Class Action Accuses Steptoe & Johnson of Gender Bias

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A former associate filed a national class action against Steptoe & Johnson, claiming the giant law firm pays only lip service to gender equality, but has a male-dominated leadership that discriminates against women in pay and promotions.

“Despite paying lip service to diversity in its workforce, and even counseling the firm’s own clients on policies to avoid pay discrimination, defendant Steptoe & Johnson LLP … subjects its female attorneys to unequal pay,” Ji-In Houck says in her federal lawsuit.

Houck, of Los Angeles, says her starting pay at the firm as a contract attorney, $85,000 a year, was barely half the $165,000 that male lawyers fresh out of law school were being paid —though she had come to Steptoe with two years of experience in civil litigation.

During her three years in Steptoe’s Century City office, her salary typically was 30 percent to 40 percent less than male lawyers with comparable experience, she says in her June 22 complaint.

When she left in March 2016, she was earning $200,000, a year compared to the $230,000 paid to men at her level. “The firm’s overall corporate culture and the uniform policies, procedures and practices inevitably result in systemic pay discrimination to the disadvantage of the firm’s female attorneys,” Houck says.

The lawsuit notes that defendant Steptoe & Johnson LLP is a distinct firm from Steptoe & Johnson PLLC, based in West Virginia, which split off in 1980.

Steptoe said in a statement that it is “a strong supporter of women lawyers and professionals.”

Dismissing Houck as “a former junior associate who was hired as a contract attorney and stayed with the firm for less than three years,” the law firm called her allegations “completely without merit,” and said it would “vigorously defend ourselves against such baseless claims.”

Steptoe based in Washington, D.C., has nine offices, six around the United States, plus offices in London, Beijing and Brussels. It has nearly 400 attorneys.

Houck’s class action is one of several lawsuits by female attorneys challenging major law firms over pay inequity in the past 18 months or so. The case that has attracted the most attention is the $100 million suit in New York against Chadbourne & Parke, filed in August by former lateral partner Kerrie Campbell of Maryland.

A shareholder of Virginia-based LeClairRyan sued the 350-lawyer firm in January 2016 alleging pay inequity and delayed promotions.

And Sedgwick partner from Chicago sued that San Francisco-based firm over its “male-dominated culture” in July last year. Both cases were sent to arbitration.

In June 2016, Farmer’s Insurance Group agreed to pay a class of about 300 female in-house attorneys $4 million, plus $1.8 million in attorneys’ fees, for pay discrimination.

Houck’s attorney, Lori E. Andrus of Adrus Anderson in San Francisco, also represented the Farmers’ plaintiffs. She was not available for comment Monday.

Stanford Law School Professor Deborah Rhode, who heads the school’s Center on the Legal Profession, said the raft of cases shows “the increased willingness of women who’ve been underpaid for decades to sue.”

She said it is no longer the case that women who sue over pay will be banned from practice. The plaintiff in the Sedgwick case is still at that firm. Houck is now an attorney with the Stalwart Law Group in Los Angeles.

Rhode also said the fact that Houck started at Steptoe as a contract attorney should not lessen her claims. “I can’t see that it would be a sufficient justification” for the pay disparity, Rhode said.

The complaint describes Steptoe “as a ‘white shoe’ firm of the highest caliber.”

Founded in 1916, Steptoe has “always been almost exclusively run by men,” and today retains “a highly concentrated and male-dominated management regime,” Houck says.

“The firm’s overall corporate culture and the uniform policies, procedures and practices inevitably result in systemic pay discrimination to the disadvantage of the firm’s female attorneys.”

Houck describes two other, unnamed female attorneys who earned much less than men with comparable experience. One was paid $160,000 a year, while her male counterparts were paid $250,000 to $280,000, according to the lawsuit.

She says Steptoe’s “devaluation” of women lawyers goes beyond salary, that it does not promote or invest in its women equally with its men. For instance, while about 48 percent of associates are women, only 19 percent of partners are.

“The sharp contrast between the number of women associates and women partners exposes Steptoe’s utter failure to retain women attorneys over the long term,” Houck says.

She says the split is worse at the management level. The firm’s chairman and vice chairman are both men, as are its seven managing partners.

“The 13-person Compensation Committee is majority male, and the Associates Committee has historically been heavily male-dominated as well,” according to the complaint.

The firm responded to those claims in its statement Monday, saying that women are on its executive and nominating committees and that two of four department heads, the general counsel, the co-chair of the compensation committee and the past chair of the associates committee all are women.

“In January 2016, the firm promoted a new partner class that was 50 percent female, and in January 2017, the new partner class was 80 percent female,” it added.

But Houck says her experience shows “a true lack of investment in the firm’s women lawyers.”

She seeks class certification, back pay, raises and damages under the federal Equal Pay Act and the California Fair Pay Act, and asks the court to order Steptoe to launch programs to provide and foster equal opportunity for women lawyers and to establish a special task force in the law firm on carry out those programs.

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