Checking In With BigLaw and Equal Pay

By: Amy Epstein Gluck

During the last couple of years, we have explored the twin issues of sex discrimination and gender pay disparities. We have examined it in the arenas of professional sports, universities, restaurants, Silicon Valley, and several different types of workplaces…including law firms.

We’ve explained that true parity in the workplace can raise productivity and efficiency, and we have told you that a solid anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy and the dismantling of a fraternity culture or “bro culture” at workplaces must come from the “top down” or “trickle down.”

Then, we read allegations like these in a lawsuit recently filed in San Francisco against Jones Day, one of the biggest in BigLaw, and (if proven to be true)…as the kids say, smh.

The Complaint, purporting to be on behalf of one former female partner and on behalf of other current and former female partners, alleges violations of state equal pay and labor laws due to:

  • A “black box” compensation system reflecting a subjective, individualized review of performance to formulate compensation—used to pay women lawyers less
  • A code of silence concerning salaries
  • Active mentoring only of male associates that lead to the pass-through of business to men
  • Male-centric social events focusing on athletics with concomitant humiliating “women’s” activities such as male partners inviting female clients to a spa where the female partners “hosted”
  • A fraternity-like “bro culture,” including a rating system about the relative attractiveness female attorneys
  • Unequal pay not just between male and female associates but, also, between male associates and female partners

Let’s examine some of these. As my partner Rich Cohen wrote here, “the workplace is not your frat house,” to which I clarified, “Leave any unsavory frat behavior behind.” Period. It doesn’t belong at work.

After the explosion of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, we examined the significance of mentoring women. It is so critical for women to have equal access to supervisors and decision-makers in order to advance. I told you here about a survey that revealed why mentors are so important:

Now, apply these statistics to the allegations in the JD Complaint, and you can see that the lack of active mentoring of women lawyers may come at the expense of partnerships for women and smaller books of business without that “pass-through” of clients.

The “bro culture,” too, tends to lead to system gender pay inequality. As we examined here, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (“EPA”) prohibits sex-based wage differentials for work requiring equal skill, effort, and responsibility performed under the same or similar working conditions. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does too.

The Complaint against Jones Day alleges that keeping salaries secret in this “black box” system is a good thing. Is it? The allegations explain the pay disparities that could result.

Now, these are allegations only (and I didn’t even tell you about all of them) so we will have to wait and see what happens, but it got me thinking about the perils of BigLaw, and, specifically, whether gender pay disparity and other discriminatory behavior are an unavoidable offshoot of the BigLaw model.

FisherBroyles Is Not BigLaw

Amy, you might say, you work at a big firm too.

I do, indeed.

But, as Rich explained here, the model at a cloud-based firm such as FisherBroyles provides attorneys with a much better quality of life while affording clients efficient services at predictable and flexible rates without legal fees incorporating costs for inexperienced associates or top-of-the-line, modern office suites complete with museum-worthy artwork.

But, wait, how does it foster parity and equal pay?

A few ways actually. First, FisherBroyles pays its attorneys based on an objective formula. FisherBroyles uses a non-discretionary formula to compensate partners for generating business, managing cases, performing work, and collaborating. One partner’s increase does not depend on another partner’s decrease. There is no committee to arbitrarily set compensation, and we do not have an executive committee handing out edicts about pay, using opaque and all-too-frequently discriminatory calculations.

Second, there is complete transparency at FisherBroyles on all financial issues. Our lawyers know what everyone is working on and what everyone grosses. The model works. It engenders true equality of opportunity among the sexes.

Third, no one is on a “partnership track,” because all of our attorneys are partners. We eliminate the typical standards with “making partner,” like billable hours, quotas, and financial leverage. Rather, there’s flexibility, transparency, mutual respect, and accountability. There is only incentive to work with good, smart people. Everyone works hard, and everyone succeeds on his or her own merits.

In sum, there is every incentive to maintain a fair and equal workplace, and no motivation for anyone to act in a discriminatory manner. The result is a cure to the predictable conflicts inherent in large, traditional law firms.

As we’ve said, the model is a win-win. For clients, for partners, and for the very notion of equal treatment of all employees.

Takeaway: Where Would You Want to Work?

Parity breeds employee satisfaction and increases revenue. How will Jones Day respond to these allegations and fare in this litigation? I don’t know, but I can tell you that if your law firm has such problems, FisherBroyles is your answer.

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Amy Epstein Gluck

Amy Epstein Gluck has represented individuals and corporate clients in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and various federal district courts for more than twenty years. Ms. Epstein Gluck’s current practice areas include employment law—advising on and drafting employment agreements; handling employment negotiations, severance agreements, noncompete and nondisclosure agreements, “wrongful terminations” and other EEO matters; representation at the EEOC level; advising employers about discrimination laws and how to remain in compliance, and employment negotiations.