Big Law has long been a man’s world, and for generations women have found it difficult, if not impossible, to break into this exclusive boy’s club. They have faced blatant gender discrimination during the hiring process, and have received lower salaries than their male counterparts.

In recent years, however, our society has steadily become more aware, and less tolerant, of gender discrimination in the workplace. As a result, many women in Big Law have been able to ascend to positions that would have been unthinkable in the past.

Unfortunately, these anecdotal success stories paint a picture that is far rosier than the reality experienced by most female attorneys. According to two separate studies published last month, many American law firms are guilty of discriminatory policies with respect to both compensation and hiring.

A Million Dollar Difference

In a survey of 2,100 Big Law partners, legal search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa found that female partners earn 44 percent less than their male colleagues at big national law firms. While male partners earn an average of $949,000 annually, their female counterparts earn only $659,000. Interestingly, this payment gap has persisted despite an overall increase for both male and female partners of 22 percent over the last two years. 

Female partners earn 44 percent less than their male colleagues at big national law firms.

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As to the reasons for this discrepancy, the study points to several possible causes, chief among them that that male partners were “better at receiving credit” for bringing in big business.

The study did not elaborate in any significant detail why male partners tend to be more successful at claiming credit for their accomplishments, so we can only speculate as to whether men are better at lobbying for credit, are more likely to be given credit by others or are actually bringing in more business.

Whatever the cause, this apparent ability of male partners to claim credit for their accomplishments creates an annual difference in origination credit of approximately $1 million. Origination credit is a substantial factor in determining a partner’s salary, and according to the survey, the average origination amount has grown to $2.5 million – a 25 percent increase from two years ago.

Another factor that contributes to the inequality of Big Law is that law firms and the legal industry as a whole tend to act as an “old boys network,” which has an “outsize influence because of connections made in law school or earlier.” These connections play a determining role in who gets “hired to handle their corporate legal matters,” making it extremely difficult for women to be chosen to take on these responsibilities. 

Law firms and the legal industry as a whole tend to act as an “old boys network.”

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Gender Diversity in Leadership

According to a second survey released last month, in 2015, women accounted for just 19 percent of partnerships at 75 of the biggest New York law firms, including Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, Kirkland & Ellis, and Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz. Additionally, the New York City Bar Association’s 2015 Diversity Benchmarking Report found that although women’s share of partnerships has increased over last year and has reached its highest point since 2004, the percentage of women working as associates at these law firms has decreased. Furthermore, among top law firms, 25 percent don’t have a single woman on the managerial committee.

Unfortunately, this lack of diversity goes beyond gender lines to touch upon racial biases as well. Nearly 95 percent of leadership roles are held by white men and women, and minority women constitute only 15 percent of all female partners at participating firms and “less than three percent of partners overall.” Additionally, according to data from the National Association for Law Placement via The New York Times, law firm partnerships across the the U.S. remain over 75 percent white male, with women representing less than 20 percent and minorities just over five percent. 

Law firm partnerships across the the U.S. remain over 75 percent white male.

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To justify these numbers, some argue that women leave law firms before they’re up for review to make partner. However, the survey thoroughly debunked this hypothesis, revealing that “the future pipeline of talent to firm leadership, taking race out of the equation, for white men and women are nearly the same, about 20 percent.”

Changes Afoot?

Like the Major, Lindsey & Africa survey, the Bar hypothesized that the “old boys network” could be contributing to the discrepancy. Consequently, The Bar gave this advice to white male partners:

“Law firm partners, three-quarters of whom are white males, undoubtedly have the most access to clients and opportunities and, therefore, are well-positioned to take an active role in fostering the development of diverse associates.”

Although the New York Times notes that a number of big law firms, such as Reed Smith, Hogan Lovells and Day Pitney appear to have taken this advice to heart and have hired “diversity directors to recruit and vet a wider array of candidates,” minorities overall continue to have “flat representation” at these firms.

Ultimately, it appears that the pace of progress at Big Law firms is painstakingly slow. This does not come as a surprise, however, as traditional law firms have a long history of being slow to liberate themselves from the practices of the past and embrace change. Nevertheless, as awareness and criticism of the discrimination in Big Law continue to mount, it seems inevitable that firms will soon begin in earnest the process of increasing diversity and equality within their ranks. They must do so if they are to keep up with the rest of the world, which is becoming more inclusive and open with each passing day. If they do not, they risk being left in the dust while the rest of us march on.

About the author

Courtney Cregan

Courtney Cregan

Courtney Cregan has more than five years of experience working at AmLaw 100 law firms. Courtney earned a bachelor's degree in women and politics from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

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