A start­ing point for pay eq­uity

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - ROBIN ABCARIAN robin. abcarian @ latimes. com

Robin Abcarian shares the story of a fe­male lawyer’s pur­suit of equal pay for equal work.

SAN JOSE — Sit­ting in her at­tor­ney’s con­fer­ence room the other day, Lynne Coates had a strained look on her face. A trial lawyer who used to work for Farm­ers In­sur­ance, Coates was pressed for time be­cause she was due in court.

Also, the story she was about to tell me was painful to re­count.

In 1993, Coates was hired by Farm­ers In­sur­ance, which em­ploys hun­dreds of at­tor­neys to bat­tle claims. She spent five years there be­fore leav­ing for another job. In 2010, she re­turned to Farm­ers, and spent four happy years in its San Jose of­fice.

Her job sat­is­fac­tion changed abruptly one day when she dis­cov­ered by ac­ci­dent that she was earn­ing less money than a male at­tor­ney in her of­fice with less ex­pe­ri­ence.

“It was just sort of an off- the- cuff re­mark that one of my male col­leagues made one day when we found out there was go­ing to be a man­age­ment change in my of­fice,” Coates, 49, said. “He said, ‘ Oh, yeah, I could stay here and con­tinue to make X ev­ery year.’ At that point, my head started spin­ning.”

She earned $ 99,000. His pay was $ 102,000. Not a huge dif­fer­ence, un­til you take into ac­count that Coates had many years more ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Af­ter that,” she said, “I got nosy.”

She but­ton­holed col­leagues. She learned that one fe­male at­tor­ney who had been at the com­pany for four years earned only $ 68,000.

What re­ally got Coates, though, was how lit­tle she earned com­pared to her trial part­ner, a man who had been prac­tic­ing for roughly the same num­ber of years. She fig­ured his salary was be­tween $ 150,000 and $ 200,000.

Coates stewed for a while. She tried to brush it off. But she couldn’t let it go. She com­plained to her su­per­vi­sor. He was sym­pa­thetic, said he’d get back to her

month later, she said, he in­formed her that the com­pany had acted ap­pro­pri­ately. Her salary would not be ad­justed.

Then, she said, her job re­spon­si­bil­i­ties be­gan to change. She was ef­fec­tively de­moted. In­stead of han­dling all as­pects of high­stakes cases, as she had for years, she was not al­lowed to make cer­tain court ap­pear­ances, de­pose im­por­tant wit­nesses or rep­re­sent the com­pany in me­di­a­tions.

“It was em­bar­rass­ing and hu­mil­i­at­ing,” she told me. “I’ve sort of seen the old boys’ thing since I started with Farm­ers back in the ’ 90s. And I al­ways thought, ‘ That will go away.’ And it hasn’t.”

Dispir­ited, Coates quit in Au­gust 2014.

Eight months later, she laid out her story in a fed­eral law­suit against Farm­ers, al­leg­ing the com­pany paid her less than male col­leagues, then il­le­gally re­tal­i­ated against her when she com­plained. Her cur­rent em­ployer, a law firm that rep­re­sents doc­tors in med­i­cal mal­prac­tice cases, has been sup­port­ive.

“There is a fa­voritism to­ward men,” said San Fran­cisco at­tor­ney Lori An­drus, who is rep­re­sent­ing Coates with San Jose at­tor­ney Lori Costanzo. “Men are given more op­por­tu­ni­ties, big­ger cases, and are pro­moted faster and given more raises. And that story is re­peated.”

This week, An­drus and Costanzo added three more plain­tiffs to the case. One, An­gela Storey, no longer works for Farm­ers. But the other two, Keever Rhodes and San­dra Carter, work for Farm­ers in Los An­ge­les.

The at­tor­neys hope they can per­suade a judge to cer­tify the law­suit as a class ac­tion. If they suc­ceed, it might grow to in­clude hun­dreds of women.

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There are, of course, two sides to ev­ery story. I don’t know what Farm­ers’ de­fense is, or will be, be­cause com­pany spokesman Trent Frager said he couldn’t com­ment on pend­ing lit­i­ga­tion. But the com­pany, whose online job post­ings say it em­ploys more than 500 at­tor­neys, has hired an out­side law firm that is fa­mous for ag­gres­sively de­fend­ing cor­po­ra­tions. The at­tor­ney han­dling the case for Farm­ers is, nat­u­rally, a woman.

In all like­li­hood, the law­suit will not be re­solved for years.

But it raises a larger equal­ity is­sue that plagues the le­gal pro­fes­sion. To­day, though al­most half of law school grad­u­ates are women, women are woe­fully un­der­rep­re­sented as eq­uity part­ners at big firms. They get short shrift when it comes to com­pen­sa­tion. Some women re­port be­ing bul­lied by male col­leagues over who gets credit for bring­ing in new busi­ness. ( Another not- so- big sur­prise: There are few women on law firm com­pen­sa­tion com­mit­tees.)

The im­bal­ance trick­les down into the le­gal trenches, where, say, in­sur­ance com­pany lawyers toil away.

“Pay eq­uity is the No. 1 is­sue right now,” said Linda Bray Chanow, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Women in Law at the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin. “That’s what we’re all work­ing on. I don’t hear about work/ life [ bal­ance] any­more. I hear about pay eq­uity.”

You are think­ing: But women earn less be­cause they take time off to raise chil­dren, right? Be­cause they leave work ear­lier than men to get home to their kids, right?

Of course, some­times that’s true.

But Joan Wil­liams, an inf lu­en­tial UC Hast­ings law pro­fes­sor who has writ­ten pro­lif­i­cally about the bar­ri­ers women face in the work­place — es­pe­cially in law firms — says bias is also at play. “Even af­ter you con­trol for ev­ery­thing un­der the sun,” she said, “women and peo­ple of color still get paid less.”

Per­haps that is why none of the ex­perts with whom I spoke was sur­prised to hear about the law­suit.

“It’s very coura­geous of the women to come for­ward,” said Oak­land at­tor­ney Les­lie Levy, who rep­re­sented Raiderettes cheer­lead­ers in their suc­cess­ful wage theft law­suit against the Raiders last year. “Just like Sil­i­con Val­ley, it’s a com­mu­nity and word gets around fast. You leave your em­ploy­ment, then go af­ter your em­ployer, ev­ery­one knows about it, and you can’t use them as a ref­er­ence.”

We know from so­cial science that women who try to ne­go­ti­ate higher salaries are of­ten pe­nal­ized just for ask­ing. So they earn less than male peers and fall out of fa­vor. I doubt one clas­s­ac­tion law­suit will change that. But it’s a good place to start.

Robin Abcarian Los An­ge­les Times

LYNN COATES, 49, and three other fe­male lawyers are su­ing Farm­ers In­sur­ance over pay in­equities; they hope the suit will be cer­tif ied as a class ac­tion.

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