LeClairRyan hit with gender discrimination lawsuit

LeClairRyan’s office in the SunTrust Center. (BizSense file photo)

On the heels of a continued mass exodus of its attorneys and reports of its uncertain future, Richmond law firm LeClairRyan was hit with yet another blow last week – a gender discrimination lawsuit filed by a former female employee.

Marci Keatts, who until her resignation in May 2018 worked in marketing for the firm, filed suit Friday in federal court in Richmond, claiming the firm discriminated against her by allegedly paying her less than a lower-ranking male employee.

Keatts is suing both LeClairRyan and ULX Partners, the latter a company created last year in partnership with legal services provider UnitedLex as a way to transfer hundreds of LeClairRyan’s nonlawyer employees to the new venture, who then would be leased back to the law firm.

The lawsuit was preceded by a complaint Keatts filed against the defendants with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which in June issued Keatts a so-called right-to-sue letter, giving her 90 days to pursue her claims against the firm.

Her dispute with the firm began when she learned a male peer was being paid $62,000 annually, 29 percent more than Keatts’ salary of $48,000. She said the disparity continued even after she was promoted to marketing communications manager and her salary increased to $55,000.

Keatts, a resident of Chesterfield who now works at McGuireWoods Consulting, began working at LeClairRyan in 2010, before being reassigned in 2018 as an employee of ULX working on behalf of LeClairRyan. She resigned shortly thereafter, claiming in her suit that the alleged pay disparity continued when she moved over to ULX.

“Rather than correct the pay disparity, plaintiff and other staff were ‘rebadged to defendant ULX Partners, which continued to implement the discriminatory pay scheme,” the suit alleges.

LeClairRyan CEO Erik Gustafson said the firm had no comment on the case.

UnitedLex has not returned multiple messages left over the last week.

The lawsuit alleges a “broader discriminatory compensation scheme in place at the firm,” pointing to a separate gender discrimination case filed in 2016 by Michele Burke Craddock, a former partner at LeClairRyan.

Like Keatts, Craddock also made claims of pay disparities between her and male counterparts, albeit attorney compensation packages are different in structure than those of staffers.

The Craddock suit eventually was sent to play out before an arbitration panel, which ruled in Craddock’s favor and awarded around $1 million, consisting of more than $300,000 in back pay and damages, and the bulk related to attorney’s fees. That award has yet to be finalized, as the sides continue to debate the extent of attorney’s fees.

Keatts is represented by the same attorney who represented Craddock – Harris Butler of Richmond firm Butler Royals.

Butler, in an emailed statement to BizSense, said Monday: “This case presents similar gender pay equity issues to those identified by the Arbitration Panel in the Craddock v. LeClairRyan case. Instead of acknowledging and addressing the issue, the firm’s association with ULX Partners as “Law Firm 2.0” appears to have only perpetuated the issue. It’s a shame that “Law Firm 2.0” or “Legal 2.0” may have been used as a shield from, rather than as a model to seriously address, BigLaw’s documented gender pay inequality.”

Butler’s references to “2.0” are related to terms LeClairRyan and UnitedLex used when announcing the ULX model, describing it as an attempt to create a new generation of law firm business models.

Keatts claims LeClairRyan and ULX violated provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She seeks at least $200,000 in damages and a jury trial.

The damages Keatts seeks, should she prevail, likely would be covered by insurance policies kept by the firm, similar to those that are to pay out on Craddock’s award.

The Keatts matter arises in the midst of mass departures among LeClairRyan’s attorney ranks, which have prompted firm management to confirm publicly that it’s weighing its options for the future.

The wave of continued departures culminated last week when it was announced firm founder and namesake Gary LeClair was jumping to Williams Mullen, taking with him two other longtime partners.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that a right to sue letter from the EEOC does not imply that the commission found an employer in question to be officially be at fault. It simply allows a complainant employee to take the next step in pursuing a lawsuit against an employer. 

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