Ending the Gender Pay Gap in Law

One continually frustrating aspect of being a woman in law (there are several) is the persistent gap in what women lawyers are paid compared to their male counterparts. The numbers do not lie. Women are not valued financially to the same degree as men for the same work and achievements.


Just recently, a non-equity shareholder at Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart commenced a $300 million lawsuit asserting that the firm discriminates against female partners in pay, promotions, and opportunities. The suit claims that the firm does not give female shareholders the appropriate credit for business they generate and the work that they do.

According to the Financial Times, a recent survey commissioned by legal recruiter Major, Lindsey & Africa revealed that female partners at London law firms typically receive 24% less compensation than male partners.

In the United Kingdom, the Equality Act 2010 requires companies with more than 250 employees to publish details of any pay gap between male and female employees. That includes law firms. While the first reporting deadline is not until April 6, 2018, a few firms are already admitting that they have a gender pay gap problem. CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang revealed that women at the firm are paid 32.8% less per hour than men and that women’s bonus pay was 30.4% lower than their male counterparts.

In Canada, a study by the University of Toronto showed that the pay gap appears as early as a lawyer’s second year of practice, as on average, second-year male lawyers made $5,500 (CAD) more than their female colleagues.

Find the Source, Fix the Problem

It is easy for firms to hide behind their compensation and diversity and inclusion policies when asked about any gender pay gap problems. In the past, management teams have blamed women’s lower salary and bonuses on the assertions that women are just not bringing in the same amount of work as their male partners, or that women are not working on the same big trials or transactions.

These excuses ignore one of the real sources of the pay gap: gender bias. Why are women not bringing in the same work? Why are women not leading large trial teams?

When male partners are only asking other men to join them on client development weekends, women lawyers are being locked out of key business development opportunities. The same thing happens when senior male partners staff their trial and transactional teams with the same male lawyers.

Predominantly male compensation committees are also common and can play a role in discriminatory pay practices. Lawyers are human, and all humans have unconscious biases. A compensation committee should reflect and be representative of the diverse nature of the lawyers at the firm. Women should be represented not only on compensation committees but also in law firm leadership and management.

Tweaks to the compensation process could assist in closing the gap. For example, compensation points can be added if a partner assembles a diverse transaction team or mentors a female lawyer and provides them with client development opportunities. Points can be removed if a trial team has only men or only the male lawyers speak in court. If the firm does not have enough female lawyers to staff these files (which is doubtful), the firm really needs to look at its recruitment and retention of women.

Transparency will also promote change. If firms are required to publish statistics on gaps in pay between the genders, they will have no choice but to close that gap if they want to retain their talent. If firms will not reveal this information, women lawyers and male lawyer allies can always speak among themselves. Knowledge is power in a salary negotiation.


Law firms are making some strides, but have a long way to go. Firms cannot continue to point to smartly worded policies, and written commitments on their websites to diversity and inclusion, as a defense to inequality in pay. Actions speak louder than words. It’s time to take some concrete steps to end the gender pay gap in law.

About the Author

Erin C. Cowling is a freelance lawyer, and the founder and president of Flex Legal, a network of Canadian freelance lawyers. Contact Erin on Twitter @Cowlingerin.

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