Legal Wrangling: Closing The Gender Pay Gap For Women Lawyers

The wage gap for women lawyers is wide in this country.

The wage gap for women lawyers is wide in this country.

Sure, Viola Davis portraying  Analise Keating, the brilliant attorney and law professor in ABC-TV’s “How To Get Away With Murder” may have changed the image of successful female lawyers, but women attorneys in this country in real life are not getting away with much.

And for sure, they are not getting away with a fair paycheck or a fair shake at partnerships. The gender pay gap for female attorneys is big.

The gender pay gap for female attorneys is big #taketheleadwomen

“At big American law firms, there is a 44 percent difference in pay between female partners and their male colleagues, largely because men bring in more big-ticket legal cases, or are better at getting credit for doing so,” writes Elizabeth Olson in the New York Times.

A new study of 2,100 partners at law firms across the country by legal search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa.Female, reveals “that female partners earned an average of $659,000 annually compared with an average of $949,000 for male partners.”

Olson writes, “Women partners, the report found, brought in an average of $1.7 million worth of business compared with the $2.6 million average of their male counterparts. Because there are more male partners, the average skews higher than if there were equal gender representation. Two years ago, women brought in $1.2 million worth of business, and male counterparts chalked up $2.2 million.”

Women and minority attorneys also have a 50 percent higher voluntary attrition rate than men—meaning they left firms voluntarily—according to a new report from the New York City Bar’s Diversity Benchmarking Report.

“According to the report, this attrition rate continues to disproportionately impact minority and women attorneys, with 18.4 percent of women and 20.8 percent of minorities leaving signatory firms in 2015 — a slight decrease from 2014, but still well above the 12.9 percent rate for white men. This equates to a 42 percent and 61 percent higher voluntary attrition rate for women and minorities, respectively,” writes Renwei Chung in Above The Law.

The report also showed that women made “notable gains in representation on firm management committees and among practice group heads, and women partners peaked at 19 percent. However, white women make up 85 percent of all women partners, and minority women make up less than 3 percent of all partners in signatory firms,” Chung writes.

Atlanta attorney Sharon Rowen’s “new documentary, “Balancing the Scales,” shines a spotlight on the problem. The film features pioneers like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, civil rights lawyer Gloria Allred and former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears,” according to the Daily Report.

Rowen said, “Young women feel they are so busy and pulled they really don’t have time to think of how society could change and what that change may mean for them personally.  If I have to say one thing young women should try to do is step back and say, ‘Instead of feeling that the choices I have to make about work and life and work-life balance are all my personal, individual choices, let me try to think about this as a wider societal problem.’ Once you realize there is a problem, there can be movement to a solution.”

Working to increase the number of women lawyers as judges, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Lisa Walsh is well aware that “women and minorities remain underrepresented in those roles, limiting their chances of advancement within their firms and in the profession,” according to Celia Ampel in the Daily Business Review.

“At the end of her term as president of the National Association of Women Judges, Walsh signed an Oct. 8 resolution that federal and state trial court judges should work to appoint lawyers of diverse backgrounds to these coveted roles,” Ampel writes. “The resolution, drafted by Kane and Philadelphia attorney Bobbi Liebenberg, has now been adopted in some form by six national organizations and is being considered by the American Bar Association.”

While this is a good step forward, stagnation is the rule of the game for women attorneys, both with the gender pay gap and with promotion to partner.

“Bringing more women and people of color into law firm partnerships and leadership positions will require systemic changes to the law firm business model, “ according to panelists at a recent  Mayer Brown conference, writes Nell Gluck man in American Lawyer. “The proportions of women and diverse attorneys in positions of power in the legal industry have barely budged in 10 years, despite law firms’ pledge to change that stagnation, the speakers said.”

Gluck writes: “’Women have been about 50 percent of law school classes for 25 years now,’ said Arin Reeves, founder of the research and consulting firm Nextions. ‘We’re not quite cracking the 20 percent partner mark.’”

According to Lisa Ferri, who leads Mayer Brown’s IP practice in New York, “all the diversity training and other coaching that firms have offered over the past decade haven’t really altered the demographic makeup of law firm partnerships.”

Ferri tells Gluck at American Lawyer: “The rules that we have were created by men—by white men. Women and diverse attorneys are being asked to function and thrive in this system that wasn’t created for them.”

But filling quotas is not the answer, some say. And it certainly does not address the gender pay gap already firmly in place for the women attorneys working on a path to leadership.

“If law firms promote women and people of color simply to fill a quota, they’re only setting those lawyers up for failure, said Adrienne Gonzalez, a former Kaye Scholer lawyer who was senior counsel at Bristol-Myers Squibb before becoming leader of the company’s Black Organization for Leadership and Development,” Gluck writes.

One new study out of the United States and the United Kingdom revealed that women lawyers were less interested in financial gain and more interested in ethics, according to Irish Legal.

New study shows women lawyers were less interested in financial gain and more interested in ethics #taketheleadwomen

The study from the University College London revealed, “female law students had a greater propensity to be more ethical and also value self-enhancement less and self-transcendence more highly” than men.

A victory for women lawyers is in order as recently the first African American female lawyer in three years argued a U.S. Supreme Court case. “NAACP Legal Defense Fund litigation director Christina Swarns argued a racially charged death penalty case,” according to Ann Brown writing in Madame Noire. “Swarns presented oral arguments in Buck v. Davis, defending Duane Buck, a Texas death row inmate whose trial was marred and tainted by racially discriminatory expert testimony.”

Brown adds, “The number of Black women who have argued in front of SCOTUS is very few: NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s  former counsel Constance Baker Motley, who argued 10 Supreme Court cases between 1961 and 1964 (she won 9, including the case that allowed James Meredith to enter the University of Mississippi as its first Black student; LDF litigation director Elaine Jones, who was the counsel of record in Furman v. Georgia, the case that led to the brief abolishing of the death penalty in 1972; and Shanta Driver argued in 2013 to preserve affirmative action in admissions at public universities in Schuette v. Coalition.”

She continues, “The lawyers who make up Supreme Court bar are largely white and male—less diverse, even, than the court they practice in front of. Not only are they overwhelmingly white men, they are the same white men,” reported Mother Jones. And it’s a small circle of lawyers who get the opportunity to appear before the court. In fact, according to a 2014 Reuters investigation, between 2004 and 2014, 20 percent of the cases that came before the court were argued by the same eight male lawyers.”

Katharine Zaleski, co-founder and CEO of PowerToFly, a recruitment service that aims to put women back into the workforce, explains in Forbes how hiring practices need to b better, especially for women lawyers.

“For example at law firms, there is sort of a battle around whether or not a woman should have her bonus if she goes on maternity leave. Things like that that were sort of brushed under the rug for years. If you don’t have women within the organization facilitating those changes, that’s a problem.”

Zaleski adds, “Companies will have a couple powerful women and if they truly respect them, they will give these women more ways to create the inclusive environments that need to be created. That’s how I’m seeing it, I don’t know if it’s the perfect way by any means but that’s where I’m seeing it.”

While the symbol of our legal system is a blindfolded Lady Justice upholding the scales of justice, it is not required that women lawyers in this country be blind to the gender pay gap they endure.

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon