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Closing the Wage Gap Between Male and Female Partners

The 44% pay gap between male and female law firm partners, documented in last week’s survey from legal search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, got a lot of attention in the business press

Most agree it’s a problem.  But whose problem is it to fix?  And what would fixing it even look like?

Inequity in wages in the overall workforce (averaged out at about 22%) and even among full-time lawyers at all levels (about 23%) is well-documented and, for all its apparent intractability, pretty well-understood.  A multitude of factors – including career/area of practice choices, scheduling needs, salary negotiation and, yes, plain old discrimination – come together to yield paychecks for women that are, over a lifetime, substantially smaller than the ones earned by men.  Employers, with some justification, can say that the problem isn’t theirs alone to fix: our educational institutions and social structures play huge parts in creating the system that shapes women’s choices and how they’re valued.

Among law firm partners, though, we might have thought that such dynamics were less significant.  After all, women who have achieved partnership status have already entered the professional elite.  If they were unduly burdened by old fashioned family caregiving roles or too demure to speak up for themselves, they wouldn’t be in such positions.  So the compensation difference, an average of $659,000 for female partners and $949,000 for male partners, seems stunningly large.  Having ascended the same career ladder as her male colleagues, from college to law school through clerking and associatehood, how can a woman partner still be missing out on nearly $300,000 in earnings each year?

If anything, law firm partner compensation is structured to be more fair than other types of wages: based on shares of actual earnings rather than, say, a manager’s performance evaluation.  The author of the survey report, Jeffrey Lowe, the managing partner in Major, Lindsey & Africa’s Washington DC office, makes this point, explaining that “origination and working attorney receipts have become the main determinants of partner compensation.”

In the survey, female partners reported that they had originations – business they brought in – of $1.73 million, while male partners reported bringing in $2.59 million.  Mathematically, this tracks almost exactly with the pay gap.

While there is an argument to be made that the very notion of origination credit is part of the problem (and reporters Lizzy McClellan and Katelyn Polantz do a fantastic job in this piece, laying out the complexities), the fact is that some form of the traditional eat-what-you-kill ethic that has governed partner compensation will probably always be with us.  Law firms reward people who bring in business.  No business, no firm.

For the wage gap to close, women partners need to originate more work for their firms – and get credit for doing so.

If this were a simple matter of women “selling more” or “selling better,” the solution, for women attorneys and their firms, would be straightforward.  There are dozens of high-end business development coaches, sales trainers and industry consultants who claim to be able to help lawyers do a better job of bringing in clients.  Firms often will invest, on behalf of their high-potential attorneys, in these services.  And, in other cases, individual lawyers themselves will decide to hire an expert for help in this area.  (Pro tip: if you’re considering hiring one of these folks, for yourself or for your firm, ask a few questions about their clients, like how many women they’ve coached, and about the net gains in compensation they can document as having resulted from their work.)

Those sales resources have been around for a long time.  Women partners’ compensation hasn’t improved.

In part, this is because some of the barriers to women closing deals and bringing in business are cultural and systemic.  Friends do business with friends.  Business clients hire attorneys who look like them.  The best sales training in the world is not necessarily going to be enough to overcome the implicit biases of the people doing the buying.  (And entirely too many business development coaches we’ve seen in action fail to recognize even the existence of this implicit bias.)

There is some reason for optimism on this front.  As corporate America becomes increasingly diverse, corporate cronyism will be more diverse, too.  In fact, women leaving law firms for the kind of in-house counsel jobs that are purported to offer better quality of life (and no pressure to build one’s own “book”) are now, increasingly, in the position to hire outside attorneys to manage their business’ legal work.  Many of those women are making it a point to push work towards other women.

To make the most of these shifting demographics, women partners are better served by “selling different,” rather than simply selling better or selling more.  Networking with other women – in-house counsel, business owners and key executives – doesn’t have to look exactly like networking with men – and it doesn’t have to take time away from family responsibilities or other pursuits.  Instead of spending time on the golf course or in the stadium sky box, professional women can build relationships with each other through mutually beneficial activities, like attending conferences or CLE seminars together or recruiting each other to serve on nonprofit/alumni/bar association/community boards or co-authoring articles for industry publications and journals.  (Of course, this multitasking approach can work for men, too!)

Selling differently, whether focusing on relationships with other women, or explicitly calling attention to the elephant in the room – one of the best rainmakers we know asks reluctant potential clients for her litigation practice, “Have you ever won an argument with a woman?” – is essential to women originating more work for their firms.  But it’s only half the battle.  Women also need to get credit for doing so.

Like salary negotiations, this is tricky.  Because, of course, to get credit one has to ask for it.  But women walk a fine line when asserting that they deserve money for originating a client relationship (or, let’s be honest, asserting anything).  What, from a man, looks like confidence, is still, all too often, perceived as pushiness, or worse, from a woman.

This is where firm leaders come in and where, if they’ve been paying lip service to diversity efforts, it’s now time to put their money where their mouth has been.  Firms have to actively look for circumstances in which women partners deserve credit.

It’s become increasingly common for large firms to hire Chief Diversity Officers or Directors of Inclusion.  And, while many of these leaders are looking at the very necessary challenge of increasing diversity in the pipeline of their firms’ new hires, the task of re-evaluating how attorneys at more senior levels are compensated for their work might be an important additional component to changing law firm culture.

Law firms, like other employers, can claim that the wage gap isn’t entirely of their making and, therefore, isn’t theirs to fix.  But the solutions – or at least most of them – are well within firms’ purview.  Most of what is required is the decision to act.