Diverse Wages ≠ Diverse Offices: Retaining Female Lawyers in the Face of the Wage Gap

In 2016, more women are attending law school and practicing law than any previous year. However, despite women’s accomplishments in the legal field, they still suffer the effects of an embarrassing wage gap and hold significantly fewer leadership positions than men. The modern professional work place is generally considered well beyond the sexism seen in HBO’s Mad Men. While it is true that professional workplaces have taken strides to equally incorporate men and women, the wage gap continues to stop men and women from reaching true workplace equality. The national wage gap remains high, with various analyses showing women make between $0.76 and $0.83 per every $1.00 made by their male counterparts. The legal field, a traditionally male-dominated profession, is no different. Although not all female attorneys experience the wage gap in their office, national statistics show that for attorneys generally, the wage gap is alive and well. If the wage gap continues and women lawyers are not retained, the legal profession stands to lose innovative legal minds, critical thinkers, and empathetic advocates.


The American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession publishes an annual review on the scope of women in the legal profession. The most recent publication from May 2016 discusses statistical information on the numbers of women in the profession and their corresponding wages. As of April 2016, the American Bar Association Market Research Department found that women make up about one third of the legal profession, 36% to men’s 64%. In private practice, women only make up 24.5% of partners and 18% of equity partners, but 44.7% of firm associates. Statistics indicate that the higher the leadership position, the lower percentage of female participants.

Though the gender makeup of the legal profession is highly visible, the wage gap between men and women attorneys of the same professional level is significantly less visible. The statistical evidence is black and white. In 2014, women, on average, made 83.0% of male salaries for the same job, or $.83 for every $1.00 men made, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, women lawyers earned an average of $1,590 per week, where men earned $1,915 per week. However, according to a survey from the National Association of Women Lawyers and the NAWL Foundation, women in leadership positions, specifically equity partners, “in the 200 largest firms earn 80% of the compensation earned by the typical male partner.” The Bureau of Labor and Statistics indicates that although the overall wage gap is at 83%, the wage gap in the legal field can be as low as 57.6%! Essentially, female lawyers have been documented to make a little over half of that of their male counterparts!

The statistics raise important questions beyond how to combat the wage gap. For example, what will the legal field lose if women retreat and leave the profession? How should firms encourage women to enter and remain in the legal field despite the wage gap statistics?  Great strides have been made to pass legislation that requires wage transparency. Nearly half of the states have current legislative proposals addressing equal pay, which include provisions allowing employees to compare salaries and require employers to prove pay disparity based on performance rather than gender. Some legislative proposals even allow employees to request wage information for similarly situated employees. Although legislation is a step towards ending the wage gap, the legal community should strive to begin leveling the playing field by placing more women in management roles and highlight the achievements of strong female role models for younger attorneys.


A 2001-2014 case study in Pennsylvania indicates that while the female-to-male law school attendee ratio remained steady at almost half and half, in 2014, of the lawyers working in Pennsylvania’s largest firms, only 28.8% were women, which has remained the same since 2004. Of that 28.8%, only 10% of firm partners were women. It is significant that while the number of female law students is relatively high, the number of female attorneys, especially in leadership positions, remains low. The law firms pointed out that they receive a lot of female applicants, but the trick becomes retaining them. Not to discount other life and professional factors that may influence women’s decision to remain or not remain in the legal profession, but the wage gap and unequal leadership opportunities have been shown to push women out of law practice.

Women have proven to excel as attorneys because they enjoy intellectual challenges, giving value to society, and increased responsibility. However, women remain dissatisfied with the “rewards,” such as compensation and performance evaluation. Women have also proved dissatisfied with the amount of control they had over their work and personal life integration, the amount of work assigned, and the work environment. Law firms that have retained a higher numbers of female attorneys attribute their retention rates to new recruits seeing talented women in both administrative and legal leadership positions; firms are “able to retain female lawyers because they are able to visualize a path for themselves based on those around them.” One innovative firm, Morrison & Foerster of San Francisco, California, launched a Twitter feed to highlight its female lawyers. In 2014, half of Morrison & Foerster’s new partners were women. Social media is more likely to be seen by younger women and is a modern way to reach out nationally. Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn are strong platforms to connect female attorneys, share success stories, and encourage women to go to law school and strive to achieve professional success in their own right.

Having worked with some powerhouse women attorneys, I can testify that losing women to the wage gap and lack of upward mobility means losing passionate advocates, creative problem solvers, and dedicated attorneys. Legislation is progressing to ensure wage transparency, but before the legal field reaches that level of wage equality, it is important to retain, promote, and fairly reward women in the legal field.

About the Author

Lindsey Schuler is an associate in the Omaha, NE office of Fredericks, Peebles & Morgan, LLP, a national law firm focusing on tribal government representation. She contributes equally to the firm’s transactional and litigation practices.

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