A recent Law 360 story by Andrew Stricker, “Should Judges Police The Legal Industry Pay Gap?” reports that as the pay gap between male and female attorneys persists despite industry pledges to do better, the power of judges to potentially bridge the divide is coming into sharper focus. Following an unusual decision by a federal magistrate, some members of the Philadelphia bar have endorsed the idea that other judges should follow suit and help police gender pay inequities, or at least call them out from the bench.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice recently issued the order critiquing elements of a notable employment firm's request and awards that put attorney "status" over performance. "I don't think it's always my role, but in this instance, I felt I had to set the rates based on the performance of the attorneys who really tried the case, and not a rate that was maybe based more on age or seniority," Judge Rice told Law360 Pulse.
In April, Judge Rice was overseeing the last stage of an age discrimination case brought by Alison Ray, a former sales director at AT&T Mobility Services who was let go at age 49 after more than two decades at the company. Following a five-day trial, Ray last year secured a $2.3 million award after a jury determined that a company restructuring plan had targeted older employees as "surplus."
In February, lawyers at the firm representing Ray, Console Mattiacci Law LLC, asked for $847,945 in "shifted" fees from AT&T. That lodestar calculation, based on a 40% contingency agreement, was justified by the complexity of the plaintiff's case, Ray's counsel argued, as well as a "complete and total victory" on her claims that AT&T had willfully violated federal age discrimination law. The fee petition included nearly 1,570 hours from partners Susan Saint-Antoine and Laura C. Mattiacci, a highly experienced lead trial counsel, and associate Daniel S. Orlow. Saint-Antoine and Mattiacci, who have practiced since 1989 and 2002, respectively, both listed their "usual and customary" rate of $730 an hour. Orlow, who has practiced since 2011, was at $320 an hour.
The petition also included 37 hours contributed by firm principal Stephen G. Console. Console, a nationally recognized employment law expert, charged $900 an hour for consulting on strategy decisions and filings, as well as settlement demands and other key elements of the case. In an order granting a handful of reductions totaling about $83,000, Judge Rice said Saint-Antoine and Mattiacci should be entitled to the same per-hour rate as Console, who has been practicing for three decades.
"Historically, women in law earn less than their male counterparts, a discrepancy that may reflect hidden bias," he said, citing a 2020 report that found widening pay discrepancies at large law firms. Referring to a fee schedule used widely in the Third Circuit to determine market rates for Philadelphia-area lawyers, Judge Rice said Saint-Antoine and Mattiacci should be in line for a "premium" over those numbers that put them in line with Console. Even if the fee schedule "serves as a useful guide on setting hourly rates, its reference to experience should not serve as a cap that precludes exceptionally talented trial lawyers from receiving fair compensation simply because of age or gender," Judge Rice said.
The legal industry pay gap, and its role in women reaching firm leadership and a lack of diversity in many areas of the profession, has been under intense scrutiny for years, but without much in the way of real progress. In the 2020 report cited by Judge Rice, legal recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa found that partner compensation soared between 2010 and 2018. But in that same period, the pay disparity between male and female equity partners widened significantly, from 24% to 35%.
Nancy Ezold, a veteran Philadelphia employment lawyer, said it was "absolutely" appropriate for Judge Rice to consider rate disparities for lawyers in his court, even though AT&T counsel hadn't raised the issue in its fee-award opposition. "I don't know of anything in the law that says you have to consider what a law firm pays people," Ezold said. "But Judge Rice looks at the bigger picture and asks, 'Am I going to do something to perpetuate an inequality and authorize a fee for a male partner over two female partners who really handled this case?'"
Ezold, who once sued her own former law firm in the late 1980s for denying her a partnership based on her gender, argued that fee petitions often provide a substantive overview of who did what work over the history of a litigation. Depending on the nature of the case, they can also be an opportunity for judges to compare requested rates across different firms and legal teams comprising different gender and experience makeups.
"Here the judge couldn't overlook a difference between male and female in this case because it related directly to the responsibility to decide what would be allowed for each of these attorneys," Ezold said. "Judges speak out on a lot of things, and I don't see why this should be any different." Judge Rice served as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania before being appointed as a federal magistrate in 2005. He retired in April, just after issuing the Ray opinion.
In an interview with Law360 Pulse, Judge Rice said the timing was coincidental, noting that the issue of male-female pay disparities had never before been "so squarely presented" to him in a fee petition. "From the [fee] affidavits I see, and from all I know about law firm pay structures, I do think the pay gap is huge, and there are just so many variables out there that have cut against giving women equal pay," such as lack of trial experience and other opportunities to advance, he said.
"When I see lawyers perform in an exemplary fashion, it's appropriate they be paid at higher rates commensurate with their skills, not just based on the years they've practiced," Judge Rice added. Alice Ballard, another veteran Philadelphia employment lawyer who provided a fee affidavit in the Ray case, said Judge Rice's prior time as a trial lawyer was evident in the opinion, including in his positive assessment of the hours Console Mattiacci dedicated to mock trial runs and other "essential" advocacy preparation.
Judge Rice "really understands what it means to prepare for a trial like this, and everyone on my beat really appreciates that," she said. But Ballard took issue with Judge Rice's ultimate reliance on what she described as an outdated fee schedule, rates that don't well reflect the special skills of trial work, Mattiacci's successful track record or the contingency fee model.
She also cautioned against reading the opinion as a critique of the hourly rate request for Console, whom she called a "lion" of the city's employment bar. Regarding his reference to the legal industry's gender pay disparities,"it's great that he took the opportunity to bring it up, but I just don't think it has much to do with this specific case," Ballard said.