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Judge questions law firm's 'urgency' to fire female partner, 63

When a long-term partner at a top firm suddenly received a harsh review from a male partner and a punishing pay cut in 2010, she complained of gender discrimination. Shortly thereafter, despite having a long history of high performance, the 63-year-old intellectual property attorney was fired. If the law firm had kept her on until she turned 65, she would have received valuable retirement benefits. So, although she was easily able to get a job at another top law firm, she added age discrimination and wrongful termination to her complaint.

Her former law firm immediately moved for summary judgment. In other words, they asked the judge to throw out her case before trial. The federal judge, however, foresees a long, expensive battle virtually certain to include multiple appeals, and urged the parties to settle.

To encourage that settlement, he withheld his ruling on the summary judgment motion. He did, however, have some harsh words for the law firm who fired the woman.

Nothing that the woman, who practices in a highly technical area of law, had been a substantial business producer, billed at a high rate and headed several committees, the judge said he found it "remarkable" that she had been fired just two years before receiving her retirement benefits, when other, less senior attorneys with lower billable rates were kept around. These all seem like classic symptoms of age discrimination.

"I wonder what the urgency is to terminate such a person," the judge said.

Her former law firm insists she was terminated for "legitimate business reasons," including an unnamed series of instances in which she was disciplined, personality conflicts, mishandled client issues, and a sense that she could no longer pull in new clients because two major cases she handled had settled.

"As a matter of public service, all I can do is say, the parties should discuss settlement," insisted the judge.

A veteran employment law attorney observing the case said the judge's delay in ruling on the summary judgment motion was probably meant to pressure the parties to settle. "I would be pretty shocked if he didn't deny the motion for summary judgment," he told a reporter after the hearing.

"If he rendered his decision, he couldn't ask the parties to settle," he explained. "Whereas now it's up for grabs."

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight, "Judge has tough words for Ropes & Gray over discrimination suit," Carlyn Kolker, March 28, 2013

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