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Pursuing gender pay equity still risky at many firms

Lizzy McLellan writes, "As more women lawyers use litigation to fight unequal pay, it begs the question of whether effective methods exist for pursuing equality internally before going to the courts. But women lawyers familiar with gender disparity issues said many attorneys face backlash when they complain about compensation, or do nothing in fear of those consequences.

Another example of that conflict became public earlier this week when a nonequity partner at Sedgwick filed a class action lawsuit alleging that a male-dominated culture had prevented her and others from earning equal pay and partnership status. Lead plaintiff Traci Ribeiro alleged that she faced sexist remarks and other retaliation when she began advocating for equal compensation for women lawyers in her firm.

Lynne Bernabei, founding partner of Bernabei & Kabat in Washington, D.C., said gender pay equity is a 'huge' problem in the legal profession. Bernabei, an employment lawyer, has handled a number of gender discrimination cases involving lawyers.

'Usually they have to leave. It’s very hard to do this internally,” Bernabei said. “I’m not going to say it never works, but it rarely works.'

Bernabei said she has seen many situations in which a woman files a complaint about equal pay, then is subsequently fired or “pushed out.” Employment lawyer Deborah Weinstein said people are often worried about the consequences of raising equal pay concerns.

'Right now, I do believe that no employee, and certainly no professional attorney, wants to be complaining about their treatment. They want to be liked. They want to be a team player,' Weinstein said. 'Of course people are concerned about retaliation.'

Oftentimes retaliation is the product of a new dynamic created when the lawyer confronts the firm about compensation, Weinstein said, and people need to be mindful of that to make sure they behave appropriately after a person speaks up."

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