08:29, May 02 114 0 law.com

2017-05-02 08:29:04

 

Women Push for Lead Roles in Mass Torts
Lori Andrus of Andrus Anderson. (Photo courtesy Pamela Palma)

 

In 20 years as a San Francisco plaintiffs lawyer, Lori Andrus has secured top roles in mass tort cases against companies including Farmers Group, Bayer and Johnson & Johnson over pay discrimination, defective birth control and other ills.

She wants more women to join her.

Backed by research highlighting a persistent gender imbalance in mass torts, Andrus and others are encouraging more women to step forward — and more judges to appoint them to leadership roles.

“There has been incremental progress over the last four decades, but change is not happening fast enough,” said Andrus, co-founder of San Francisco plaintiffs firm Andrus Anderson. “We have to think differently.”

Women on average comprised only 16.6 percent of attorneys appointed as class counsel or to plaintiffs steering committees in multidistrict litigation filed from 2011 to mid-2016, according to a new study, “Vying for the Lead in the Boys’ Club,” done by Dana Alvare for Temple University Law School’s Women in Legal Leadership Project. But in 2015 alone, the number jumped to 27.7 percent, the study found.

The stakes are high for these appointments, since the lawyers handle litigation that affects hundreds or even thousands of plaintiffs. A leadership role in multi-plaintiff litigation means prestige, and, potentially, a big financial payoff.

Last September, as co-class counsel, Andrus won a $4 million pay discrimination settlement from Farmers Group for roughly 300 women lawyers at the company. Farmers denied wrongdoing but agreed to change its pay practices. In February, a California superior court judge appointed Andrus to the plaintiffs steering committee for a mini-MDL alleging that Essure, a birth-control device inserted in the fallopian tubes, causes serious injuries to women.

Women make up the majority of leaders for the Essure case, including lead counsel Fidelma Fitzpatrick of Motley Rice.

Reaching the Judges

Last fall, at the annual meeting in Aspen for Women En Mass, a group for women in mass torts that helped fund the Temple study, Andrus challenged her colleagues to raise female plaintiffs lawyers’ visibility with federal and state court judges. “They’re the ones who make the appointments,” she said.

Now in its fifth year, Women En Mass maintains an active listserv of 400 where female mass tort lawyers share advice. “It’s a myth that women are not out there.” Andrus said.To increase the number of women and minorities leading class actions and MDLs, Andrus co-organized an April conference in Atlanta with Adam Moskowitz of Miami plaintiffs firm Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton. The gathering, held by Duke Law School’s Center for Judicial Studies, brought together seasoned plaintiffs and defense lawyers — and 14 federal judges.

The event kicked off the center’s initiative to craft best mass tort practices — including for judges who appoint lead plaintiffs lawyers. Judges have wide discretion in deciding which lawyers get lead roles in mass torts, using criteria such as ability, experience, and financial resources. Many haven’t handled massive multi-plaintiff cases before, so they pick lawyers with prior experience — who tend to be the same group of mostly white men.

Leading the litigation also takes deep pockets, since the plaintiffs lawyers fund it — and that same small group tends to have them.

Andrus said that the plaintiffs lawyers often organize themselves, assembling a slate of proposed leaders, and judges will sign off. “How that happens can be a bit of a mystery if you are not part of the in-group,” she said.

But that’s changing. As in the Essure case, judges are starting to cast a broader net in making appointments.

“We want the judges to know we’re here, we’re ready and we’re able,” Andrus said.