I Faced Down Workplace Discrimination—at a Top-Level Labor Law Firm

I investigated and handled claims of workplace discrimination and harassment every day during my 12 years as an employment attorney at a top-level labor firm—and while I was advising my clients on these issues, I was experiencing precisely such discrimination and harassment from my own employer.

(Michael Coghlan / Creative Commons)

My identity was wrapped up in working for Ogletree Deakins. I poured everything I had into the firm and my career. I had my two children while working there—and when I unexpectedly went into early labor with my first child, I cranked out case summaries right up until it was time to go to the hospital. Through hard work and determination, I was able to grasp that brass ring that every young associate strives for—but a few years after becoming partner, it became clear to me that it was tarnished.  

First I noticed that my male colleagues were often getting opportunities that I did not. Those opportunities translated into higher dollar collections, and higher salaries and bonuses. Other female partners at the firm took note, too, and after our discontent had built for years, we organized a meeting among numerous women shareholders and a representative of our women’s initiative group to bring forward our concerns. Instead of helping to bring about change, the representative told us that we were crazy if we thought the firm was going to perform a pay equity audit.

I continued to be cut out of key opportunities routinely given to my male coworkers after that, and my female colleagues started dropping off like flies. Ultimately, I left the firm too, feeling empty and demoralized.

But that wasn’t the end of my story. I decided to do something about the discrimination I suffered. I filed a class-action lawsuit for pay discrimination and retaliation.

I wanted to make a genuine difference, not just for myself but for other women in the profession, as well as my children. In the wake of the filing, I’ve had countless people, including several other women from Ogletree, reach out to me saying they have experienced similar discrimination in their own workplaces. Many of these people have been reluctant to come forward and take action.

We as women need to seek opportunities to support each other. We must find ways to promote each other in whatever way we can, including in business opportunities. We need to do more for each other.

We also must not be afraid to fight for ourselves and for equality in our workplaces. We deserve nothing less, and people will respect us so long as we remain professional.

The hardest part of the journey has been dealing with the fear—of damage to my professional reputation, that in the future I will not be taken seriously because I stood up and did the right thing. But I’m proud to say that I have taken a stand, along with four other incredibly strong, talented women. But remaining positive is the only way you can keep going through a long but rewarding struggle like this one.

Sex-based employment discrimination is no joke—and it’s also so pervasive and insidious that it persists, as I’ve experienced, even in the law firms dedicated to stopping it. The legal industry can do better, and must commit to making all workplaces fair for women.

Until then, women must continue holding them to account.


Dawn M. Knepper is an attorney who specializes in labor and employment law.