What do regular Americans enjoy more than watching a group of lawyers file a big, nasty lawsuit against other lawyers?

I say this as a recovering lawyer, myself. And it's why I took notice when three lawyers, who also happened to be moms, filed suit recently against their employer--which also happens to be one of the biggest, most successful, most profitable law firms in the world.

The plaintiffs: Three unidentified female associates, identified only as Jane Does 1 through 3, who say they got hired by the big firm, did great work, and took maternity leave when they had babies--but then saw their careers fall apart quickly as a result.

The firm they're suing: Morrison & Foerster, which was ranked #31 in the annual list of the world's most successful law firms by American Lawyer, with nearly a billion dollars in annual revenue and more than 1,000 lawyers around the world.

"At MoFo," the legal complaint says, "the mommy track is a dead end."

(Yes, people refer to the firm as "MoFo." Heck, their firm website is at www.mofo.com.)

Lawyers at MoFo make a lot of money. First year associates, fresh out of law school, take home $170,000 per year before bonuses. Each year, they get big increases if they're progressing with their peers. By the time they're in their seventh year, they make well over $300,000.

So, yes it might be a little bit difficult for many Americans to feel sorry for the plaintiffs--which come to think of it, perhaps, is why the they are all listed as Jane Does.

But put their pay up against the partners they're trying to become--people who could take home $1 million or more a year. You can start to see why they'd be a little upset, if having kids ipso facto, destroys their careers. 

"MoFo's policies and practices are emblematic of the "old boys' club" that permeates law firms, suppresses female advancement, and stereotypes women," claims the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S District Court in San Francisco. "When female attorneys become mothers, their constrained roles in a workplace culture built on gender stereotypes become even more evident."

All three said they returned from maternity leave to find they hadn't been promoted (although they claim MoFo nevertheless billed clients for the lawyers' time as if they were more senior). Among the other claims, each of the plaintiffs says she was told things like:

  • "We didn't realize you were a parent when we extended you the offer," and, "parents tend not to do well in this group." 
  • You need to to "ramp up" and bill more than the firm's minimum upon returning from maternity leave, to make up for what they'd missed.
  • To "work really hard to prove that [she was] committed and to get the best, most interesting work," upon returning from maternity leave.

None of the women say they lost their jobs, at least not yet. But due to the "up or out" policies of many big firms, they suggest they're likely to fall behind permanently as a result. They also hope to certify their case as a class action, presuming that the discrimination they describe affected a lot of other women employees as well.

A firm spokesperson said the law firm plans to fight.

"Morrison & Foerster has a long and proven track record of supporting and advancing our associates as they return from maternity leave," the spokesperson said. "We vigorously dispute this claim and are confident that the firm will be vindicated."

Here's the legal complaint.