Login Register Subscribe
Current Issue

Insurance lawyer accuses her firm of gender discrimination

Reprints

A lawyer in the Chicago office of Sedgwick L.L.P. sued the firm for gender discrimination, unequal pay and retaliation.

Traci Ribeiro, an insurance lawyer, alleged in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in California that female attorneys “cannot crack the glass ceiling of equity partnership at Sedgwick.” The San Francisco-based firm has more than 300 lawyers, 26 in Chicago, and last year booked $183.0 million in revenue. In the suit, Ms. Ribeiro described being publicly singled out in a meeting by a powerful partner who recommended lowering her pay because she “needed to learn to behave.”

“Sedgwick's male-dominated culture systematically excludes women from positions of power within the firm, which in turn leads to lower compensation for female attorneys as compared to male attorneys,” the lawsuit says.

The firm retaliated against Ms. Ribeiro after she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in February, seeking to force the dispute into private arbitration, the lawsuit says. Ms. Ribeiro, who as a junior partner does not own shares in the firm, is seeking class-action status for the lawsuit, filed in state court in California.

Sedgwick Chairman Michael Healy said in a statement that Ms. Ribeiro's compensation placed her in the top 10% among the law firm's partners. The firm is “confident there has been absolutely no discrimination or retaliation in the partner compensation process or otherwise, and we will defend the firm against these baseless allegations.”

Though women and men enter the legal profession in roughly equal numbers, women made up 18% of those who rose to equity partnership in 2015, according to a survey from the Chicago-based National Association of Women Lawyers. The American Bar Association's task force on gender equity has found that women's advancement often is blocked by unconscious bias and their paychecks curtailed by compensation committees stacked with men.

Ms. Ribeiro isn't the first woman to accuse a firm of discrimination. In January, a former partner at LeClairRyan sued in Virginia alleging unequal pay and retaliation. In 2013 Greenberg Traurig L.L.P. settled a class-action brought by female attorneys.

Ms. Ribeiro, a graduate of American University's law school, joined Sedgwick in 2011 from insurance boutique law firm Bates Carey L.L.P. In September 2012 she noticed that female junior lawyers were paid less than men with comparable experience, the lawsuit says. She asked for raises for two women on her team who were making between $40,000 and $50,000 less than male lawyers.

“The firm's reaction to Ribeiro's daring to speak up in an assertive way for herself and others, instead of in a manner that conforms to gender stereotypes for females, was dramatic, decisive and definitive in its negative impact,” the lawsuit says.

Bruce Celebrezze, a partner in San Francisco who co-chared Ms. Ribeiro's practice group, said in a meeting of 60 equity partners in November 2012 that she needed to behave, and her compensation should be reduced for that year, the lawsuit says.

Three years later, Ms. Ribeiro was generating more business than all but two of the firm's lawyers, the lawsuit says. Yet the only lawyer promoted to equity partner in 2015 was a man who “had less than 10% of Ribeiro's revenues.” Moreover, her 2015 compensation was the lowest she'd ever received; when she complained, the majority of her 2015 compensation, normally paid in a lump at the end of the year, was split into two payments.

J. Bryan Wood, a Chicago employment lawyer who is representing Ms. Ribeiro, said Ms. Ribeiro could not reveal her compensation or the size of her book of business without risking a possible violation of Sedgwick's partnership agreement. The firm already is fighting to keep the dispute in arbitration, rather than the courts.

Claire Bushey writes for Crain's Chicago Business, a sister publication of Business Insurance.