Working for Justice

The Women Fighting For Equal Pay In BigLaw Have a Message For Others on Equal Pay Day: You Are Not Alone.

In honor of Equal Pay Day, four women currently engaged in a gender discrimination lawsuit against the national labor and employment firm Ogletree Deakins opened up about the struggles and rewards of challenging pay discrimination, and the impact of women breaking the silence.

As changemakers seeking to reform the entrenched legal industry, plaintiffs Dawn Knepper, Tracy Warren, Jocelyn Campanaro, and Angelica Ochoa, each former shareholders of Ogletree, were kind enough to make time for an interview on the realities of fighting for equal pay. While the path to the current nationwide class action lawsuit against Ogletree is different for each woman, they share in a common message for others suffering pay discrimination: be your own advocate, speak up, and most importantly, know that you are not alone.

What made you decide to come forward publicly with allegations of discrimination?

Dawn Knepper

Attorney Dawn Knepper

Dawn Knepper: The irony of this case is that Ogletree is one of the top labor and employment firms in the country, and advises clients on how to prevent and handle these types of issues. Despite elevating concerns and complaints for years, I was not being heard internally. I realized that it was necessary to bring this case to impact change.

Tracy Warren: We are working to improve the legal system for all. Women and men have been hurt by the law firm’s culture of fear and intimidation while only a few continue to get rich. I watched as talented and bright women left after mistreatment and silently took their pain with them while this toxic pattern continued.

My own experiences echoed this. After lodging a complaint of sexual-harassment of multiple women against San Diego’s then-managing shareholder, Ogletree banished me and another woman and gave the offending male shareholder a raise. It was clear that they were punishing the women who spoke up and rewarding the man. While the firm’s conduct was intended to silence, it only galvanized me to speak up and speak out.

Jocelyn Campanaro: After I left a very stressful work environment at Ogletree, that negatively impacted my health and my family, I just wanted to put the experience behind me. It wasn’t until I heard similar stories of other women around the county that I realized I couldn’t stay silent in the midst of such a widespread issue. When Dawn was brave enough to file suit, I realized that my voice was needed to help take a stand against the unfair treatment and pay that women were suffering.

Angelica Ochoa: After I left Ogletree, I just wanted to move on and put the whole experience behind me.  But, then I saw other women coming forward and speaking up and I was in awe of their courage.  It made me think about what I would want my daughter to do if she were in the same situation.  I would want her to speak out and to fight if she was wronged.  Once I reached that conclusion, I knew I had to come forward.

What do you see as the impact of movements like Equal Pay Day and #MeToo? (i.e., on employers, on women, on the broader public)

Dawn Knepper: These movements have made the discussions about discrimination, harassment and retaliation more main stream. That continued discussion in main stream media is forcing companies, educational institutions, and the government to take the initiatives to address these problems.

Tracy Warren: Publicly shining a light on inequality and harassment, abuse of power and retaliation and the damage it causes to very good people makes a positive difference. This awareness is exposing the conduct of those that abuse the power who would rather keep us quiet and creating positive change and energy against inequality, marginalization, harassment, and abuse.

Jocelyn Campanaro: These movements bring forward the institutionalized policies and practices that unfairly impact women and their families by denying them the pay and opportunities that they have earned and that are being offered to male counterparts. This helps give women and their male allies a collective voice and brings light to issues that impact women in the legal industry.

Angelica Ochoa: It allows women to see that they are not alone in the struggle, and that when we come together and support each other, change can happen.  And, that the time is now.

Equal Pay Day is falling just days after the House passed the Paycheck Fairness Act; what do you see for the future of pay equality?

Dawn Knepper: Despite the legislative changes, such as the current proposed legislation or recent other changes such as what has been undertaken in the state of California with its Equal Pay Act, it seems that parity in pay will take time. It will also take actions such as this to require employers such as Ogletree to make change, as internal calls for change have not been sufficient.

Tracy Warren: The future is now and there are many firms and businesses that advance equality in pay for men and women. I am fortunate to work at one of them at Buchalter. They are the leaders. With continued solidarity, education and discussion, pay equity will be embedded in each business. And each employee will demand it as part of her job.

Jocelyn Campanaro: Given the attention and advocacy we are seeing for behalf of pay equity, I am hopeful that the momentum will continue and the legal industry will join the movement to ensure pay equity for all attorneys.

Angelica Ochoa: It is astonishing to me that in 2019 we are still debating whether a woman should be paid the same as a man for the same work.

What has been the most challenging part of engaging in a public fight for pay equality?

Dawn Knepper: For me it’s been a unique struggle. I litigate gender discrimination and pay equity claims for a living, so I know the uncertainty and stress that is involved in litigation. Nonetheless, that perspective does not make the experience any easier. I stay strong knowing that I am fighting not just for change for me, but for my girlfriends, my children, and my co-workers.

Tracy Warren: Watching the amount of money that law firms and businesses will spend on the fight to perpetuate disparity rather than investing their resources and paying women equally. Also, seeing the tactics deployed to suppress women from talking, succeeding, or achieving equality.

Jocelyn Campanaro: It is never easy to speak publicly about something that is so private or about a career that you have worked so hard to build. But at the end of the day, I remind myself that I am not asking for anything that I did not earn. And seeing compensation models and policies at other firms reminds me that what Ogletree is doing is unfair and needs to change.

Angelica Ochoa: Putting myself out there.  I’m a private person, and to share these details about how I was mistreated with others that are not close to me has really been the most difficult part.

What has been most rewarding about this experience?

Dawn Knepper: The words and notes of support I have received from people near and far. One of my favorites was a note from a woman from a competitor law firm that mocked up a t-shirt that said “We are all Dawn.”  I’m proud to shine a light on these issues, and continue discussions, so that future generations will hopefully not have to do so.

Tracy Warren: The strength of women and men who have pulled together, fought, grown in solidarity and continued to advance equality. Clients and colleagues have thanked us for this movement and shared their own personal war stories of discrimination in the legal profession.

Jocelyn Campanaro: The support I have received from male and female colleagues who want fair workplaces has been incredibly helpful in reminding me that this effort is so important in creating a better industry. We are simply asking Ogletree to hold itself to the standards it advises its clients to maintain.

Angelica Ochoa: Knowing that I am part something bigger, for the greater good of women.  And, knowing that I’m not alone.  When something like this happens to you, you can start to doubt yourself.  Then, you come together with other women who have endured the same discrimination and you realize it’s not me, it’s them.

What advice do you have to other women who are going through experiences similar to yours at Ogletree? 

Dawn Knepper: Be an advocate for yourself. Change will only come through advocacy.

Tracy Warren: Talk openly, seek advocates, rely on faith, family and friends to advance positive change. Find leaders who embrace equality, seek them out, give them your business, your time, your input and your work ethic. We are in this together.

Jocelyn Campanaro: My best advice is to know that they are not alone. There are a lot of good people – men and women – who will listen and help. Seek out those allies and support, and know that you are asking for what you have earned. And if your employer is not willing to change, there are a lot of other great firms or companies that are working to do better and offer a place to be treated and compensated fairly.

Angelica Ochoa: The first step in change is to break the silence.  Speak up.  You are not alone.

If your employer has subjected you to discrimination or harassment, you should consult an experienced employment discrimination attorney.

Leigh Anne St. Charles

Leigh Anne St. Charles

Leigh Anne St. Charles is an associate in the Nashville office of Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP. She represents employees in individual and class actions involving discrimination, family and medical leave, employee benefits, and civil rights. Learn More

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