By all accounts, Mary 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 Campbell, that accused the firm of sex discrimination and pay inequity. Yelenick’s change of heart followed a letter.
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partners signed the letter, which criticized the description of the firm as “patriarchal” and urged that the lawsuit be withdrawn.
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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.”
For women who question the fairness in partnership compensation, the customary solution had been to quietly move to another firm. A number of female lawyers are arguing that the legal profession has had ample time to get used to women in its ranks and needs to be held accountable, either in court or in mediation or arbitration.
“Chadbourne ripped off the Band-Aid that a lot of firms put on pay disparities,” said David Sanford of Sanford Heisler Sharp, who represents Ribeiro as well as the plaintiffs in the Chadbourne case, and is counseling other practicing lawyers over challenging pay disparities.
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 lockstep 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 glaring and 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.