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LeClairRyan accused of gender discrimination

Former partner says law firm denied opportunities to female attorneys through ‘back-office deals’

RICHMOND, Va. – A former partner at Richmond-based LeClairRyan is accusing the firm of discriminating against her and other female attorneys in pay and promotion decisions.

Michele Burke Craddock claims she was denied credit for bringing in a case that later produced fees of more than $20 million for the firm. She alleges other female LeClairRyan attorneys similarly were denied opportunities and credit for their work because of their gender.

Craddock has filed a class charge of discrimination with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. While such charges normally are not publicly disclosed at this stage of the process, Craddock’s claim was filed in federal court as part of an effort to preserve evidence.

Craddock’s accusations of a male-dominated law firm hierarchy come at a time of transition for the firm. Founding partner Gary LeClair will step down in December after 28 years as chairman to return to full-time law practice at the firm.

LeClair guided the firm as it grew to approximately 380 attorneys in 25 offices around the country, including 11 lawyers in its Annapolis office.

Male-dominated hierarchy

The firm’s growth brought few opportunities for women lawyers, Craddock said in her second amended charge filed with the EEOC in February.

Craddock claims that LeClair is one of three male shareholders who comprised the firm’s top senior management and tolerated the firm’s gender-based discrimination. The others are shareholders Michael Hern and David Freinberg.

“Those who question senior management do not last long,” Craddock’s EEOC charge said.

Craddock said that, of 154 firm shareholders, only 24 – 15.4 percent – are female. She said there are only three female members of the firm’s 14-member board of directors. Of 11 shareholder business litigators in the Richmond office, Craddock said she was the only female.

Compensation decisions are made by the male-dominated hierarchy and involve “a lot of back-office deals, favoring male shareholders,” Craddock said.

Recent surveys showed women make up about 17-19 percent of law firm equity partners overall.

Craddock, 48, said she resigned from the firm in March after being offered a compensation package that would pay her less than half what a male colleague would be making.

Her resignation followed three years of meager rewards for her revenue-generating work, Craddock said.

“My team’s efforts were key to propping the Firm’s sagging financial condition in years that it struggled to make budget,” she said. “I was punished and marginalized and my accomplishments largely ignored as it related to compensation decisions under Firm policies.”

She also claimed other women attorneys at LeClairRyan were pressured to go part-time or presented with onerous equity buy-in demands.

Who gets credit?

Craddock claimed that she saved the firm’s relationship with a key client with a case that produced a high profile, $77 million settlement.

The client, Mecklenburg County businessman Marion J. “Boyd” Colgate Sr., was trying to recoup his family’s share of a profitable mineral mining operation in Central Virginia controlled by a hostile patriarch.

Colgate had terminated the firm and its former partner, Doug Sbertoli, Craddock said. The client had instructed the firm to prepare his file to be released to him, she said.

Craddock claimed she salvaged the firm’s relationship with Colgate and organized the legal team that pursued Colgate’s case to victory. The case led to a groundbreaking opinion denouncing oppression of minority shareholders and, later, the large settlement.

Colgate later told a reporter that Craddock – then known as Michele K. Burke – became almost like a family member during the prolonged litigation because she cared so deeply about the case.

Despite her effort, however, Craddock said the firm denied her credit for the immediate $3.5 million fee. She said the firm gave origination credit to Sbertoli instead.

Craddock said she later was denied a “huge adjustment” to the compensation she expected for the $20-million fee the Colgate case ultimately produced.

Craddock claimed she resigned this year after filing the first EEOC charge, believing the firm was retaliating against her.

Even though her EEOC complaint had not yet been investigated by that agency, Craddock went to federal court April 24 to ask for permission to take a deposition of Colgate, the once-reluctant firm client.

Colgate, 89, was facing health issues and Craddock wanted to preserve his testimony, she told the court.

On the same day the deposition request was filed in federal court, Colgate was involved in a fatal automobile accident in Prince Edward County. His vehicle collided with the rear of another auto that had slowed for a left turn, a police report said. He died the next day.

Craddock’s attorney said he hoped to show through other sources that Craddock was instrumental in keeping Colgate as a LeClairRyan client.

Ready to file

Although a similar systemic gender discrimination complaint against Greenberg Traurig LLP led to a three-year investigation by EEOC staff, Craddock’s lawyer hopes not to wait that long to take the LeClairRyan claims to court.

Harris D. Butler III said he has twice requested a right-to-sue letter after 180 days passed from the initial filing. The EEOC is required to supply the letter if its investigation is not complete after 180 days.

“I’d like to believe they’re all over this, but my greater suspicion is it’s just sitting collecting dust,” Butler said.

“We expect to be filing something soon,” he added.

LeClairRyan declined a request to respond to Craddock’s charges.

“I am advised that EEOC matters are confidential and it would be inappropriate to provide any information at this time,” said Bruce H. Matson, LeClairRyan’s chief legal officer.

Butler said he had not seen any response from the firm. He said the EEOC does not normally provide a complainant with a copy of an employer’s written response.

The National Association of Women Lawyers recently reported it found fewer than 19 percent of equity partners at U.S. law firms were women, up from about 17 percent the year before.

A 2014 survey by the National Association for Law Placement found that, among law firm equity partners, 82.9 percent were men and 17.1 percent were women.