Students Considering BigLaw Warned To Keep ‘Eyes Open’

Posted March 6th, 2019.

As It Appeared On

By Braden Campbell

Law360 (March 6, 2019, 11:14 PM EST) — Prominent plaintiffs’ attorney David Sanford and client Dawn Knepper, a former Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart PC partner suing the employment powerhouse for sex bias, had advice Wednesday for law students thinking of joining BigLaw: Ask questions.

“If you’re going to BigLaw either as a summer jaunt or as a prospective full-time opportunity beyond, think about the culture that you’re getting into, think about the demands,” Sanford said. “You should go in with your eyes open, and you should know whether or not there are mandatory arbitration procedures.”

Sanford, the chairman of Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP, appeared with Knepper at a New York University School of Law event. Sanford Heisler represents Knepper in her suit alleging that Ogletree’s largely male leadership class favors men over women in pay, promotions and opportunities to develop business. Knepper is fighting a bid by Ogletree to send her claims to arbitration.

Neither Sanford nor Knepper bashed BigLaw as a career choice, but they urged those of the several dozen attendees thinking of signing on with a top corporate firm to be wary of two key factors in their case: the arbitration agreements that keep plaintiffs’ claims out of court, and the compensation policies Knepper alleges cost her and other women at Ogletree millions.

Sex bias in BigLaw has become one of the hottest legal industry topics in recent years due in large part to Sanford — who has also filed suit against firms including Proskauer Rose LLP, Jones Day and Sedgwick LLP — and to clients like Knepper who take on these powerful foes. Wednesday’s discussion followed the duo’s stops at Harvard Law School on Monday and Columbia Law School on Tuesday.

Knepper, who left Ogletree to become a shareholder in Buchalter PC’s employment practice last year, detailed for students the pay practices that led her to sue. Knepper described four types of “credit” Ogletree uses to allocate pay for its shareholders: originating credits, management credits, responsible credits and working credits.

Knepper said she struggled at Ogletree to get her fair share of originating credits, which attorneys get for bringing on business and which she calls “the credit that matters the most for compensation purposes.” She recalled a case for one of her clients in which a male colleague asked for 50 percent of the origination credit because he had a relationship with the company’s employment practices liability insurer, despite not having a connection to company itself. Knepper disputed the allocation and made her case before a male firm leader, who she said boosted her share to 60 percent.

“You should ask those critical questions of the law firm. How do I earn those credits?” Knepper told students. “To the extent I end up in appeal [of an allocation decision], how do I go about making that appeal?”

Ogletree has asked the Central District of California to send Knepper’s claims to arbitration, citing an arbitration agreement it emailed attorneys. Although Knepper did not sign the agreement, Ogletree is arguing it still applies — and has persuaded one judge of as much — although only in the context of a motion to transfer the case.

Knepper had harsh words for Ogletree’s contract, saying, “I don’t know about you guys … but I have never prepared such an agreement for a client.” But she stood by arbitration agreements as a device, with the caveat that employers should consider the growing backlash toward their use before adopting one.

“What I’ve been telling them is, I think you need to make a conscientious decision and decide if that’s something you’d want for your employees, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement,” she said.

Knepper and Sanford fielded several questions after they spoke, touching on topics including how lead plaintiffs shape employment suits, whether some firm pay structures invite bias more than others, and what goes into deciding whether to take a given plaintiff’s case.

One student asked Knepper, whose practice includes defending clients against claims like hers, how being on the other side has changed her approach to the job.

Knepper stopped well short of pledging to jump ship for the plaintiffs’ side after her suit ends. But she will “forever be changed by this experience,” she said.

“I’ll always have a different level of respect for plaintiffs,” Knepper said. “I go into every deposition and say, ‘I have a lot of respect for plaintiffs,’ but I do think that I [now] have a different appreciation for what it’s like to be the person in the hot seat.”

–Additional reporting by Vin Gurrieri. Editing by Haylee Pearl.

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