Weekly take: ‘Big law’ diversity pledge may prove hollow after maternity row
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Weekly take: ‘Big law’ diversity pledge may prove hollow after maternity row

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A suit alleging DLA Piper fired an IP associate right after she put in her request for maternity leave shows firms must follow up their diversity pledges with concrete action

I probably hear from someone or other every few weeks that we need more women in law, particularly in the intellectual property profession.

Equally often, if not more frequently, I come across news articles that explain why the gender gap in the legal sector doesn’t seem to be reducing.

Last week, a former senior associate at DLA Piper filed a complaint against the law firm for allegedly firing her six days after she requested maternity leave.

Anisha Mehta claimed in her June 6 lawsuit at the US District Court for the Southern District of New York that “DLA was unwilling to incur the costs of paying an experienced associate while on her maternity leave because the firm would not reap the benefit of her billable hours”.

Managing IP has contacted DLA Piper for comment. The firm’s attorney, Michele Maryott at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, said DLA Piper stood by its decision to fire Mehta and looked forward to presenting its case in court.

Mehta, who is of South Asian descent, is seeking unspecified economic, compensatory, punitive, and liquidated damages.

She claimed DLA Piper’s act of firing her showed the hollowness of the firm’s diversity and inclusion commitment.

Mehta alleged that the firm marketed that 21% of all partners were female while conveniently omitting that most were contract partners, which essentially meant they were simply senior to associates in the designation. In other words, they didn’t enjoy the perks that came with an equity partnership.

According to Mehta, DLA Piper said she was an underperformer, even though the lawyer had three pay rises in a one-year period while working at the firm.

Mehta also received a six-figure bonus during her short stint, she claimed. The complaint added that she did not receive any negative performance feedback prior to requesting maternity leave in September 2022.

I do not want to get into the merits of the complaint. The firm may well have had legitimate reasons for asking Mehta to leave.

But the timing of DLA Piper’s termination notice, which was given just days before Mehta became eligible to receive maternity leave benefits under the US’s Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), is sure to raise a red flag in the minds of those following the dispute.

Irrespective of the outcome, I’m worried about what the spotlight on this case might mean for female lawyers keen to pursue a career in so-called ‘big law’.

Dangerous precedent

A career in big law, the term used to describe the world’s major firms, isn’t the easiest to crack and comes with several non-negotiables – billable hours, a poor work-life balance, unpredictable schedules, and more.

On top of that, reports claim that female lawyers, and particularly women of colour, face considerable biases, microaggressions, and discrimination at some firms.

Those who do choose to have children are often expected to give up on their career ambitions and drop out of the partnership race. It is a sad perception that women are incapable of prioritising their work once they become a parent.

These issues have increasingly pushed female lawyers to quit big firms and join smaller outfits where there is less pressure, or leave the profession altogether.

Reports like these suggest the appeal of big law is waning.

Each instance of actual or perceived bias runs the risk of driving more talented female lawyers away from these firms and the IP sector.

I’m not sure law firms can afford to lose out on such a vast talent pool, especially when there is evidence to suggest that female lawyers significantly outperform male lawyers in court.

Reputation hit

If law firms continue acting in a way that can be perceived as biased, it could also create a negative public impression and drive clients away.

A report published last year noted that nearly half of the general counsel appointed at the 500 biggest companies in the US in 2021 were women.

These counsel may not want to engage external firms that have been subject to discrimination lawsuits, particularly filed by their female associates.

DLA Piper has yet to present its case before the court. Its submissions will undoubtedly shed more light on the case.

For now, Mehta’s complaint gives the impression that the firm could have handled the issue much more delicately, even if Mehta was deemed to be underperforming.

According to Mehta’s complaint, Gina Durham, DLA Piper’s deputy IP and technology practice group leader, feigned disappointment about her performance and offered generalisations about Mehta’s ability to handle clients and billable hours.

When Mehta pressed for specific examples, Durham cited two issues.

The first was an occasion when Mehta was underprepared for a call with a client that decided to work with the firm anyway.

Durham also cited a poorly written brief, which Mehta said in her complaint had been predominantly prepared by another senior associate.

These don’t sound like reasons to fire someone.

Mehta’s complaint also alleged that she was not afforded an opportunity to defend herself.

Again, DLA Piper’s version of events (and perhaps Durham’s) might clear things up.

However, it’s unlikely that DLA Piper will come out of this dispute entirely unscathed.

Even if it avoids liability under the FMLA, which prohibits US employers from firing staff due to pregnancy, numerous social media posts and articles on the dispute suggest the firm’s reputation has already taken a hit.

The controversy shows it’s not enough for firms to simply make diversity pledges unless they follow them through with concrete action.

Mehta’s decision to take action shows that the new generation of lawyers is unlikely to sit quietly through situations they deem unfair.

Perhaps the fact lawyers are willing to stand up for their rights will go a long way in making the IP sector a better and more inclusive space in the years to come.

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