Law firm Morrison & Foerster faces maternity discrimination suit filed by California plaintiffs

By Justin Stoltzfus | May 30, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO – Morrison & Foerster, a big name in the legal world, is now facing a $100 million class action suit brought by Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP on behalf of three current Morrison & Foerster female employees and its California offices.

SAN FRANCISCO – Morrison & Foerster, a big name in the legal world, is now facing a $100 million class action suit brought by Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP on behalf of three current Morrison & Foerster female employees and its California offices.

The plaintiffs allege that at Morrison & Foerster, there's a pattern of gender discrimination against female employees, specifically those of childbearing age.

The complaint, which was filed April 30 in the U.S. District Court Northern District of California, San Francisco Division states female employees are subject to decreased pay, slower advancement up the ladder, and in some cases, “limited access to meaningful work,” Sanford Heisler Sharp staff stated in an April 30 press release.

“The discriminatory policies and practices are created and implemented by MoFo’s predominantly-male leadership, giving rise to a firm culture that disfavors women, and particularly women who are pregnant or have children,” Sanford Heisler Sharp staff stated in the release.

The legal complaint cites instances of female attorneys allegedly experiencing challenges to their careers after coming back from regular maternity leave.

“This has an impact on women who are … of childbearing age, even before they get pregnant,” Deborah Marcuse, Baltimore, Maryland managing partner at Sanford Heisler Sharp, told the Northern California Record. “This has nothing to do with actual caregiving responsibilities – it's about stereotyping.”

In talking about how opposing counsel sometimes frames these types of cases, Marcuse said some companies just don't support all workers equally, even though they may claim to be very family-friendly.

“People are being set up to fail,” Marcuse said.

However, she said, there are remedies for this sort of situation. Speaking specifically about an instance where a female attorney was asked to meet billable hours objectives but not given enough work to meet the billable hours benchmark, Marcuse said companies can innovate in work allocation to make sure this sort of thing doesn't trap any of the attorneys working in their offices.

“I think some firms have better and more transparent ways of assigning work – that don't permit people to get shut out,” Marcuse said, suggesting that a "work bank" or similar tool can solve what she called a “pipeline problem.”

“Lots of companies are looking for ways to prevent the impact of bias,” Marcuse said.

Marcuse also discussed some of the allegations in the complaint against Morrison & Foerster.

“The thing that struck us so much is how unusual it was to see a (standard operating procedure) that (allegedly) would hold people back because they went on maternity leave,” Marcuse said.

Marcuse said all of this doesn't square with Morrison & Foerster's reputation as a firm that's generally well-regarded in the legal world.

However, she said, there is significant interest in the case.

“Our phones have been blowing up,” Marcuse said.

She said Sanford Heisler and Sharp intends to file an amended complaint as the process of discovery starts soon.

Morrison & Foerster also responded to questions about the case.

“Morrison & Foerster has a long and proven track record of supporting and advancing our associates as they return from maternity leave,” Morrison & Foerster Public Relations Manager Tracy Hager told Northern California Record on May 17.

Hager said Morrison and Foerster does not agree to the idea that the firm lacks supportive employer policies.

“We vigorously dispute this claim and are confident that the firm will be vindicated,” Hager said.

Weighing in on the case May 25, Dan Stormer, a partner at leading California employment law firm Hadsell, Stormer & Renick in Pasadena, talked to the Northern California Record about the general challenge of compensating women and minorities fairly, suggesting that in general, there’s an inequity that needs to be addressed.

“It would seem very logical,” Stormer told the Northern California Record, “That if women tend to fare poorly (on the partnership track, compared to men) … adding parenthood into the mix, you would fare even more poorly.”

Stormer described how statistically, women tend to “fall further and further behind” as they move up in their careers.

“The case has tremendous merit,” Stormer said of the case.

In describing how his own firm has handled discrimination cases, Stormer said some of the first steps involve specific research.

“You look at performance reviews,” Stormer said. “You look at client commentary.”

In the end, he said, it often comes back to the numbers.

“Typically, (women) don’t get these positions statistically, compared to men,” Stormer said.

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