Discrimination against women in law firms?

Former law firm associate Catriona Collins sued the law firm that had employed her, Cohen Pontani Lieberman & Pavane, claiming that she was passed over for work assignments and ultimately dismissed on the basis of her gender.

Last week, the ABA Journal reported on Judge Kimba Wood’s Order denying (in part) the firm’s motion for summary judgment and permitting the case to proceed to trial.  A New York Law Journal article reports the fact in more detail than the ABA Journal’s summary:

The judge said remarks by Cohen Pontani managing partner Martin B. Pavane that Collins was insufficiently “sweet” in dealing with a paralegal “could be construed as reflecting discriminatory animus.”

“A reasonable jury could find that Pavane’s statement indicates that (1) he holds stereotypes that women should be ‘sweet’ and non-aggressive, and (2) that Pavane believed that Plaintiff did not fit this stereotype,” Wood wrote in Collins v. Cohen Pontani Lieberman & Pavane, 04 Civ. 8983.

Collins joined 30-lawyer Cohen Pontani as a litigation associate in 1997. . . .

According to her November 2004 complaint, Collins was told in 1999 that she would never be promoted to partner, despite positive reviews, because the partners, all of whom were then men, were “uncomfortable” with her. The firm’s Web site currently lists two female partners.

Collins claims she was thereafter passed over for work assignments that were instead given to male associates. This allegedly led to her having low billable hours, which the firm then cited in denying her salary increases.

On Sept. 16, 2003, Collins sent an e-mail to Cohen Pontani partners citing an article about the potential benefits of having women serve as lead counsel in patent litigation. She said Cohen Pontani was “behind the times” because women lawyers at the firm were not being given positions of responsibility.

She was terminated on Sept. 18, 2003. The firm claims it fired Collins that day because she sent a series of “insulting and unprofessional” e-mails to lawyers and paralegals distinct from her Sept. 16 message. According to Cohen Pontani, Collins had a history of clashing with other lawyers and staff and the Sept. 18 e-mails were the “last straw.”

While the suit itself is interesting, the ABA Journal report produced comments that are fascinating.  Many of the comments are brief, concluding that the firm did discriminate against Collins or that a woman who is criticized for being insufficiently “sweet” is no worse off than a man who is criticized for being insufficiently “masculine.”  A few of the comments purport to share stories from women lawyers who were faced similar situations and yet made partner at their firms.  One woman reports being the only woman left from her class by her 5th year of practice and realizing that more junior male associates received preferential treatment:

Later, of course, when I realized what was going on and that the partners weren’t going to lift a finger to help me – and in fact, said that the reason for the problem must be that I wasn’t “nice” – I did get angry. Then, I admit, I wasn’t “sweet”; I came to the conclusion that I could get my job done, or I could have all the staff think I was “nice”, and since their behavior was unfair, I was not so worried about them liking me so I’d get my job done. Nonetheless, this is an impossible position to be in. At one point, our head of secretarial services, the person who was responsible for instructing the staff on what their jobs were and how to do it, explained to me that she fully sympathized with staff who didn’t want to work for women, because after all, they shouldn’t have to do menial work for women. I repeated this to the supervising partner; he thought it was funny . . . .

While it’s easy to line up (largely anonymously) either for or against Collins on the basis of only a small amount of information about the case and the evidence, the comments — and the amount of time the responders took to share their comments — are striking.  I’m inclined to agree with the several commentors who suggested that the case will likely settle and so we’ll learn nothing more, but the conversation is, nonethless, fascinating.

I’ve worked with assistants (plural!) who’ve told me flat out they prefer not to work for women, and I’ve seen a number of women succeed in law firms (of various sizes) apparently without facing substantial gender-based issues.  Anyone care to comment here?

1 reply
  1. leagle
    leagle says:

    I was ‘passed over’ for a position at the end of a first year trainee lawyer role. Several of us were. All the trainees passed over were female. All the men were kept on. A few women were kept on too – the young ones. The older women were definitely passed over.

    It turned out for the best – I’m now self employed, and making more money than my peers, and enjoying myself every day.

    I know of another female colleague who was thrown out after her first 2 years in a law firm because she was ‘too aggressive’ and later became the MD of one of that firm’s major clients. Haa!!

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