CHICAGO - Mary Stowell wears Ann Taylor suits, hates to procrastinate, is a stickler for details and loves opera.
Linda Friedman wears sweaters that look like they were knitted by your favorite grandmother, works well under deadline, and laments the lack of a personal life.
What binds the law partners is their belief in social justice and fair play. They have rattled Wall Street by doggedly pursuing sex-discrimination lawsuits on behalf of hundreds of women employed at the nation's biggest securities firms.
Last week's $2.2 million arbitration award for a former female stockbroker at Merrill Lynch & Co. marked their biggest victory.
Not only was it the largest monetary award to date out of more than 900 claims against Merrill, but the decision was also the first to accept the plaintiffs' allegation that the company systematically discriminated against female employees in both pay and promotions at its nationwide brokerage business.
Stowell and Friedman are now targeting another group of professional-service firms for gender bias: accountants.
"I like fighting for the underdog," said Stowell, a former prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago. "Women in corporate America are the underdog."
Their decade-long battle against brokerage houses began in Chicago. In 1993, they represented Susan Jaskowski, a former vice president at Chicago-based Rodman & Renshaw Capital Group who filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against the investment firm.
Until then, the pair had built a small but prominent employment-law practice. Stowell, 58, left the U.S. attorney's office in 1986. Friedman, 44, joined her a year later after working as a clerk for U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber.
Over the years they have represented white Chicago firefighters who alleged reverse discrimination as well as a security firm that claimed it lost Chicago Housing Authority business because the owners were white.
But the firm gained its footing with the Merrill Lynch lawsuit and the Smith Barney "boom-boom room" case in 1996.
Three women from a Smith Barney office in New York accused the firm of maintaining a fraternity-house culture in a basement where a toilet seat hung from the ceiling and Bloody Marys were served. Twenty more women later joined the class action lawsuit that included complaints of male managers offering women $100 to strip and women losing their jobs while on maternity leave.
The lawsuits exposed the old-boys environment prevalent on Wall Street. Part of the reason for such behavior was that securities industry employees could press discrimination and harassment claims only through industry arbitration.
"Wall Street was relatively immune to bias suits because of mandatory arbitration," said Brad Seligman, an employment-law attorney who now runs a foundation that helps people pursue discrimination lawsuits. "Mary and Linda had an extremely tough nut to crack."
Under rules endorsed by the Securities and Exchange Commission at the time, employees were barred from court, unless they could get their cases certified for class action status. So that became their weapon of choice.
"There's nothing that gets the attention of corporate management more than this kind of lawsuit, especially with the potential of millions of dollars going out the door," said Patricia Ireland, former president of the National Organization for Women.
Both Smith Barney and Merrill Lynch settled by agreeing to resolve the claims individually, first through mediation and then voluntary arbitration. Merrill also agreed to end mandatory arbitration for sexual discrimination and other civil rights claims, a significant policy change that other Wall Street firms soon adopted.
It was a risky settlement for Stowell and Friedman, Seligman said. "You have to have the heart of a riverboat gambler," he said.
The settlement also meant years of exhausting work for their firm, which at its peak had 20 lawyers.
Smith Barney's class included more than 20,000 employees, more than 1,900 of whom brought claims. At Merrill Lynch, about 900 women out of 2,800 brought claims.
Last year, Friedman said she spent 54 nights at a New York hotel working on the cases. One year she received a note from an airline pilot thanking her for being such a loyal customer. She has logged nearly 1 million miles.
"Linda grabs hold of your throat and won't let go," said Steve Platt, a fellow employment-law attorney in Chicago. "You don't want her on the opposite side of the aisle."
Stowell and Friedman finish each other's sentences and joke about each other's flaws. "Linda is not allowed to have any original documents," Stowell said, referring to Friedman's tendency to lose things.
Friedman quickly retorts: "She always colors within the lines."
To date, Merrill has paid more than $100 million in settlements with hundreds of women, the lawyers said.
Last week's finding could be used to bolster the claims of about 40 current and former Merrill brokers.
Stanley O'Neal, Merrill's chairman and CEO, sent a firm-wide e-mail the day after the arbitration award became public.
"While we have taken many steps to eliminate these types of problems in the years since this conduct was brought to light," O'Neal said, "it is an embarrassing blot on the reputation of this company and it underscores how wrongheaded decisions made by any individual can have great costs to our entire organization."
He continued: "But, embarrassing as this incident is, it truly would be unfortunate if all of us at Merrill didn't learn from it."