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Pay Gap Between Male and Female Partners Is Now Gaping Hole

Vivia Chen

September 19, 2012

© diego cervo - Fotolia.comLet's stop kidding ourselves about how women are faring in the nation's big firms. To put it bluntly, they are not doing well. And it's not simply that their progress has been slow or static. It's worse: Women are actually falling behind.

That stark point was made by the 2012 partner compensation survey by search consultant Major, Lindsey & Africa. Some fascinating but depressing highlights about the sexes from the report:

- Male partners "significantly" outearned female partners, and the gap is widening. Average compensation for male partners in 2011 was about 30 percent higher: $734,000 for men; $497,000 for women. (In 2010, the difference was only $162,000.)

- Male partners report almost 50 percent more originations ($2.03 million for men versus $1.41 million for women). 

- More male partners report being "very satisfied" with their compensation (28 percent for men; 22 percent for women). 

Guess that last point was a throwaway. Of course, more men are hunky-dory with their pay since they're making about $237,000 more than the woman in the next office.

So what accounts for this huge discrepancy in pay? Well, it's not because the ladies are on a cushy part-time track while the boys are slaving away overtime. The report finds that "male and female partners billed nearly the same number of hours in 2012 (1,690 vs. 1,670, respectively), narrowing the gap even further from 2010 (1,666 vs. 1,622, respectively)."

I also called Jeffrey Lowe, the author of the report, about the gap. "I think it has to do with origination," he says. "It's true that women have smaller books of business. Very few women come with super books—$10 million or more. Only five women [in the survey] have that, versus 39 of the men."

But Lowe adds that the business-generating issue isn't the only factor at work here: "Even when you adjust for comparable books of business, women are making less than men." It's an issue, he says, that he's actively researching.

So let me get this straight: Women are billing as much as the men but not getting paid nearly as much. And the reason is that they are not generating the business (for now, we won't ask whether men are inheriting the business or are more in the client loop). But even when women do originate business, they might still not be compensated as much as men.

So twisted. Honestly, it's almost enough to make you believe in some sort of conspiracy theory. Or in the existence of a "good old boys" network.


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"There is no indication in the article that these data have been adjusted for seniority and/or level of experience. For historical reasons, women partners probably still have less of both, on average."

Mitchell S. Fishman. No, they do not. Women have been entering the big firms in similar, and now higher, numbers as men for 20 years now. I am one of them. In big firms, my generation are in our peak earning years and women are falling further behind, a process which starts at the most junior partnership level. And, of course, women are still being made up in far fewer numbers. The percentage has barely moved in my 20 years.

The reason is obvious. The clients are male, the partners are male, the partners who control institutional client relationships are almost exclusively male. They prize attributes and working practices which are traditionally male, irrespective of their objective value, and which disadvantage women, particularly mothers. That is how it is.

That is how it will stay until the firms determine to make the necessary, and far-reaching, reforms to their structure, networking, pricing and time management practices, starting at the top. None have yet, nor look remotely likely to.

Change will come when institutional clients demand it from their legal panels, and why should they? They are also managed by men. It works for them just how it is. Well, it doesn't, but imagination is not one of those prized attributes, particularly in the law.

I'm rest my hopes on revolution, a Female Spring, and Hilary Clinton for 2016. What else is there to do?

There is no indication in the article that these data have been adjusted for seniority and/or level of experience. For historical reasons, women partners probably still have less of both, on average.

How do these broads manage to survive on only $497,000 a year?

Who determines compensation at Biglaw? The firm's executive or management committee.

In 2011 the National Association of Women Lawyers surveyed the country’s 200 largest law firms. Of the 121 firms responding, 77 percent have at most two women on their governing bodies, which are typically comprised of about ten members.

Until women have meaningful representation in these groups, their compensation will lag that of comparable men. Also, firms will likely fail to adopt policies that would facilitate women advancing into partnership ranks. Your column "We'd Rather Not Change" illustrated this point very well. http://bit.ly/PLGb8m

As a teacher of rainmaking, I do see gender differences in how women and men respond to new mind-sets about business. Women move beyond “I could never do that” more quickly than men. The women with whom I work trust that something they did not see on their own can create success. They have greater comfort with not knowing it all.
Still, bravado, actual and feigned, is often rewarded in law firms. Women who create confidence and loyalty in clients without bravado, except as needed in court or at a conference table, are not always well understood, or rewarded. Numbers do not talk quickly for women. “She’s had a good couple of years.” vs. “He’s on the way up.” After about three years of continued rain, rewards seem to equalize.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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