The legal profession isn’t much different from any workplace when it comes to discrimination and harassment. Sometimes, law firms can even be worse, perhaps because of the mistaken perception by some lawyers that they always do the right thing, and “would never violate the law.” Sure they would. Discrimination is usually driven by personal perceptions and biases. No one is immune to that.
I have been contacted by an increasing number of female lawyers over the last five years, as they become less hesitant to call foul on discriminatory practices that are harming their career chances. A claim of differential treatment within a law firm is easier to prove than one might imagine, given the many kinds of records that law firms – by their very nature – create and store. My own experience in representing female professionals is that law firms will fairly resolve these claims once the evidence is properly presented.
If you’re a female lawyer and suspect, or merely wonder, if you’re being treated in a discriminatory manner, here are nine warning signs to look for.
- Your new-hire billable hourly rate doesn’t match that of your male colleagues. In the legal profession, the hourly rate which a law firm sets for a brand-new law-school graduate set is the equivalent of a FICO credit score. That single number rolls all the lawyer’s attributes into a single number, and that number makes a statement about the lawyer’s worth to the firm and to clients. New lawyers at the same firm should usually start at the same hourly rate. If your hourly rate starts materially lower than male counterparts, beware. Studies on discriminatory practices show that small disparities become big disparities over time. And a lower hourly rate is often used to justify all kinds of differences in treatment.
- Your pay is less than male lawyers with comparable experience. Are you in the same office, doing substantially the same kind of work – general commercial litigation, real estate, probate, or other work that is similar from project to project – but still paid less than males? There are few circumstances where such differences in pay are appropriate.
- You generate more revenue than males but aren’t paid better. The touchstone for most private-sector law firms is income generation. How do your revenues stack up against male colleagues? Across a broad spectrum of law firms and practice specialties, statistical analyses show that women lawyers consistently generate more revenue than males.
- You’re routinely assigned less desirable or less-profitable matters and clients. Law firms, like most employers, have projects that vary in complexity and enjoyment. Some matters involve high-profile disputes and top-flight clients. Others, not so much. Everyone knows which are which. Assignments, like a lawyer’s hourly rate, can be a badge of honor or a scarlet letter. They can guarantee a lawyer’s success or failure. Questions to ask: Who’s working on the big, multi-biller assignments? Who’s getting the high-profile, major-client assignments? Are the biggest and best matters overwhelmingly staffed by males? Who’s getting the low-value mundane matters? Who’s working on “courtesy” (nonbillable) matters, or with corporate clients that don’t pay their monthly bills? It may not matter that you’re meeting your billable-hour goals if the bills go unpaid or are treated as a courtesy.
- The male-female partnership demographic is heavily skewed toward males. In many law schools there are now more women in attendance than men. Women began entering the legal profession in significant numbers in the 1960’s. it’s 2015. A noticeable imbalance in the ratio of males to females in partnership positions (or on a partnership track) may be an ominous sign.
- Your billable hourly rate does not rise with years of experience, or doesn’t rise lockstep with males. Is your hourly rate rising commensurate with your experience, and is it moving in lockstep with male lawyers of comparable experience levels?
- Your firm tolerates clients that insist on males to lead the case, to argue at hearings and to conduct the trial. Clients cannot lawfully dictate that only lawyers who are male (or white, or young, or not disabled) work on their matters. Your firm is liable for discriminatory practices even if it is motivated by client demands.
- Your time is written off at higher rates. One major study of law firm billing records showed that time entries for female lawyers were written off/nullified or reduced at a greater rate than male lawyers. This was true regardless of firm size or practice specialty. “Revenues-generated” remains a primary determinant of success in for-profit law firms. Reductions in billed time hurts at year-end review time.
- The overall firm staffing demographic is pyramid-shaped. A 2014 study showed that many law firms still have a distinct gender-driven pyramid shape: 75% of the entry-level positions were female; 46% of the associate-level lawyers were female; and 22% of the partners were female.
Talk to an expert in employment law if you suspect gender discrimination at your firm. Situations like this can be analyzed confidentiality, making it possible to reach a reliable conclusion about the strength of the case before any decision to proceed needs to be made.