Pay disparity between male and female lawyers continues to roil the profession. Despite women having made up almost half of all associate classes continually since 2005, they continue to earn far less than male attorneys. Although more than 50 years have passed since the Equal Pay Act became law, American women still face a substantial gender wage gap.
By the Numbers—National Data
While women have made significant strides in the legal profession, female attorneys continue to earn far less than male attorneys. The same is true when looking across the board at full-time employees in the United States. The domestic gender-based wage gap has narrowed in recent years, but disparities remain. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey (ACS), on average, women earned about 80 cents for every dollar men made. In 2020, women in the United States earned 83 cents for every dollar earned by men per the report Income and Poverty in the United States: 2020. That’s a difference of 17 percent.
Per the Census Bureau, there are a multitude of factors that may contribute to earnings differences between women and men: age, number of hours worked, presence of children, and education. The types of jobs women and men hold, and the earnings difference among these occupations, also contribute to gaps.
Based on weekly earnings data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the gap has narrowed over time. In the first quarter of 1979, median weekly earnings for women was 61.5 percent of men’s weekly earnings. There has been some progress over the years, and in the fourth quarter of 2021, women’s weekly earnings were 84.3 percent of men’s weekly earnings.
According to the ACS, a woman who is at least 16 years old, is working a full-time, year-round job, and is part of the civilian employed population, makes 81 percent as much as her male counterpart earns. The pay gap varies, however, by state. In Wyoming, for instance, the gender pay gap is 36.6 percent—the biggest wage gap in the nation based on those who work full-time. That is, the median earning for women is 63.4 percent of what men earn in that state. Based on this set of data from the ACS, the gender pay gap is larger than the national pay gap in 33 states. Vermont had the smallest pay gap in 2019 at 9 percent.
The gender pay gap in large cities shows an even greater range between men and women. The report The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap looked at how much women earn compared with men in 25 major metro areas. The narrowest gender wage gap overall was in Los Angeles, where women make approximately 90.6 percent of the median earnings for men, a pay gap of 9.4 percent. Detroit had the widest wage gap with women earning 73.8 percent of men’s earnings, translating to a pay gap of 26.2 percent.
While women have made significant strides in the legal profession, female attorneys continue to earn far less than male attorneys.
Nationally, Black and Hispanic women showed the largest pay gap compared with non-Hispanic white males. According to the Census Bureau, Black women made just around 64 percent of what non-Hispanic white men made. The pay gap between Hispanic women and non-Hispanic white men is even wider than that of Black women. According to the report Gender Pay Inequality, Consequences for Women, Families and the Economy, the larger disparity between non-Hispanic white men’s and women of color’s earnings could be attributed to the fact that “women of color suffer both because of their gender and their race.”
By the Numbers—The Legal Profession
In America’s law firms, recent studies of attorney compensation show a persistent pay gap between male and female firm lawyers. According to the ABA Profile of the Legal Profession 2021, Women in the Legal Profession, average pay for female associates was 91 percent of the average pay for male associates. The 2020 Partner Compensation Survey revealed that male partners out-earned female partners by 44 percent. While this is a significant discrepancy, it shows a 9 percent improvement over the dramatic difference reported in 2018.
According to the 2020 survey, average compensation for all partners was up 10 percent from 2018. Median compensation has also increased since 2018. Moreover, equity partners continue to average more than three times the total compensation of non-equity partners. However, for the first time since conducting the survey, equity and non-equity partners saw similar percentage gains in compensation over 2018. In this regard, average compensation for equity partners rose by 12 percent. Like the 2018 survey, male partners’ average compensation continued to significantly outpace that of female partners ($1,130,000 vs. $784,000). Although an improvement over the difference shown in 2018, it is in line with the 44 percent differential reported in 2016.
The White Paper | Gender Study, based on actual billings from law firms, revealed significant inequalities in pay between men and women in the legal profession. Based on an assessment of $3.4 billion of legal spend and comprised of 3,071 law firms—including 73 AmLaw 100 firms—with 41,403 timekeepers working on 120,486 matters, the White Paper | Gender Study showed that billable hourly rates of female partners at large law firms were 10 percent less than their male counterparts’. In smaller sized firms, the difference was 12 percent.
Geography also played a role. In the South-Central region of the United States, billing rate disparity between male and female partners was approximately 20 percent. In the Mountain region, the disparity was 16 percent, followed by 12 percent in the Northeast. In 2014, the study revealed that virtually no women billed at over $1,000 per hour, compared with 2 percent of men in top-tier firms. Moreover, while 6 percent of male lawyers billed over $800 per hour, only 2 percent of female lawyers billed over $800 per hour. And at that time, 51 percent of male attorneys charged over $500 per hour compared with less than one-third of women in similar sized firms.
The pay disparity starts early. At the entry level, there are nearly as many female associates as male—47 percent in 2020 as compared with 45 percent in 2005. Although at large law firms, associate pay is generally not a mystery and entry-level associates are often paid in lockstep, as attorneys move up the ranks, the gender disparity gap widens. On average, the hourly rate of female associates was 9 percent less than male associates, and in 2020 they were also paid 9 percent less.
The assessment of bills also revealed that there are, based on invoice task codes, “female” jobs and “male” jobs. Only four jobs were “female” jobs: word processing, fact investigation/fact development, depositions, and “other.” By comparison, 177 task-based jobs were “male” jobs. The data also showed that despite lower compensation, female partners bill 24 minutes per day more than male partners. Another impacting factor was that on average, more men work on large matters compared with women: only 7 percent of large matters are staffed with female-heavy teams.
As appropriately noted in the 2021 update of The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap, “[p]ay inequity is a structural problem that demands structural solutions. . . . To upset this trend line, policymakers and employers must take the lead in closing the pay gap.”
- Kevin Miller, Deborah J. Vagins, Anne Hedgepeth, Kate Nielson & Raina Nelson, The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap (Am. Ass’n of Univ. Women 2018).
- Kevin Miller, Deborah J. Vagins, Anne Hedgepeth, Kate Nielson, Raina Nelson & Jessamyn Schaller, The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap 2021 Update (Am. Ass’n of Univ. Women 2021).
- Emily A. Shrider, Melissa Kollar, Frances Chen & Jessica Semega, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2020 (U.S. Census Bureau Sept. 2021).
- Jeffrey A. Lowe, 2020 Partner Compensation Survey (Major, Lindsey & Africa Dec. 15, 2020).
- Megan Wisniewski, “What Is the Gender Wage Gap in Your State?,” U.S. Census Bureau (Mar. 1, 2022).
- White Paper | Gender Study, Sky Analytics (Spring 2014).
- 2019 American Community Survey, census.gov (Sept. 17, 2020).
- Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, bls.gov (last modified June 28, 2022).
- Women in the Legal Profession, ABA Profile of the Legal Profession 2021 (June 21, 2022).