The gender pay gap in the legal sector

Women in the Legal Sector


Law has traditionally been seen as a long hours sector dominated by male partners. While that is still the case, law has seen a growing influx of female graduates and several law firms have more women at the highest employee level than men, though not at the partner level.

This affects the gender pay gap, not just with regard to earnings, but also bonuses. There has been some concern over gender pay gap reporting that some employers were not showing the true extent of their gender pay gap by choosing not to publish their figures for partners given that their pay is based on a share of the firm’s profits and is paid irregularly. There were no statutory guidelines on how to include this in the gender pay figures.

The deadline for the first gender pay gap figures closed at midnight on 4th April. Of the 10,046 employers with over 250 employees who filed figures 1,270 were in the administrative and support services activities sector which includes several law firms. Nevertheless, as there is no specific sector for law, firms are spread across sectors.

There are, of course, many different types of law firm – some deal with commercial or corporate law, others with family or criminal law, for instance. Companies may also have their own in-house legal services. The representation of women in each of these areas affects the gender pay gap as does bonus earnings and the difference between the gender make-up of fee-earning and non fee-earning workers.

Law does not tend to have a big problem with attracting women. Figures for 2017 show women account for 61% of law graduates. The main barrier to career progression comes later – the same figures show only 28% of private practice partners are female. Retention after children is a big issue as is the issue of how career paths to partner level tend to be built around the norm of linear progress and no time out.

Here are a selection of some of the headline figures*:

  • At Berwin Leighton Paisner, which specialises in commercial & civil legal services including corporate tax, property and litigation, non-partner women’s mean hourly rate is 22.3% lower than non-partner men’s, even though women make up 53.6% of the top earners. However, they also make up the majority of those earning the least – 72.7%. In fact, women dominate at all levels, but are more likely to be found in the bottom two quartiles. Women are also less likely to receive bonuses and to get less in bonus payments than men – women’s mean bonus pay is 56.4% lower than men’s. The figures also show that in terms of equal pay for comparable work there is no major difference between women and men. The firm’s female fee earners are paid 0.3% less on average than men, while in business services men are paid 1.8% more.  BLP has set a 30% target for female partner representation by the end of 2018. The figure now stands at 27.8%.
  • Clifford Chance has become the first of the elite magic circle law firms to include partners in its gender pay gap report. The firm’s figures show that, when partners are included, the mean pay gap stands at 66.3% compared with 20.3% when only ’employees’ are considered. To get around the problems with partner earnings it took their annual full-time equivalent earnings into account rather than a snapshot of their earnings at one moment in time. Some 51.1% of employees in the top quartile are women while in the lowest 81.5% of workers are women. Clifford Chance says it is working towards a target of 30% female partners (21% of partners are women currently) and has been running courses to support the career progression of male and female associates.
  • At corporate law firm Eversheds Sutherland, women’s mean hourly rate is 23.2% lower than men’s. Women outnumber men at all levels, particularly in the lower quartile. Women are slightly less likely to get bonuses and receive an average of 42.8% less than men in bonus payments. The firm has also released figures for its partners’ earnings which show its female equity partners are paid 10% more on average than men. However, the fixed share partner pay difference is 4% more for men on average. Some 27% of partners are female.
  • At CMS, which specialises in international law and tax, women are paid on average 17.3% less than men. CMS says its figures are affected by having more women at all levels, particularly in business support teams and having a large number of female part-time workers. Just 2% of male staff work part time compared with 22% of women. Bonus pay for women at CMS is on average 26.9% lower than men, but women were more likely to get a bonus than men.

What are progressive law firms doing to address the gap?

Many law firms have posted explanations for their pay gaps, outlining how they are addressing the issue and many have set targets (usually 30%) for senior lawyers. This includes Simmons & Simmons which talks about working with headhunters and recruitment agencies to identify opportunities to attract top female candidates to the firm, promoting internal and external networks, focusing on leadership development, mentoring and sponsorship, unconscious bias training and encouraging flexible working. Berwin Leighton Paisner has been doing a lot of work to promote take-up of Shared Parental Leave. Hogan Lovells’ report includes a list of activities, including networking groups, partnering with the 30% Club, formal and informal mentoring, unconscious bias training for all partners and senior managers and encouraging agile ways of working for all employees.

Berwin Leighton Paisner won’s Best for Dads Award at’s 2018 Top Employer Awards. Read about what they do here.

Macmillan Williams Solicitors won’s Overall Top Employer Award in 2014. Read about what they do here.

Sackers & Partners, a law firm for pension scheme trustees, employers, corporate investors and providers, won an award from the Top Employers Institute for its working conditions and talent development, with work life balance one of the areas cited. Read about what they do here.

A number of virtual or alternative law firms have set up in recent years offering remote working. They include Obelisk Support. Read what it does here.

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