Posted December 31st, 2019.
The firm settled one lawsuit from a former partner but faced harsh new accusations from two sets of former associates. Morrison & Foerster, Winston & Strawn and Ogletree Deakins also continued to fight off claims over their own treatment of women.
By Dan Packel
It’s not hard to find signs of gender bias in the legal industry. A 2018 survey, for example, found that nearly 70% of women of color and 60% of white women said they were paid less than their colleagues with similar seniority and experience, contrasted with 36% of white men who reported the same.
And yet, given those figures and other evidence of disparate treatment of women at law firms, the number of lawsuits targeting Big Law over compensation and promotion policies in the last several years is relatively low. While allegations against Jones Day in two separate 2019 bias suits were explosive, other leading firms didn’t face similarly high-profile suits of systematic discrimination in 2019.
Other cases targeting Morrison & Foerster; Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart; and Winston & Strawn continued to move through the judicial system in the past year, though none led to a public resolution.
Here’s an overview of what did unfold in the nation’s courts over the last year.
Jones Day Under The Microscope
The firm entered 2019 facing one lawsuit from a former partner who alleged it operated like a “fraternity” and that its black box compensation system enabled systematic discrimination. Wendy Moore, now a partner at Perkins Coie in Palo Alto, California, dropped that suit in June, with a spokesman for the firm indicating that she’d had her capital contributions to the firm returned.
But before that case was resolved, a slew of female associates weighed in with similar claims in a separate $200 million putative class action. Six women, four of them initially anonymous, sued the firm in April, alleging the firm’s “black box” compensation model, leadership structure and culture serve to systematically deny women equal pay and opportunity for advancement. Represented like Moore by attorneys at Sanford Heisler Sharp, the women also detailed a frat-house like atmosphere at Jones Day.
Over the course of the year, three of the anonymous women unmasked themselves, while another attorney lent her name to the suit. While they are pushing for collective action certification under the Equal Pay Act, Jones Day wants claims of discriminatory promotion policies and more axed from the suit and is also seeking to have the Sanford Heisler attorneys sanctioned over poorly researched pleadings.
In August, another suit against Jones Day was filed. This one brought by a married couple who landed at the firm as prized recruits after clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Mark Savignac and Julia Sheketoff, representing themselves, accused the firm of discriminating against fathers by providing them eight fewer weeks of parental leave. Their complaint added to the existing depiction of Jones Day as a “boys club” rife with sexism on the subject of parental leave, and the couple said that Savignac was retaliated against after he sent a letter to several firm leaders about the policy.
Jones Day has called the suit meritless and said that it fired Savignac for his “poor judgment and immaturity.”
‘Mommy Track’ Suit Chugs Forward
The loudest of the gender bias suits to land in 2018 was a $100 million class action alleging that Morrison & Foerster routinely holds back mothers and pregnant women. Also brought by Sanford Heisler, the case began with three anonymous plaintiffs before swelling to seven.
Like Jones Day, Morrison & Foerster fought to force the women to identify themselves. Five of them ultimately resolved their claims against the firm by November 2019 after a mediation session. The two remaining women unmasked themselves in December after a California federal judge said earlier this year that “at some point … they’re going to have to no longer be anonymous.”
The plaintiffs’ class action demand has risen to $200 million, per a November filing. Meanwhile, Morrison & Foerster has repeatedly pointed to its record of hiring, promoting and supporting women and working parents.
Winston & Strawn to SCOTUS
Former San Francisco Winston & Strawn partner Constance Ramos in 2017 sued the firm in state court alleging discrimination and retaliation, saying that although she was the highest biller in the office the previous year, she was passed over for work and effectively pushed out of the firm.
While Winston & Strawn said the suit belongs in confidential arbitration, a three-judge California Court of Appeal panel called the partnership agreement that mandated arbitration “unconscionable” in November 2018. In May, a group of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe attorneys petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, arguing California courts have persistently defied the justices’ “clear rulings” on arbitration. In October, Winston & Strawn lost its bid in the high court to stop the ex-partner’s discrimination suit. Ramos has been represented by Karla Gilbride of Public Justice.
Ogletree Deakins Deflects to State Court
The team at Sanford Heisler has also taken on labor and employment titan Ogletree Deakins, first with a $300 million collective action filed in California federal court in 2018 alleging systematic discrimination against female attorneys.
That case, led by Dawn Knepper, a former nonequity shareholder in Ogletree Deakins’ Orange County, California, office was pushed into arbitration in April. But before that, former equity shareholder Tracy Warren launched a new state court suit under California’s Private Attorneys General Act in January. Warren, like Knepper, landed at Buchalter after leaving Ogletree, and she’s also represented by Sanford Heisler. Warren’s complaint has alleged that Ogletree retaliated against her after she raised concerns about potential gender bias within the firm.