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Women Partners Get Paid Less--Duh?

Vivia Chen

September 15, 2010

Fotolia_6201209_XS Why do I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day whenever I report about the state of women partners at big law firms? It's basically the same news over and over again: At the top of the profession--the partnership ranks--women get the shaft.

The latest cheery news comes from Temple University and the University of Texas-Pan American, which studied women partner compensation from 2002 to 2007. The study says it's the "largest research sample on the gender gap in compensation at the 200 largest firms."

I slogged through the research paper, which is full of statistical analysis. It's not really fun reading, so let me just give you the bottom line: Women partners--both equity and nonequity--are paid less than men on average. The researchers looked at revenue per lawyer statistics, and concluded that "women partners are paid less despite the fact that they are not less productive than men partners in generating RPL for their firms."

In other words, you can't explain away the lower pay on the assumption that women work fewer hours. The upshot is plain discrimination: "It is more appropriately attributed to discriminatory practices under both disparate treatment and disparate impact analysis," says the report.

I called Temple professor Marina Angel to flesh out all that statistical jargon. She says that she found women faced discrimination that's "more subtle than in the past." In her interviews with individual women partners, she found that women were being pushed into the nonequity ranks: "Women are caught between a rock and a hard place. Firms tell them they have to go to nonequity if they want to stay." She disputed the idea that women willingly go into nonequity status.

In contrast to my findings in The American Lawyer this month, where the rate of women equity partners proved higher in lockstep firms, Angel finds lockstep harmful to women. (Note: My report only covers Am Law 100 firms, while Angel's also includes Am Law 200 firms.) "Women who interrupt their careers for childbirth and/or caretaking fall behind their men colleagues at firms that link compensation and promotion to conformity to a lockstep pattern," says the report.

So would a nonlockstep, merit-based system be better for women? In theory, yes, says Angel. But she adds, "The problem is, we don't know how to define merit." Well, that's potentially another kettle of stinky fish, right?

But Angel says she believes that her report will make firms more accountable: "They can't come up with the same excuses [about why women partners lag behind]."

Personally, I'm much more skeptical. In my experience, firms never fess up that their women lawyers aren't treated fairly--even when presented with bad stats. At best, they'll make some noises like "We can do better--and we will." Promises, promises.

Want to hold them accountable? Name the offending firms--and give some hard examples of the gender gap in pay. Short of public humiliation and a lawsuit or two, pay equity for women will have a long way to go.

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email The Careerist's chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Related posts: "Sometimes a Girl Can't Win," "Show Me the Money, Not Work/Life Balance"


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I don't know what will get rid of this deplorable situation. Perhaps the author's suggestion that a combination of "outing" and discrimination litigation will kick-start it. Even then, it will take a long time; cultural change moves at a glacial pace.

I'll take issue with using RPL, i.e., hours worked (and, presumably, billed) as the field-leveling metric, though. This blogpost doesn't mention it, and I've not read the report, but the metric suggests that the comparison doesn't include business origination. In that expanded context, all 2000-hour years are not created equally. If my 2000 hours (or even a lot fewer) are accompanied by $3 million in origination, and your 2000 hours are solely the result of billing hours to others' clients, we may have similar RPL, but our true productivity is not equal.*

In the meantime, there is one strategy available to both male and female lawyers that's bulletproof: Bring in lots of business. During my 20 years training and coaching partners to sell, more than a few lawyers recognized that the annual compensation process was an important sales opportunity. In the course of guiding them I learned a bit about how it's done. Unsurprisingly, it's all about leverage, or lack thereof. If you control strategically critical clients, or a sizable aggregate book of business, your comp negotiation leverage is huge. Conversely, if you're a "service partner," it's pretty close to nil unless the partners whose clients you service use up a lot of capital and go to bat for you in a serious way. The firm either fears losing you (and your book) or they don't.

Invest the time and, if necessary, some of your own money to become skilled in this area.

This won't solve the systemic unfair-comp problem, but it will solve anyone's individual version of it.

*I refer readers to Ann Lee Gibson's cogent article, "Revenue Per Equity Partner: A Useful Metric of Law Firm Financial Performance." http://www.annleegibson.com/Page.aspx?WP_ID=402)

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About The Careerist

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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