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When California employment lawyer Dawn Knepper transferred to her law firm’s Orange County office in 2012, she asked to be paid at least as much as a male counterpart with similar seniority whom she’d outscored in billable hours and finding more business.
Instead, she says, the firm that specializes in defending companies against just these types of lawsuits paid her about $100,000 less.
That’s one of the claims in Knepper’s $300 million gender discrimination suit against Ogletree Deakins. The firm is dominated by male decision-makers who foster a culture “that marginalizes, demeans, and undervalues women,” according to the suit.
Knepper, a nonequity shareholder, contends that while Ogletree’s website boasts about diversity and equality, about 80 percent of its equity partners are men — a setup that results in missed opportunities and less pay for women. Her proposed class-action complaint against the firm, with more than 700 lawyers in the U.S., was filed Jan. 12 in federal court in San Francisco.
In 2016, a woman who sued described a “male-dominated culture” at Sedgwick, a San Francisco-based firm, while Chadbourne & Parke and Proskauer Rose are also facing complaints for gender discrimination.
Ryan King, a spokesman for Ogletree Deakins, said equal opportunity has always been a core principle of the firm, and that discrimination of any kind isn’t tolerated. More than half of the firm’s employees are women, including many of its most successful attorneys and two of four elected members of its compensation committee, he said.
“The decision-making process that governs our compensation system is both fair and equitable,” King said in a statement. “We will confidently defend the firm against these claims as we remain steadfast in our commitment to equal opportunity for all.”
King said the firm uses an “open compensation” system under which all shareholders know what every other shareholder earns, as well as the factors used in setting that pay. He added that female shareholders in California have made more on average during the past four years than their male counterparts.
David Stanford, an attorney who represents Knepper, said the firm’s pay data for men and women employees across the U.S. aren’t that simple. He said he has more women — both equity and non-equity shareholders– lined up to join the lawsuit. Each potential plaintiff will bring added facts, he said.
“Ms. Knepper has raised her underpayment in every shareholder compensation interview and has submitted follow-up appeals as well,” the suit states. “Her complaints have fallen on deaf ears.”
Knepper, who joined the firm in 2005 in San Antonio, Texas, also says a male lawyer denied her requests for more business opportunities, turned down her bid to attend a Southern California conference for the Association of Corporate Counsel, and refused to let her speak at a seminar for in-house counsel that draws hundreds of attendees from around the world, including some of her own clients.
Female lawyers face hurdles at all levels in their career. While women make up over half of current law school graduates, they only make up 35 percent of lawyers at law firms, a survey from Law 360 found last year. A 2016 survey by the legal staffing firm Major, Lindsey & Africa of 2,100 law partners found women earned an average of $659,000 a year compared with an average of $949,000 for male partners.