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09/01/14

How "Lone Wolf" Partners Fare Poorly in Big Law Firms


Summary: A federal court opinion made last week illustrates insights into how big law firms are disparaged by "lone wolf" partners, who may be essential to retain for their skills, but seen as thwarting long-term strategies of the firm.

In this news article, we quote from a recent matter concerning partner pay discrimination in a big law firm.

It seems natural that attorneys, law firm partners, or any employee in an organization will want to become indispensable for the outfit, because it increases his or her personal stability within the business environment. However, there are many ways to go about creating such a situation, and one has to take care that in trying to become unique or indispensable, one does not create a bottleneck in execution of business objectives.

At the very least, one should not be viewed as a bottleneck by the management, because this will have direct implications on the career of the concerned employee. Even if the firm continues to retain you because of your unique skills, such conduct will still affect your career and compensation.

The Sixth Circuit's opinion in the matter quoting from the deposition made by the law firm management in Carey v. Foley & Lardner mentions:

"From the beginning of Carey's employment with Foley, the Management Committee noticed problems with Carey's method of practice." The Management Committee commented that Carey:

  • Does not use associates and that associates do not like working with him when they have the opportunity
  • Reports received by the Management Committee characterized Carey as a "lone wolf," a "silo" a "total island," and a "one man band"

This conduct was so disparaging to the law firm that Carey's department chair commented in writing in his report to the committees making compensation decisions: "Unfortunately, [Carey] is somewhat of a silo and does not leverage his work. As a result the compensation recommendation is somewhat lower than his numbers would suggest. He needs to be told that he would make more money 'if' he pushed some of the work down."

Accordingly, Carey got paid less because the Compensation Committee decided Carey "need[ed] to pay [a] heavy tax for [his] mode of practice/lack of enterprise creation."

Carey was dissatisfied and sued over pay discrimination. While rejecting his contentions, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit observed in one place in the opinion regarding pay discrimination based on gender:

"Carey testified that his practice was unique in comparison to other partners at Foley: "A lot of the work that I do is … negotiating a collective bargaining agreement or managing and strategizing, implementing strategies to defeat corporate-wide organizing campaigns … [W]e don't have partners other than me that have done it" … Thus, Carey failed to provide evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that Foley compensated him at a lesser rate than female partners who perform "equal work" in violation of the EPA."

The partner who was in an unique situation failed prima facie because he was unable to find someone in the same law firm against whom his work might be compared for the purposes of delving into pay discrimination. By being "unique," the aggrieved law firm partner in Carey v. Foley & Lardner found himself in a position where establishing pay discrimination was impossible, because nobody could be found who did "equal work."

This happened despite the partner being skilled enough to have temporarily chaired Foley & Lardner's Litigation Practice in Detroit. The matter is Carey v. Foley & Lardner LLP, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, No. 13-2331, opinion published on August 25, 2014. The Sixth Circuit reviewed the lower court's summary judgment de novo and upheld it.

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