In Law, the Gender Pay Gap Is Actually a Chasm

income-inequality

It is getting to the point where it would probably be easy to program a bot to find all of the stories about the gender inequities in the legal profession because they occur with depressing regularity. You could even train the bot with story after story after story so that it would be able to start writing its own brief recaps of the latest (completely legitimate) outrage rather than needing humans to step in and tackle a story that has become all too familiar and all too frequent. Women lag far behind men in appointments to the bench. Women rarely make partner in comparison to their male counterparts. They don’t get to first chair trials nearly as often as men do.1

Women also get paid far, far less. The latest completely terrible data comes from a recent survey of 2,100 partners at large firms nationwide. That survey found that women partners in BigLaw make a whopping 44% less than their male counterparts. Male partners make an average of $949,000 per year, while women make about $659,000.2

This huge gap isn’t just because gender pay gaps are pervasive across all sectors of the American economy, though they certainly are. In the case of law,  origination—how much business you bring in—is a leading factor in partner compensation. Men bring in an average of $2.59 million, while women bring in $1.73 million. The study wasn’t designed to figure out why women originate less business, but it cannot just be explained away by “women are worse at getting clients.” Well, it can, but only if you are comfortable explaining away gender pay disparities by resorting to stereotypes about gender.

Another factor: equity partners are typically compensated much more handsomely. The study found that women make up only 17% of those equity partners. There doesn’t seem to be any metric under which women match or exceed men’s pay, and that’s a problem. If the godawful status quo sticks around, women will continue to leave the practice of law at alarming rates, which is bad for the profession.

It’s time to fix this. It’s far, far past time to fix this. Firms big and small need to make affirmative and aggressive commitments to hire, retain, promote, and equitably pay women. If we don’t, we’re not just failing women—we’re failing all of us. A profession can’t—and shouldn’t—survive when riddled with pervasive and pernicious disparities in opportunities and earning power.


  1. Many of those linked stories also detail the same problems for people of color in the legal profession—often at worse rates than that of women. 

  2. Now, it is easy to discount those numbers because they are already stratospheric numbers. In other words, do we really have to listen to the complaints of women making over $650,000 per year? That’s just a deflection, a sideshow, unless you’re making some “radical redistribution of capital” argument that no one deserves to make that much money.  

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  • flashwins

    This is absolutely unacceptable. Coupled with the fact that law is the least diverse profession in America, this does not reflect positively on the prospects of justice in America.

  • Doglover

    As a woman who has been in private practice since 1989, this issue is fascinating to me. I have a solo practice, but spent many years with a firm that was 12-20 attorneys. This may be unpopular, but speaking from personal experience, I think one of the factors is that women are content making less. I was happy choosing quality of life over larger income and I think that many women are. And I am single with no kids, so family is not really a factor for me. Generally, I believe women are less inclined to use income as a score keeping device and that is OK. Another large issue is originations. Clients making the hiring decisions are more likely to be men. That is changing some, but it is still a large factor. And, again generally, women are less comfortable selling themselves and that negatively impacts originations.