Kerrie Campbell - Speaker - Alliance of Women Trial Lawyers

Equal Pay Pioneer Reflects On What It’s Like To Sue A Biglaw Firm

Kerrie Campbell thinks it’s everyone’s responsibility to challenge blatant inequality

Even if you don’t remember the name Kerrie Campbell, chances are you’ve read a story (or two or three) about her. She is the former Chadbourne & Parke partner who took the world of Biglaw by storm when she sued her firm over a gender pay gap.

Styled as a purported class action, the case took on a total of three named plaintiffs before it was settled. Chadbourne, the firm Campbell sued, no longer exists — it was swallowed up in a merger with Norton Rose, but her experience taking on some of the best in the legal profession is illuminating. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Campbell, and she was happy to shine the light on what it is like to call out a Biglaw firm in court.

Initially, I wanted to find out from Campbell what is was like the moment she realized she believed she was being paid less than her male counterparts. Campbell said she first had an inkling something was wrong with her compensation way back in her first year as a lateral partner. The firm circulated a year-end ranking of partner compensation — revealing the pecking order as it were — and given the amount of work she’d been billing she just knew something was wrong — a “shocking revelation” was how Campbell characterized it. And it was a real eye opening moment for Campbell as a lateral partner with 30 years of Biglaw experience and a solid book of business.

Campbell said she made the decision to sue her former firm when she realized merely leaving the firm or just complaining about it would never be enough to move the needle. Year after year studies and reports detailing the gender pay gap in the legal industry are published but little changes; Campbell asked herself “what am I going to do about it?” That question forced Campbell’s hand, in a manner of speaking, and she knew she had little choice but to file a lawsuit against her firm.

As one might imagine, the reality of litigating against a giant law firm is stressful — and even seasoned litigators noted how contentious this suit was. As a trial lawyer herself, Campbell said she wasn’t surprised at the way the suit went down. She says the way defendants in discrimination cases tend to react to a lawsuit is largely predictable and that was something she was ready for. But the way that her local professional community reacted to the lawsuit was a little surprising. Campbell said that, for the most part, professional colleagues in D.C. were hesitant to discuss, or even acknowledge, the case while it was ongoing. But interestingly, the converse was also true. People she’d never met from around the country reached out to Campbell expressing their support and letting her know they were rooting for her. Through it all Campbell says she has no regrets about filing the lawsuit.

Campbell believes there is more than just a culture of secrecy regarding the inner working of firms — including partner compensation — that allows a gender pay gap to exist. In fact, she says there is a “laundry list” of factors that keep it alive. One of the biggest issues she identifies is the one/two punch of complacency and silence. There is so much at risk for women at law firms, and they are so busy growing their own practice, they have little time to worry about the broader issue of a gender pay gap. But Campbell says acceptance of the status quo is unacceptable, and women need to speak up, support those who do, and challenge blatant inequality.

There are, however, structural barriers that sometimes prevent women from openly challenging the existing system. One of the biggest issues Campbell sees on that front is the existence of mandatory arbitration clauses — in employment or partnership agreements. This often means that even if a women is courageous enough to bring the issue to her employer’s attention, no one knows about it and there is no public debate (or accountability) about the firm’s practices. Campbell is a litigator at heart, and she believes access to courts (and the accompanying judicial scrutiny) is key for real change.

These days Campbell has left the world of Biglaw behind. She’s building her own firmand is excited to represent clients in a variety of matters. One of the most interesting representations she has is working with the legal defense fund for Time’s Up!, and she continues to be a passionate advocate for gender equality in the workplace. This seems like the perfect next chapter for an equal pay pioneer.

Kathryn Rubino
Above The Law

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