For Women Who Sued Firms, Alienation Followed

Nov. 3, 2016, 6:35 PM

Kamee Verdrager was an associate at Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris & Popeo when she sued the firm on claims of gender bias in 2009. Her career has never been the same since then, she said.

“There are people who were at my wedding who do not speak to me,” Verdrager told Big Law Business.

Law firm leaders often discuss how to achieve gender parity in the legal profession, which studies show is still dominated by men. But the discussions at conferences and retreats rarely bridge the subject of sexual harassment or gender discrimination, and more importantly, what happens to women who decide they have actionable claims, and then pursue them. In interviews with three women who filed gender discrimination claims against their law firms, all said they were alienated to varying degrees for speaking out and taking action about what they experienced.

Verdrager said Mintz Levin made specific efforts to discredit her after she filed her suit accusing them of demoting and then firing her because of her gender. Among other things, Verdrager alleges a male partner made sexually explicit comments toward her, and that she later received negative performance reviews because of a pregnancy.

After firing her, Mintz Levin reported Verdrager to the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers for allegedly downloading private firm documents. But the BBO unanimously cleared her in 2012, ruling the documents were not only public but that Verdrager took appropriate steps to make sure she didn’t take any thing privileged.

“I still encounter people who actually believe I was snooping through offices because of the things Mintz said publicly,” Verdrager said.

As the dispute unfolded, former colleagues, even the ones she was friendly with, dropped contact.

“They were warned they shouldn’t be associating with me,” said Verdrager. A spokeswoman for Mintz Levin said “any such claim has no basis in fact.”

Unable to get another job at a big firm, Verdrager has run her own employment litigation practice since 2008. The Massachusetts high court revived Verdrager’s claims this summer, ruling a reasonable jury could have inferred her demotion and firing were caused by discrimination.

Bringing an employment discrimination suit against a large corporation can be tough in any industry, but plaintiffs suing a law firm face special circumstances: Lawyers at the partner level are often owners of a firm, meaning any suit is directed affects them, too.

The issue is timely because this summer Kerrie Campbell sued Chadbourne & Parke for alleged gender discrimination in a proposed class-action seeking $100 million. Campbell is a partner at the firm, which makes her different than many other women who sued their firms as associates or former employees.

Campbell’s situation is also different because she still works in Chadbourne’s Washington, D.C. office, despite the fact that firm leadership is vigorously denying and fighting her claims that women were systematically undercompensated as compared to men at the firm. Campbell has said she hasn’t been able to get any of the men on the management committee to speak to her since April, although she claims she did surreptitiously capture on film one male partner removing a postcard bearing a Nelson Mandela quote that she had placed outside her office.

Campbell declined to say how she has been treated by other women at the firm. Among the current women partners at Chadbourne, all but one signed a public letter to Campbell’s attorney in September, saying they wanted nothing to do with the claims. The letter did not address the merits of the claims, however.

“That’s happened in lawsuit after lawsuit after lawsuit,” said Marina Angel, a law professor at Temple University and long-time researcher of the legal industry gender pay gap. “Those other women are at the firm and they don’t want to be blackballed.”

Campbell has been joined by one other plaintiff Jaroslawa Johnson, a former partner who said she only felt comfortable suing because she is no longer in Big Law. Johnson left Chadbourne in 2014 and now runs a private equity fund.

In 1990, Nancy Ezold sued now-defunct Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen in what is often described as the first case to be brought and tried against a law firm over sex discrimination in denial of partnership.

Ezold said there “wasn’t a whole lot of articulated female support” during her trial. One attorney, Francine Griesing, was asked to testify on behalf Wolf Block during Ezold’s trial. Years later, she filed her own claims of gender discrimination against Greenberg Traurig. Griesing declined to comment for this story.

“There was a lot more once I won,” she noted. Ezold won her case at the trial level, but the decision was reversed on appeal a year later.

Decades of surveys show there has been little progress in narrowing the Big Law gender pay gap. According to the latest figures from the ABA, women make up approximately 45 percent of Big Law associates but only 18 percent of equity partners. Experts from across the industry have argued women are held back by a combination of implicit and explicit biases, but those explicit biases have rarely been tested in court.

Ezold said she laments the slow pace of progress toward gender equity in the legal industry, part of which she attributes to the overall lack of litigation against law firms. She blames mandatory arbitration clauses but also the risk most plaintiffs must take of getting shut out of Big Law altogether. It’s a small industry, after all.

But nonetheless, Ezold, who went on to found her own employment litigation shop and now handles gender discrimination claims, urged more women to stick their necks out.

“If women don’t start suing, and they simply wait to gradually change those numbers, then you and I are going to be having the same conversation ten years from now and twenty years from now,” she said.

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