No one would be surprised to learn that a person who happened to be a lawyer broke the law. Acting in their personal capacities, lawyers commit the same variety of crimes that other citizens do, ranging from fraud to rape to murder. But when lawyers manage their own businesses, their own law firms, they should be expected to obey the law.
Often, they don't -- especially when the law mandates equal treatment for female employees. A class action law suit filed earlier this week calls into question a major law firm's compliance with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Francine Griesing filed a $200 million class action law suit against her former law firm, Greenberg Traurig, alleging that the firm discriminated against her and other female lawyers in its Philadelphia office because of their gender. Greenberg Traurig is one of the nation's 200 largest law firms, and Ms. Griesing was a partner there from 2007 to 2010.
Ms. Griesing claims that many women partners received less compensation than did men with similar accomplishments. According to her law suit, there was only one exception exception to the inferior treatment afforded female partners: "GT [Greenberg Traurig] prioritizes, pays and promotes women who have intimate relationships with firm leaders or who acquiesce to sexualized stereotypes."
The truth of these allegations will be determined by the trier of fact -- either a jury as Ms. Griesing has requested or an arbitration panel as the firm prefers. I have no knowledge of whether the claims are true or not, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigated them and found "reasonable cause" to support class-wide claims of gender discrimination in compensation.
What's more interesting than Ms. Griesing's accusations against Greenberg Traurig is the possibility that this suit will inspire other women to sue the firms where they work on similar grounds. When asked if other law firms should be concerned, one of the lawyers representing Ms. Griesing said, "I have no doubt that the EEOC would come to a similar conclusion in other cases. It's a systemic problem in many law firms. But you have to look at the statistics of a firm and its history."
The percentage of female equity partners is a key statistic. (Equity partners are those with an ownership interest, receive the largest compensation and determine policy.) Although females have provided much of the brainpower for law firms since the 1980s, the number of female equity partners in the nation's 200 largest law firms has hovered around 15 percent for the last twenty years. The percentage of female non-equity or income partners is approximately 26 percent.
These numbers are especially troubling given women have constituted at least 40 percent of enrolled law students since 1985 and reached a high of 50 percent in 1999. Women's representation in either class of partners is far below their representation as worker bees.
The number of women entering these large firms after graduation has dropped; they now constitute only 45 percent of new associates. I suspect the decrease is a result of women abandoning the hope of ever grabbing the gold ring or even getting a fair shake. Perhaps Ms. Griesing's suit will cause law firms to consider their treatment of women more critically.