18 January 2018

Ogletree Deakins in $300m lawsuit over gender discrimination claim

A shareholder at the US employment law firm is suing for $300m over alleged gender bias, a claim strenuously denied by Ogletree which points to its wide ranging initiatives to redress any imbalance.

A female shareholder is suing US employment defense law firm Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, alleging the firm underpays its women lawyers and fosters a culture that “marginalises, demeans, and undervalues” women. The complaint by Dawn Knepper also alleges that Ogletree uses a number of tactics to shortchange female shareholders in pay and promotions including 'manipulating allocation of origination credits by unfairly attributing such credits to male shareholders, even when women at the firm are the ones who bring in the client.'

Administrative duties

Additionally, the complaint also alleges that Ogletree 'disproportionately saddles female shareholders with administrative duties which are less valued at the firm and this results in women being denied equal pay and promotions. These administrative or "housekeeping" duties take substantial amounts of billable time from female shareholders while male shareholders are largely freed from such tasks.' 

Shareholders

The law firm has two types of shareholders - equity and non-equity. Women make up 19 per cent of the equity shareholders and 42 per cent of non-equity shareholders with equity shareholders making 40 per cent more. Ms Knepper alleges the firm’s two-tiered shareholder system, which includes equity and non-equity shareholders, keeps women from being paid fairly based on their contributions to the firm. Both types of shareholders are expected to contribute the same amount of work, and yet equity shareholders can make more than 40 per cent more money, according to the complaint. Ms Knepper is claiming $100m in back pay and £200m in damages for the proposed class. She is represented by David Sanford at Sanford Heisler Sharp. 

Equal opportunity

Ogletree Deakins has denied the claims and said in a statement that equal opportunity is a core principle at the firm and it does not tolerate discrimination of any kind. 'We take the allegations filed by one California shareholder very seriously. However, the decision-making process that governs our compensation system is both fair and equitable. In fact, we are proud of our ‘open compensation’ system under which all shareholders in the firm know what every other shareholder earns—and the factors that support those determinations. Under this system, full-time female non-equity shareholders in California have made more on average than their male counterparts in each of the last four years. And the same is true if you compare female and male equity shareholders in California,' the statement said. 

Women in management

It went on to say: 'We will confidently defend the firm against these claims as we remain steadfast in our commitment to equal opportunity for all. Women comprise more than half of the people in our firm and, over the last four years, the majority of attorneys promoted to shareholder in the firm have been women (8 of the 11 new shareholders just promoted on January 1 are women). Further, women are among our most successful lawyers, serving in leadership positions as members of our board of directors and compensation committee, office managing shareholders and practice group chairs. Of the four elected members of the compensation committee, two are women. All four serve alongside the firm’s managing shareholder.'

Workplace initiatives

The firm has received a number of awards and brought in initiatives to ensure pay equity, it said, adding that it had also  appointed its first ombudsperson to assist with workplace disputes.