Gender Pay Gap Widens at Top Law Firms

Female Attorney Looking Out of Window in Highrise Office

Differences in the income of men and women happen at every point on the pay scale. From blue-collar workers to white-collar professionals, women often have to fight to earn as much as their male counterparts. Now the most recent study of top law firms shows that the gender pay gap for law partners is not going away. If anything, it is getting wider.

In this blog post I will discuss the partner compensation study by Major, Lindsey & Africa, which reveals male partners earn 53% more than female partners at top US law firms. I will discuss how the Equal Pay Act protects women from being paid less than men for the same work, and explain how challenges enforcing the law allow the gender pay gap to continue over the years.

Survey of Top Law Firms Shows Women Partners are Falling Behind

Every two years, the market research firm Major Lindsey & Africa puts together a Partner Compensation Survey, measuring the payment of attorneys at the nation’s top law firms. Over the years, past surveys have shown the gender pay gap widening, from 32% in 2010, to 48 percent just two years later. While women made slight advances in 2014 and 2016, female partners were still receiving over 40% less than male partners who responded to the survey.

In its most recent version, published in December 2018, the Major Lindsey & Africa partnered with legal the market intelligence firm Acritas. It added extra questions to examine the gender pay gap so that researchers could investigate the reasons behind the widening pay differential. The survey was emailed to over 63,000 partners at large and mid-size law firms across the country. There was also a LinkedIn advertising campaign. All together, nearly 1,400 partner-level attorneys responded to the survey.

The result was that the gender pay gap among attorneys had widened once again, up to 53%. The average compensation for all study participants was $885,000. But while men made an average of $959,000, women made far less: $627,000. Only one female partner was among the top wage earners earning over $4.1 million.

Law Firms Blame “Origination” and Practice Areas, Not Discrimination

The press release announcing the report warned against reading the results of the survey too broadly, saying that the volunteers who responded to the survey aren’t necessarily the same.  Lucy Leach, technical research director of Acritas, also said the survey data “doesn’t suggest a conscious bias against women.” Instead she blamed the way compensation is calculated among the nation’s largest law firms.

In BigLaw, partner compensation is often based on credit for “originations” and hourly billing rates. In general, the more new clients attorneys bring in, and the more hours they spend working for those clients, the higher their compensation. Leach said this payment structure “may fail to recognize other contributions to firms and may be putting women at a disadvantage.”

According to the 2018 survey results, men were credited with $2,788,000 in originations, compared to $1,589,000 for women. They also billed at higher rates. The average billable hour for male partners was $736. For women it was $650. Industry experts say these differences have to do with how much women work compared to men, and the practice areas they tend to choose to work in. However, at least one study has shown that gender discrimination is based more on how women are perceived than the work they do.

Equal Pay Act Helps Women Close the Gender Pay Gap

The federal Equal Pay Act is designed to protect against a growing gender pay gap. It requires employers to pay men and women equal pay for equal work. As long as the work they are doing is substantially similar, the Equal Pay Act says men and women should be paid the same. When that doesn’t happen, underpaid employees can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or in federal court.

The Equal Pay act doesn’t require the worker to show the pay gap is because of gender. Once a female worker and her employment discrimination attorney show that the gender pay gap exists, it is up to the employer to show why she is not paid as much as her male counterparts. Unfortunately, for partners at law firms and others who are paid based on the jobs they bring in or based on an hourly rate set by the company, it can often be difficult to show that differences in pay are the result of wage discrimination, instead of some other, gender-neutral factor.

In these fields, it takes the help of a experienced wage discrimination team to develop a case. At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our employment discrimination attorneys know how to show that a gender pay gap is because of decisions made by the company, not the worker. We know how to fight back against claims of neutral application of skewed compensation structures. Contact our gender discrimination attorneys today to start fighting for equal pay in your work.

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