm in 2013.

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Both Sanford and a firm spokesperson declined to confirm or deny her identity. Neither Bertram nor Ashton returned requests for comment.

Nancy Ezold, an employment partner who sued now-defunct Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen in the early 1990s for sex discrimination, said the request for anonymity, given how few women work as partners in the D.C. office, was “misplaced hope.”

“If her allegations are true, it would indicate that in some respects it doesn’t matter what you do as a woman, and that is a very depressing thought,” Ezold added, referring to the plaintiff’s purported originations, which varied between $7 and $9 million in client revenue per year. “We think you have to be a superwoman to get to the top of these law firms. And here is someone who would appear to be a superwoman, and even then, if her allegations are true, she’s discriminated against.”

The complaint, filed in D.C. federal court, alleges that members of the firm began to shut the plaintiff out once she began complaining about her pay disparity, and that their hostile treatment “took a psychological and physiological toll” on her, causing her to suffer from severe hypertension, extreme anxiety, a heart-valve condition, esophagitis, and insomnia that in one instance landed her in the hospital.

Proskauer said in a firm statement that the plaintiff did not complain about her compensation until “just a few months ago,” when it claims her business began to decline. “Instead of seeking to rebuild her practice, she sought to squeeze a massive payout from our firm in exchange for her rapid departure and an agreement not to weaponize her blatantly inaccurate charges,” the firm said. “This action resulted only when we refused to capitulate to such questionable tactics.”

“The plaintiff remains one of the firm’s top originating and top earning partners nationwide,” Sanford told Big Law Business.

Proskauer is being represented in the Jane Doe litigation by Kathleen McKenna, a partner in the firm’s New York office who is also representing Chadbourne & Parke in the collective action suit.

Sanford compared Proskauer’s statement in the Jane Doe case to statements its attorneys have made in defense of Chadbourne.

“The lawyers at Proskauer who have defended Chadbourne against charges of gender discrimination with hyperbolic Trumpisms now attempt to do the same in defending Proskauer against similar gender discrimination charges,” he told Big Law Business. “Proskauer’s misguided defense tactics will be equally counter-productive here.”

Sanford is also lead counsel for a partner currently suing Sedgwick for alleged gender discrimination. Sedgwick denies those claims. He previously squared off against Proskauer in a 2011 case brought by the firm’s former CFO Elly Rosenthal. That suit, which alleged Rosenthal was demoted and then fired after returning to work from medical leave, settled in 2013. Proskauer denied her claims.

Sanford said his firm currently represents “a lot” of women in the United States in gender discrimination cases against Big Law firms. “Many of those cases are in pre-suit negotiations and mediations,” he told Big Law Business. “If we’re successful, we won’t file, and if we’re unsuccessful, we’ll file. And there are many more to come. I anticipate more will become public.”

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