Attorney Salary Negotiations: Are They to Blame for the Gender Pay Gap Among Lawyers?

Kelly Roberts
Attorneys are not immune from the widespread phenomenon of the gender pay gap.

Attorneys are not immune from the widespread phenomenon of the gender pay gap.

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The ABA reports that, in 2016, female attorneys earned $1,619 per week on average, whereas male attorneys earned $2,086. Crunching the numbers, that means female attorneys earned $467 less per week—a staggering $24,284 less per year than their male counterparts.

These numbers indicate that attorneys are not immune from the stubborn and widespread phenomenon of the “gender pay gap”—or the difference between what women and men earn for equal work. Researchers offer various statistics and explanations regarding the pay gap, but one factor that firms and attorneys might pay closer attention to is the rate at which women negotiate starting salaries as compared with their male colleagues.

In Women Don't Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation—and Positive Strategies for Change, Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever explain Babcock’s famous study of master’s degree graduates from Carnegie Mellon University, which found that starting salaries of men were 7.6 percent higher, or $4,000 higher on average, than their women counterparts. However, only 7 percent of women negotiated their offer, while 57 percent of men—eight times as many—asked for more money. Just by negotiating, starting salaries increased by 7.4 percent, or $4,053 on average—almost exactly the same amount as the gap. Because the effect of a starting salary compounds over time, professional women could be leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table simply by not negotiating a starting salary.

If initial salary negotiations play a pivotal role in the gender pay gap among lawyers, then what can firms and young female attorneys do about it? Firms could equalize the playing field to make salaries nonnegotiable. Hiring partners should also become aware of this disparity in salary negotiations, and recognize any unconscious bias that might cause them to penalize women more than men during salary negotiations.

Although intuitively, it seems unfair that women might need to negotiate differently than men, young women lawyers might face fewer negative social repercussions in salary negotiations by substituting the words “we” for “I,” and framing the negotiation from the employer’s perspective. Sheryl Sandberg describes this approach in Lean In, recounting her negotiations with Mark Zuckerberg before she accepted her position at Facebook. After much anguish over whether to accept Zuckerberg’s initial offer, Sandberg countered by prefacing negotiations with: “Of course you realize that you’re hiring me to run your deal teams, so you want me to be a good negotiator. This is the only time you and I will ever be on opposite sides of the table.” Similarly, female attorneys might preface salary negotiations by saying something like “Just as I would never leave money on the table for one of our clients, I don’t want to leave money on the table for myself today. Assuming your offer is negotiable, I’d like to be compensated at X [higher] amount.”

We can and should continue closing the gender pay gap one salary negotiation at a time. History will thank us for it.

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Kelly Roberts

Kelly Roberts is currently taking her own advice about negotiating job offers while she looks for new career opportunities. She may be reached at krobertsf@gmail.com.