Steptoe & Johnson has become the latest Big Law firm to be hit with a gender discrimination lawsuit, this time from a former associate who says she was paid half what her male counterparts earned for the same work (Houck v. Steptoe & Johnson LLP, C.D. Cal., No. 2:17-cv-04595, complaint filed 6/22/17).
In a complaint filed in federal court in Los Angeles on June 22, attorney Ji-In Houck alleged she was improperly paid a contract attorney salary when she began working at the firm and that her pay remained below that of male attorneys with the same experience even as she received raises. When she complained about the pay disparity, Houck said she was met with indifference by partners at the firm.
“Had Steptoe taken plaintiff Houck’s complaints seriously over the years—as it counsels its clients to do—this lawsuit would have likely been averted,” the complaint says.
The lawsuit alleges violations of the Equal Pay Act, California Fair Pay Act and California’s Unfair Competition Law. Houck is hoping to be the first plaintiff in a class of other women who have been contract attorneys or associates at the firm.
A spokesperson for Steptoe said the firm is a “strong supporter of women lawyers and professionals,” pointing to its recent partner promotion classes, which were 50 percent female in 2016 and 80 percent female in 2017.
“The allegations of associate pay discrimination in this lawsuit by a former junior associate who was hired as a contract attorney and stayed with the firm for less than three years are completely without merit, and we will vigorously defend ourselves against such baseless claims,” the spokesperson said.
Start as ‘Contract Attorney’
Houck, who received her JD from Georgetown University Law Center in 2011, worked for two years as an associate at another firm before being hired as a full-time employee at Steptoe’s Los Angeles office in 2013. She began as a “contract attorney” with an annual salary of $85,000 plus benefits, according to the complaint.
Although Houck did the same work as male associates who passed the bar in the same year as she did, they earned $165,000 per year, according to the complaint.
According to the complaint, Houck took on complex work assignments like second-chairing a state bench trial and a federal jury trial and was routinely given ratings of “exceptional” and “excellence” in her annual performance reviews.
When she was given the title of associate in 2014, she still made less than her male peers, Houck alleges. By the time she left, she was earning $200,000 per year while male counterparts were earning $230,000 per year, according to the complaint.
Houck said she knew of other female associates at the firm who had also been paid unfairly, including one associate who was hired in 2013 with nine years of experience but placed at a lower pay level than men with the same background, and another contract attorney who was placed in a lower pay level than commensurate with her experience once she was given the title of associate.
The Steptoe spokesperson said the firm has different hiring practices for associates who come through the law school recruitment channel and those who don’t but declined to provide additional clarification.
The fact that Houck began as a contract attorney and not as an associate makes her case somewhat unusual, according to Anne Shaver, an employment litigation partner at plaintiffs’ firm Lieff Cabraser who reviewed the complaint. But Shaver said she wouldn’t consider the work Houck purportedly did within the purview of a contract attorney.
“Typically, contract attorneys are hired by law firms to do document review,” Shaver said. “It’s a very limited range of tasks that does not involve much independent discretion. The kinds of things they alleged she did were the kinds of things an associate would do, or what a partner would do.”
Houck is represented by Lori E. Andrus of Andrus Anderson LLP. The San Francisco-based boutique firm previously helped a class of 300 female attorneys ink a $4 million settlement in a gender discrimination lawsuit against Farmers Insurance. Those women also alleged they were significantly underpaid compared with their male colleagues.