Prosecutors Acting Out
Define That Term #173

[BALANCE] Will Discrimination Claims Change the Way Legal Employers Do Business?

In a recent case, Alyson J. Kirleis , a partner in a law firm, filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court, alleging, in part, that her firm discriminated against her by treating her differently after she had children.  (Hat tip:  Women's Rights Employment Law Blog).  As reported in this article from the ABA Law Journal Report:

The suit alleges Kirleis was told "gals" in the firm would perform all the work necessary "to prepare the cases for trial for the male attorneys who would try the cases." She alleges she was "deprived of wages and benefits" and left out of social events and client outings...

Kirleis’ suit describes her as an employee, not a partner, saying she "has no ability to make decisions or influence decisions" at the firm. Edward B. Friedman, who represents Kirleis, says that despite the firm’s emphasis in its statement on his client’s shareholder status, Kirleis was "a shareholder in name."...      

Williams says that not only are family responsibility cases increasing, but they also have a better chance of winning for plaintiffs than typical sexual discrimination claims. "If you look at the larger universe of cases against all kinds of employers, [these] cases have a higher success rate—about 50 percent—than employment discrimination in general," she says...

Employers defending family responsibility cases are "losing, and losing big," Williams says. The largest recovery Williams has uncovered for such a claim was a jury verdict of $1.5 million awarded to a former deputy prosecutor...

"Unfortunately, law firms are some of the most difficult places to work for people with families," says Cunningham-Parmeter. "We’re always going to have discrimination lawsuits we’re familiar with—harassment based on race, sex, national origin and religion—but the emerging area is in family responsibilities, and it’s all based on sex stereotypes, on what roles workers are presumed to assume at the workplace and at home."

Her allegations regarding her treatment by her male counterparts were echoed in a recent report released by the Women's Law Association at Harvard Law School , which is described here and summarizes the difficulties encountered by women lawyers across the board.  Specifically, "(t)he report found that many women believe their firms don't provide opportunities to make partner or foster an environment that values diversity and family."

As for her claims, in my experience, the most difficult hurdle she'll have is to convince the Court that she was, in fact, an employee.  Otherwise, she doesn't fall within the protected class.  I'd be interested to see how that issue is decided by the court, since her other claims won't even be heard if she doesn't prevail on that issue.

Perhaps if enough claims alleging discrimination due to family responsibilities are successful and result in verdicts in excess of one million dollars, legal employers will take notice and begin to make much-needed changes.  And the higher rate of success of these sort of claims is likely to light a fire under legal employers as well. 

Change takes time.  And, "old school" lawyers are retiring every day, so there's still hope yet. 


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