Dissecting the soap opera unfurling at one of the world’s biggest law firms

Originally published by Boss Betty

It has not been a good year of PR for Jones Day on the gender bias front — nor, more pressingly, for those who say they’re on the receiving end of said bias. Jones Day, one of the largest and wealthiest law firms in the world, is currently enmeshed in not one but two high-profile sex discrimination suits.

The soap opera — because it really is unfolding as quite the saga, despite the seriousness of the subject matter — debuted in April, when six female former associates filed a class-action suitagainst the firm, accusing it of engaging in both gender and pregnancy discrimination while also underpaying them, preventing their career advancement and forcing them out once they became parents.

And now a federal lawsuit filed by a married couple formerly employed by Jones Day, Mark Savignac and Julia Sheketoff, claims that the firm discriminated in its parental-leave policies and that when Savignac questioned the policies, he was dismissed.

Despite being totally illegal (and obviously totally abhorrent), gender and pregnancy discrimination remains a widespread problems in the American workplace. The annual number of pregnancy discrimination claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been steadily rising for two decades, according to the New York Times. Recently, it’s been hovering near an all-time high. “Whether women work at Walmart or on Wall Street, getting pregnant is often the moment they are knocked off the professional ladder,” reads the piece.

How Jones Day’s dual high-profile gender discrimination cases unfold, and whether they will move the equality needle in law’s hallowed corporate corridors, remains to be seen. Given the critical nature and prevalence of the issues both these cases bring to light, we intend to keep a close eye on them. Below is a close look at the players involved and how the suits have unfolded to date.

The six named female former Jones Day associates who filed the class-action lawsuit are: Meredith Williams, Saira Draper, Jaclyn Stahl, Nilab Rahyar Tolton, Andrea Mazingo and Katrina Henderson. Originally, there were seven named plaintiffs, four of whom requested anonymity, but Jones Day pushed for all of the names to be made public. Williams, Draper and Stahl later put their names to the case: “It is time to do away with the stigmatization of women who challenge discrimination and harassment in their workplaces,” a statement from the group read. “We will not stay silent; we will not be bullied. And we are empowered by our solidarity.” The remaining Jane Doe would-be plaintiff decided not to proceed but remains part of the class.

Mark Savignac and Julia Sheketoff were also associates at Jones Day and worked in the firm’s appellate practice in Washington. Sheketoff was at the firm for almost four years before leaving in August 2018 to take a job as an appellate attorney for the Federal Public Defender’s Office of the District of Columbia. Savignac had been at Jones Day for about nine months when he took paternity leave. Following his dismissal from Jones Day he moved to Steptoe & Johnson. Both were clerks at the U.S. Supreme Court before joining Jones Day.

Jones Day is one of the largest law firms in the world, employing more than 2,500 lawyers in 39 offices around the world, according to the most recent survey of large law firms by American Lawyer. The firm earned nearly $2 billion in annual revenue, according to the New York Times. In both complaints, Jones Day’s managing partner Stephen Brogan is referred to as an “autocratic” leader who is the “final decision-maker on virtually every matter of significance.”

The firm was also embroiled in a pay discrimination lawsuit filed in 2018 by former Jones Day partner Wendy Moore that alleged female attorneys were treated “as second-class citizens” and that their “black box” compensation system “all but ensures that female attorneys are paid less than their male counterparts,” Above the Law reported. Earlier this year, Moore dropped the case in exchange for the return of the capital she invested in the firm.

The firm also has a strong connection to President Donald Trump — it represented the president during his 2016 campaign and in the early days of his term, the firm sent 12 lawyers into the administration, according to the National Law Journal. Since then, at least five more Jones Day lawyers have taken various government roles, American Lawyer reported.

The class-action suit claims that the best work at the firm goes to men and that men are paid better and promoted more often. The plaintiffs claim there was a “fraternity culture” at the firm, resulting in women being frequently subjected to “sexist, sexualized comments and conduct” about their appearance. The suit also alleges that female employees who have children are stigmatized.

“Jones Day operates as a fraternity in a perversely literal sense. Senior male partners mentor young male associates, give them preferential assignments, facilitate their access to clients, introduce them to the Firm’s powerbrokers, and groom them for membership in the Firm’s partnership, even when their legal skills are notably deficient,” the complaint reads.

The lawsuit also claims that Jones Day runs its compensation system as a “black box” under the complete control of its managing partner, Brogan. The suit says that Brogan essentially has “unchecked autonomy” and final say over compensation packages for individual lawyers, which are maintained as closely guarded as state secrets.

Meanwhile, Savignac and Sheketoff’s suit claims that the firm practices discriminatory parental-leave policies that “impose archaic gender roles.” Essentially, Jones Day’s policy says that biological mothers who want to be the primary caregiver get 10 weeks of paid family leave plus another eight weeks of disability leave, while biological fathers get 10 weeks of family leave max. This difference comes down to a ruling by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that says employers can give biological mothers eight weeks more paid leave than biological fathers if the additional time is tied to their recovery from childbirth. But Savignac and Sheketoff contend that Jones Day gives women more leave whether or not their condition calls for it, deeming this discriminatory.

Contributing to the bias against men taking parental leave is the firm’s culture, the complaint says, alleging that one prominent male partner once asked, “What would a man do on parental leave — watch his wife unload the dishwasher?” The same partner allegedly mocked a male associate for taking paternity leave to care for his child.

Other parts of the couple’s suit echo points made in the class action, including the claims of a “fraternity culture” and the “black box” compensation system. Sheketoff alleges in the suit that she received smaller raises at Jones Day than those awarded to her male colleagues because she was given a poor performance review from a male partner who demanded a certain degree of deference from women but not from men.


April 3: Seven female former Jones Day associates file a class-action gender discrimination suit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. Nilab Rahyar Tolton, Andrea Mazingo and Katrina Henderson reveal their names, while the other four plaintiffs sign on as Jane Does. The firm Sanford Heisler Sharp, which specializes in employment discrimination, represents the plaintiffs. The suit seeks $200 million in damages.

May 20: Jones Day files a motion objecting to the use of anonymous plaintiffs: “For one thing, the court’s approval of the pseudonyms itself impugns Jones Day’s reputation by implying, without basis in evidence, that Jones Day would improperly retaliate against the Jane Does if their identities were made public.” The firm also objects to the plaintiffs “waging a public relations war.”

June 24: Three of the four remaining anonymous Jane Doe plaintiffs in the class-action decide to reveal themselves when they file an amended complaint against the firm.

July 26: Jones Day responds to the class-action, saying the firm “has created and promotes an inclusive work environment that rewards and advances lawyers based on their individual merit. In this environment, women can and do succeed
in large numbers.” The filed response goes on to assail the performance of some of the attorneys who filed suit: “Plaintiff Meredith Williams, for example, left after being counseled about the need for improvement. Plaintiff Katrina Henderson was asked to leave fairly early in her career because her performance fell well below the Firm’s standards.”

Aug. 7: U.S. District Judge Randolph Moss sides with Jones Day in its objection to anonymity in the case and says that the remaining Jane Doe plaintiff has to be identified by Aug. 12 or withdraw from the class action.

Aug. 12: The final Jane Doe backs out of the class-action following the ruling. She remains a class member though she will not be among the named plaintiffs.

Aug. 13: Married couple and former Jones Day associates Mark Savignac and Julia Sheketoff file their federal lawsuit.

Aug. 13: The plaintiff’s lawyers on the class-action suit file a second amended complaint dropping Jane Doe 4 in response to the denial of her request to continue with the case using a pseudonym.

Aug. 14: In a surprising move, Jones Day’s managing partner, Stephen Brogan, posts a statement on the firm’s site and social media account responding to Savignac and Sheketoff’s suit. He says the firm has a “generous” family leave policy and says Savignac’s claims that he was fired for questioning the policy are “false and self-indulgent.” The firm also takes the opposite of the high road in the statement by basically smearing Sheketoff and Savignac, saying the latter was terminated because “he showed poor judgment, a lack of courtesy to his colleagues, personal immaturity, and a disinterest in pursuing his career at Jones Day.”

Aug. 16: Lawyers for the class-action file a third amended complaint correcting grammatical mistakes and strengthening some of the claims. Several of the additions center around Jones Day’s Brogan, saying it was his decisions on various policies that led to much of the discrimination against women. The amended complaint also added a claim of race discrimination on behalf of plaintiff Katrina Henderson.

Aug. 19: Jones Day seeks a 30-day extension to respond in court to the couple’s suit. The plaintiff’s fire back that same evening opposing the motion, arguing that the firm clearly has already stablished its position as evidenced by the statement besmirching the plaintiffs posted on the Jones Day homepage and subsequently on Facebook and Twitter.

Aug. 20Jones Day files a motion in the class-action suit attempting to strike the Aug. 16 amended complaint, saying it was improperly expanded.

Aug. 21: A federal judge grants Jones Day the requested extra time to respond to Savignac and Sheketoff’s suit. The couple had asked that the firm respond to their suit within three weeks.

Sept. 3: Back over to the class-action suit, the class-action plaintiffs filed an opposition to the firm’s motion to dismiss their amended complaint, and Jones Day doubled down on the request, according to Law360.

Stay tuned for the next episode!

Rebecca Gibian