Ex-Chadbourne & Parke partner Kerrie Campbell may have settled her gender bias case against the firm. But she’s still fighting.
By Scott Flaherty
It wasn’t easy for Kerrie Campbell, the former Chadbourne & Parke partner who led a lawsuit alleging the firm short-changed women on pay and business opportunities, to decide when and if she should resolve the dispute.
But now that her case has settled, Campbell is continuing to fight to address the gender equality issues that were at the core of the suit.
“I haven’t stopped,” she said. “It’s just a different way of moving forward.”
Chadbourne, now part of Norton Rose Fulbright, ultimately agreed to pay more than $3 million to Campbell and two other plaintiffs and their lawyers at Sanford Heisler Sharp to resolve claims under the Equal Pay Act. There was also a non-public component of the settlement that resolved other claims in the suit and, after the deal secured court approval, Campbell’s former firm issued a conciliatory statement, praising Campbell for contributing to an “important ongoing dialogue within the profession about gender issues.”
For Campbell, deciding to settle wasn’t easy in part because, as she acknowledged Monday in an interview with The American Lawyer, she wasn’t the only person interested in how her case against Chadbourne panned out. There were two other named plaintiffs in the proposed class action—former Chadbourne partners Mary Yelenick and Jaroslawa Zelinsky Johnson. And each of the plaintiffs had to consider the impacts—professional, reputational, family and otherwise—of a protracted court battle.
Those outside considerations were on Campbell’s mind before reaching a settlement with Chadbourne in March after roughly two years of litigating gender discrimination claims, she said.
“I felt very much that there was a purpose for doing this that was greater than myself,” Campbell said. “That kind of perspective—I had to tap into that. The fighter wanted to keep fighting, yet maybe there was a time to make peace for the greater good.”
Now Campbell is keeping her sights on that “greater good.” Specifically, she plans to focus on sexual discrimination issues as part of her legal practice at the recently launched KCampbell-Law in Washington, D.C. That work includes joining with the Legal Network for Gender Equity, an offshoot of the Time’s Up initiative launched early this year with the aim of fighting systematic workplace sexual harassment.
“Having been involved in the litigation for two years and obviously a strong advocate for gender equality … I get a certain number of calls and interest that concerns that kind of cases,” Campbell said.
The gender bias work, she added, would come in addition to work for longstanding clients carried over from her days in Big Law. Her traditional practice has involved advising and litigating First Amendment, reputation-management and brand-protection matters.
“It’s a very nice mix, and I’m very excited about continuing to advocate for gender equality,” she said.
Looking back, Campbell said she has “no disappointment with what we did for the last two years.” Still, while she expressed satisfaction with the outcome of her own case, Campbell was also quick to point out that the broader gender inequality issues her suit touched on remain far from resolved in the legal industry and in other parts of the workforce.
And she made clear that she intends to keep advocating for changes to address pay gaps, sexual harassment and other forms of bias.
Campbell sees a few specific areas as critical in the fight for gender equity. In the legal sector, she believes corporate clients have a clear role to play; they need to insist on more diversity from their outside law firms during litigation, deal work and even when outside lawyers come in to pitch for new work. If companies institute policies along those lines, she said, they could create strong incentives for law firms to add women and people of color to those deal, trial and pitch teams.
She also sees value in “the power of the collective,” a nod to actions like the #MeToo movement that prompted many women to come forward with stories of sexual discrimination and harassment. And she pointed to downsides of mandatory arbitration agreements, which force employment disputes into private proceedings shielded from the eyes of the public.
“If everything is done in a secret backroom where there’s no public scrutiny,” she said, “it’s just a recipe for maintaining the status quo.”
Finally, and perhaps not surprising for someone who led a closely watched gender bias lawsuit, Campbell said it’s vital for employees to have access to the courts, no matter what their job title.
“The ability and power to litigate is absolutely essential,” Campbell said. “We have to have a system where these very important issues and disputes can be litigated in public, with transparency, with accountability to the court, to the law and to the public.”