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    Lawsuit presses the issue of lower pay for female law partners

    The office of Chadbourne & Parke in New York. Three female partners of the law firm are suing the company, asking $100 million for sex discrimination and pay inequity.
    Alex Wroblewski/New York Times
    The office of Chadbourne & Parke in New York. Three female partners of the law firm are suing the company, asking $100 million for sex discrimination and pay inequity.

    NEW YORK — By all accounts, Mary T. Yelenick had a stellar career at Chadbourne & Parke, the New York law firm where she spent 35 years, rising to the position of chairwoman for the product liability practice.

    She retired in December to words of praise from the firm.

    But in March she joined a lawsuit brought by a colleague, Kerrie L. Campbell, that accused the firm of sex discrimination and pay inequity. Yelenick’s change of heart followed a letter.

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    Within weeks of Campbell’s lawsuit in August, Chadbourne circulated a letter disavowing its claims. Fourteen female partners signed the letter, which criticized the description of the firm as “patriarchal” and urged that the lawsuit be withdrawn.

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    Yelenick, 62, did not sign the letter, but after looking at a draft, she said in an interview, she “disagreed strongly because the letter contained inaccuracies, including the process that female partners could use to join any potential class or collective action that a court certifies.”

    “My decades of experience,” she said, “has made me aware of the many ways — both overt and more subtle — in which both institutional structures and informal practices continue to work to impede the advancement, and discount the contributions, of women.”

    The third female partner who joined the lawsuit is Jaroslawa Z. Johnson, an American lawyer who headed Chadbourne’s office in Kiev for a decade. She remained in Kiev after the office closed in December 2014, and noted during her time there that firm data “showed that my revenue generation was higher than many male partners, but my compensation was much lower.”

    “Male partners,” she said in an e-mail, “who generated less revenue annually made much more than I did.” She decided to join the lawsuit, she said, once she read Campbell’s complaint.

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    All three plaintiffs have maintained in legal papers that the firm’s female partners have been “systematically disparately underpaid, systematically shut out of firm leadership, demoted, de-equitized, and terminated.” The class-action suit asks for $100 million for sex discrimination and pay inequity.

    Chadbourne is contesting that description. Its lawyer, Kathleen M. McKenna of the Proskauer Rose law firm, did not respond to a request for comment. But the firm has argued in legal papers that each of the three women suing was paid differently because each had “unique experiences and roles” at the firm.

    Chadbourne also maintains that the three were partners and thus were not covered by federal equal pay act protections.

    The lawsuit and its public aftermath — including the firm’s cutoff of Campbell’s compensation and its vote to oust her from the partnership on the eve of Chadbourne’s merger with Norton Rose Fulbright — have spurred discussions about pay among women at other large law firms.

    And it is not the only legal dispute to emerge over compensation for female partners.

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    In July, Traci M. Ribeiro, 46, a lawyer, sued Sedgwick, a San Francisco-based international litigation and business law firm, saying she was not promoted to full partner or paid commensurate with the amount of business she was bringing into the firm. The firm called her lawsuit, which depicted Sedgwick’s culture as clubby and paternalistic, a “self-serving” and “disingenuous” exercise in a legal filing to move the contentious dispute to arbitration.

    And the firm, in the same legal papers, called Ribeiro, who was a top earner in Sedgwick’s insurance practice in its Chicago office, a “quisling” — a World War II-era term for a traitorous collaborator.

    Last month, the firm came to terms with Ribeiro in arbitration. The outcome was confidential, and neither side is commenting.

    A resolution may be rockier for Campbell’s lawsuit, which Chadbourne has publicly labeled a “national smear campaign” and a “cynical pursuit of a big and undeserved payday.”

    Barely 20 percent of women have reached firm partnership status despite the high number of women who are entry-level associates at many major firms. When they graduate from law school — where women are now just over half of students — women are paid in lock step with male colleagues, but once they make partner, their compensation can be widely divergent from that of their male counterparts.

    Female law partners on average earn about one-third, or about $300,000, less annually than their male colleagues, according to a survey of 2,100 partners at law firms nationwide released last fall by a legal search firm, Major, Lindsey & Africa. Over several years, that adds up quickly to $1 million or more in lost compensation for a female lawyer.

    Chadbourne, like some other major firms, circulates charts with equity partner payment figures, which contain pay disparities that can seem inexplicable, the plaintiffs say.

    “The matrix of factors was there,” Yelenick recalled, but “it just didn’t add up.”

    In 2013, the base pay of Chadbourne’s male partners was, on average, 40 percent more than that of their female colleagues, according to filings in the legal case. Last year, there was a 21 percent difference between the firm’s male and female partners, according to the documents.