Employment defense firm Ogletree Deakins was hit with a $300,000,000 lawsuit on Friday by a female shareholder alleging the firm underpays its women lawyers by denying them origination credit, excluding them from business development and saddling them with administrative tasks.
In a class action complaint filed in the Northern District of California, Ogletree shareholder Dawn Knepper accused the firm’s mostly-male leadership of discriminating against women and fostering a culture that “marginalizes, demeans, and undervalues” them.
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 percent more money, according to the complaint.
“Ogletree routinely refuses to promote qualified female non-equity shareholders to equity shareholder status, even when they generate business that meets or exceeds the criteria and expectations for equity shareholders,” Knepper’s complaint says. “At the same time, the firm has eased business generation requirements in order to promote favored male attorneys to equity status.”
In an emailed statement, Ogletree said it takes the allegations in Knepper’s complaint “very seriously” but that “the decision-making process that governs our compensation system is both fair and equitable.”
“We will confidently defend the firm against these claims as we remain steadfast in our commitment to equal opportunity for all,” a firm spokesperson wrote.
Women make up approximately 19 percent of the Ogletree equity shareholder ranks and approximately 42 percent of the non-equity shareholder ranks, according to the complaint.
Knepper, a non-equity shareholder in Ogletree’s Orange County office, joined the firm in San Antonio in 2005. She’s seeking $100,000,000 in back pay and $200,000,000 in damages on behalf of the proposed class.
Knepper is represented by David Sanford, a litigator who has brought several high-profile gender discrimination suits against BigLaw firms in the past few years. He’s currently representing three former Chadbourne & Parke partners suing the firm (now part of Norton Rose Fulbright) over allegations of gender discrimination.
The full statement from Ogletree Deakins is below:
Equal opportunity has been a core principle of Ogletree Deakins since the firm’s founding, and we do not tolerate discrimination of any kind – gender or otherwise. We take the allegations filed by one California non-equity 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.
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.
As part of our efforts to promote equity, we recently formed a task force to study issues relating to the advancement and recognition of women at the firm. Based on the task force’s recommendations, the Board adopted a number of initiatives to make continuous enhancements to our practices relating to credit guidelines, pay equity, and extended leave and flexible work policies. The Board also appointed its first Ombudsperson (a senior female shareholder and former member of the Board of Directors) to provide a dedicated resource to our firm’s lawyers to assist them in resolving workplace issues and fostering a positive work environment, including with respect to diversity and inclusion.
We are also proud that our firm has been recently recognized by at least 10 leading organizations for our achievements in diversity and gender inclusion. For instance, in September 2017, Ogletree Deakins was recognized as a WILEF (Women in Law Empowerment Forum) Gold Standard Firm for leadership roles achieved by equity women partners. This is the second time the firm has received this honor. Further, Ogletree Deakins was selected as the winner of the 2016 ATHENA Organizational Leadership Award for supporting its mission of supporting, developing and honoring women leaders.