Vol. 38, No. 1

Stepping up! Bar leaders for gender equity in the legal profession

by Laurel G. Bellows

This year marks significant equality-related anniversaries: the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, the upcoming 50th anniversary of the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech. This is a time to celebrate our progress and remind ourselves of the work yet to be done.

While women have made great strides in the legal profession, we still remain grossly underrepresented in positions of real power, influence, and leadership. The percentage of women equity partners in the nation’s 200 largest law firms has remained largely unchanged at 15 percent since the National Association of Women Lawyers began its survey in 2006. Women of color face the greatest challenges—they make up only 2 percent of partners.

Women partners in law firms earn substantially less than their male colleagues even when they perform exactly the same work and make similar, or even greater, contributions to the administration of their law firms. At the median, women equity partners in the 200 largest firms earn 89 percent of the compensation earned by their male peers. 

When women lawyers earn less and are passed over for leadership positions, the impact is felt by all of us. Not only does unequal compensation diminish a woman’s prospects for success and unfairly ignore her talents and dedication, but economists believe that closing the gender wage gap would create a massive economic stimulus across our country.

Pay inequities also reduce a law firm’s performance and profits. When women see pay inequities, they leave. This means that firms lose lawyers for whom they have invested time and money in training, and clients lose counsel with critical knowledge and experience. Ultimately, gender inequity in pay strikes at essential law firm functions—recruiting, maintaining robust client relationships, and ensuring a talented and diverse cadre of leaders.

In August 2012, as president of the American Bar Association, I appointed a blue-ribbon Gender Equity Task Force to recommend solutions for eliminating gender bias in the legal profession, with a principal focus on compensation. In the first of a series of projects designed to achieve gender equity in law firms, the Task Force and the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession created the Toolkit for Gender Equity in Partner Compensation. Eliminating inequities at the partner level is the most straightforward approach to close gender gaps in compensation at all sizes and types of firms.

Toolkit is ‘conference in a box’ for bar associations

The Toolkit was released in March 2013 and mailed to 120 major state and local bar presidents-elect and executive directors. All of the contents of the Toolkit are available for download at the Task Force website.

The Toolkit is a “conference in a box” expressly designed for bar associations. With the Toolkit, bar associations can design a summit and present the problem of gender inequity in compensation, establish objectives to reach pay parity, and encourage law firm leaders to improve their compensation policies.

The Toolkit outlines how to build fair compensation systems and how to implement them effectively. Law firm leaders are encouraged to give fair and appropriate credit for all components of firm revenue and activity, select diverse members for compensation committees, and train compensation decision-makers on implicit bias. (Implicit biases are stereotypical beliefs that someone may hold without even realizing it.) The Task Force’s recommendations emphasize the importance of transparency in all aspects of the process—understanding the policy, the process, who is on the committee, and where women fall compared with men.

Ultimately, the overarching goal is for law firms to understand that pay equity pays off for the firm. As clients increasingly demand more diverse legal teams and expect greater value for the fees they spend on legal services, pay equity builds loyalty, increases retention, and boosts client satisfaction.

Leaders in the organized bar understand that the legal profession is at a crossroads. Too many talented lawyers—an overwhelming number of whom are women—are leaving firm practice, especially large and midsize firms, for more desirable jobs in other law settings. If today’s firms are to survive and thrive, they must retain, promote, and fairly reward talented women lawyers before they leave. Firms lose their investment in talented lawyers and lose the potential revenue that women could generate if they don’t actively work to fix the wage gap in partner compensation.

My work as president of the Chicago Bar Association, president of the National Conference of Bar Presidents, and most recently, president of the ABA, has shown me the power of bar associations working together to effect real change. Together, bar leaders—men and women—need to step up to achieve gender equity in the legal profession. 

Bar leaders can and should play a leading role in starting the dialogue about how these firms can achieve a level playing field. As a bar leader, you are in a unique position to bring attention to the problem of pay inequity and provide resources to help firms and their clients understand the issues and implement solutions.

Gender pay inequity is an issue that strikes at the very core of who we are as lawyers—serving our clients and securing equality and justice for all. Gender equity is not just about money. It’s about respect. It’s about fairness. It’s about justice. It’s about the promise and passion of practicing law.

State and local bar groups have the ears of the legal communities across our country, and the ABA cannot combat gender inequity in our profession without them. I encourage bar leaders to convene a summit now and invite members to begin the conversation.

Step up and join us to propel the legal profession forward to serve as a model for gender equity.

Laurel G. Bellows

Laurel G. Bellows, founder of The Bellows Law Group, P.C., is an experienced business lawyer and mediator counseling senior executives and corporations, in the U.S. and internationally, on employment matters, severance agreements, incentive compensation, and workplace disputes. The firm offers transactional, counseling, and litigation services to small businesses and large corporations. Bellows is immediate past president of the American Bar Association. She has served as chair of the ABA’s policymaking House of Delegates and as chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. Bellows was the second female president of the Chicago Bar Association, where she founded the Alliance for Women. She is licensed to practice in Illinois, Florida, and California.