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Lawsuits Highlight Legal Fields Gender Issues

Jeremy Nobile CRAINSCLEVELAND.COM

If a light were already shining on gender discrimination issues in the legal profession, a recent lawsuit alleging just those kinds of problems at legacy Cleveland BigLaw firm Jones Day should turn that spotlight to burning white.

The $200 million class-action suit, first filed against the 2,500-lawyer firm April 3 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by six former associates, alleges rampant sexism and misconduct at the expense of female lawyers, the result of a "fraternity culture" and a "brotherhood ruled by one man," namely managing partner Stephen Brogan.

The amended complaint, now 133 pages deep, details alleged systemic discrimination based on gender, pregnancy and maternity, and accuses the firm of a "black box" compensation system, which refers to a small group of high-ranking, influential partners setting compensation without proper transparency or oversight, as opposed to making those decisions through a diverse compensation committee.

The case lists a number of anecdotes about possibly inappropriate events that allegedly took place, seemingly illustrating a culture that belittled women and prevented them from advancing in the firm, if not making them feel outright unwelcome. The stories include a practice group leader allegedly asking lawyers to report pregnancy plans for "budgetary reasons," a female associate dressed in white being shoved into a pool at a party (and male counterparts high-fiving afterward) and a game called "(Sleep with). Marry. Kill" allegedly played by male associates during a limo ride, with the individuals choosing which of those actions to perform on or with their co-workers.

It's the latest in a string of lawsuits brought by Sanford Heisler Sharp, which has been positioning itself as a suer of powerful law firms. Since April 2018, the firm has filed separate $100 million suits against Morrison & Foerster and Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart on similar grounds of gender discrimination.

The Jones Day case, however, stands out for the damages sought and for its targeting what is regularly ranked as one of the "most-feared" litigators in law (as ranked by BTI Consulting Group).

Emphasizing that those discrimination cases are ongoing, Elizabeth Anne "Betiayn" Tursi, global chair and co-founder of the Women in Law Empowerment Forum, cautioned that it "might not be as bad as people think it is" at those specific firms — which is fair because no one in those cases has been found guilty of anything yet.

"But yes, these issues do exist," she said. "The burning question is, to what extent does this exist?"

It certainly has law firms thinking — perhaps more concertedly than ever — about their culture and their treatment of women in a post-#MeToo world.

"In light of these lawsuits, are law firms taking a deep dive to look at these issues? My guess is yes," Tursi said. "That's three lawsuits from prominent firms in a little over a year. So what is all that about?"

Many firms nowadays, including Jones Day, have seemingly begun to shape their businesses with women in mind. Firms are collectively promoting women to leadership roles, such as partner-in-charge — more often, putting them on high-ranking committees and launching women's initiatives.

Jones Day even notes it has a 26% female partner rate (though how many of those are equity partners isn't clear) and 40% women on its advisory committee.

Yet, gender issues seemingly persist.

According to a recent survey by the International Bar Association that examined bullying and sexual discrimination in the legal field, one in three female respondents said they had faced sexual harassment at one time, compared to one in 14 men.

And that doesn't even get into pay disparities. According to the fifth biennial Partner Compensation Survey by Major, Lindsey & Africa and Acritas, male partners, on average, make $959,000 in compensation, compared to an average of $627,000 for female partners.

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