What does the gender pay gap mean in the legal sector?

Workingmums.co.uk looks at what the latest gender pay audits say about the legal profession.

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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 employ more women than men at all levels, although there is still some work to do at the partner level.

The presence of more men at partner level and earning bonuses affects the gender pay gap. In the past, there was some concern over gender pay gap reporting because several of the big firms did not publish statistics on their partners since their pay is based on a share of the firm’s profits and is paid irregularly and there were no statutory guidelines on how to include this in the gender pay figures. However, this year all 10 of the largest law firms published their combined gender pay figures for staff and partners.

The deadline for the second gender pay gap figures closed at midnight on 4th April. Of the 10,879 employers with over 250 employees who filed figures – over 1,000 of whom reported late and over 9,000 of whom reported with additional information such as analyses and action plans – 1,522 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. The gap for staff employed by the top 10 law firms, which does not include partners, rose from 27.6% on average to 28.3%.

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 2018 entry show women who accepted a place to study law was more than double the number of men who have done the same. The main barrier to career progression comes later, with retention after children being 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.

The Law Society says  62.2% of new solicitors in 2018 were women, but only 30.8% of partners in private practice were women. A report for International Women’s Day in March says location may be a factor with women in London where most of the global firms are located being less likely to be make it to senior level. The report says unconscious bias and lack of access to flexible working are the key issues.

According to 2017 figures from the Solicitors Regulation Authority, women make up 48% of all lawyers in law firms and account for three quarters of other roles. It said that, although the number of women partners was increasing, the gap between male and female partners was greatest in the largest firms.

Here are a selection of some of the headline figures:

  • Of the 10 largest law firms, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, where women make up less than a quarter of its UK partners, reported a median gap of 57.6%, although this was down from 60.4% last year. This was due to the effect of combining employee and partner pay. Like several firms this year it published its BAME pay gap. Its action plan includes reverse mentoring, an Every Day Gender Equity commitment and inclusion workshops plus a BAME scholarship programme.
  • Macfarlanes had the largest pay gap for all partners and staff at 75.3 percent on average and put this down to large numbers of women in the lowest paid jobs, more women working part time, larger numbers of men at the top [although its figures showed women were slightly more likely to be promoted in all quartiles] and a new bonus incentive which had favoured men. Its action plan refers to a leadership programme which identified bias, work allocation, business development opportunities, mentoring and sponsorship as areas to work on. It has drawn up commitments to address a number of these, including agile working, greater support for those with caring responsibilities and greater support for non-linear careers.
  • Other firms with high pay gaps included Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, a merger of Bryan Cave and Berwin Leighton Paisner. The firm put its high figures – the highest when partners are excluded at 33% –  down to the merger which took place very close to the reporting date and due to the fact Bryan Cave had not previously had to report. Its action plan included reference to coaching, mentoring, scholarships, an anti-nepotism policy, alternative working hours and reverse mentoring. Trowers & Hamlins had the smallest pay gap – at 25.5% – when partners and employees were taken into account.
  • Clifford Chance, which was the first of the elite magic circle law firms to include partners in its gender pay gap report and this year also included data on its pay gap by ethnicity, sexuality and disability as well as gender, has an overall mean pay gap of 68.9% in favour of men [up from 66.3% last year] and a partner pay gap of 25.9%. When only employees are considered the gap is 21.8% [20.3% last year]. Women occupy 49.5% of the top jobs, compared with 51.1% last year. They occupy 81.2% of the lowest paid jobs, slightly down from 81.5% last year. Although slightly more women than men receive bonus pay, women’s mean bonus pay is 48.5% lower than men’s. The firm identifies some of the main issues as being the level of remuneration that partners receive and the fact that only 21.3% of partners are women in the UK Partnership plus the high proportion of women in secretarial roles who make up a large part of the lower quartile population.
    It publishes an analysis of the figures and an action plan, showing what progress is being made. This includes new business services apprenticeship schemes to develop skills on entry, the inclusion of gender pay when reward packages are considered, a stipulation that partner champions attend lawyer remuneration meetings to prevent gender bias, leader training on diversity and inclusion, improvements in mentoring and career development, senior leader reverse mentoring, an Inclusion Advocate programme, a move to match enhanced Shared Parental Pay with enhanced maternity pay and the recent launch of a new gender parity group, Accelerate.
  • At corporate law firm Eversheds Sutherland, women’s mean hourly rate is 22.6% lower than men’s [23.2% last year]. Women outnumber men at all levels, particularly in the lower quartile where they make up 70.5% of employees. Women are slightly less likely to get bonuses and receive an average of 47.8% less than men in bonus payments [compared to 42.8% last year]. The firm has also released figures for its partners’ earnings which show its female equity partners are paid 6.2% more on average than men [10% more last year]. However, the fixed share partner pay difference is 1.39% more for men on average [compared to 4% last year]. Some 27% of partners are female, a figure that has remained unchanged. Eversheds says it has been working on its global Development Plus senior women’s programme and talent and agility agenda and has launched its BAME network, introduced a senior skills programme and encouraged male membership of its gender network, introduced Inclusive Leadership training for partners, legal directors and Heads of Department and a number of career progression initiatives and has ensured interview panels have a balanced representation.
  • At Admiral Law women’s mean hourly wage is 7.7%lower than men’s. Women dominate in the firm with women occupying 64% of the highest paid jobs and 68% of the lowest paid jobs. They are less likely, however, to qualify for bonuses and women’s mean bonus pay is 40.5% lower than men’s. It hasn’t published an action plan or analysis.

What are progressive law firms doing to address the gap?

Some law firms have posted explanations for their pay gaps, outlining how they are addressing the issue. Several have targets for women at senior levels. Hogan Lovells, for instance, says it aims to have 30% of senior partners being women by 2022. Its report includes a list of activities, including employee network groups such as a working families network, partnering with the Reignite Academy on a returnship programme, coaching and mentoring and a leadership programme.

On the returner front, Women Returners have recently bid successfully for government funding for a pilot Law Returners programme involving six-month professional ‘returnship’ placements. Twenty law firms in Manchester and Leeds have signed up to participate in the programme which began in February. The companies range from local independents to multinationals and include Forbes Solicitors, Pinsent Masons, Robinson Ralph, rradar, DAC Beachcroft and DWF.

Several law firms have performed well in the workingmums.co.uk’s Top Employer Awards. McMillan Williams won our Overall Top Employer Award in 2014, becoming the first SME to do so. Read about what it is doing 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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