Gender pay in the legal sector: How wide is the gap and how can law firms narrow the divide?

In April 2017, the Government announced a 12-month timescale in which employers with over 250 employees have to report on the gender pay-gap within their business. As the time ticks down to the deadline day of April 4th of this year, a handful of national law firms have already released their data. One of which is Shoosmiths.

Claire Rowe, Chief Executive, says the firm has more work to do to close its gender pay gap, which was reported to be below the national average. In response to these findings, Shoomiths has since set up a gender equality working group which reports directly to the firm’s board. According to Rowe, the group was established to provide a place for open discussion on the issues and potential solutions in advancing gender equality within the firm.

While this example serves to show the potential for change in the industry, it reflects a sector which still has a long way to go in closing the gender pay-gap completely.

The pay gap in the legal profession

Figures from a study published by The Law Society in September 2016 offered insight into the average earnings within the sector, comparing salaries at differing levels of seniority. This research revealed the typical earnings for a male associate to be £47,000. By comparison, a female associate of the same level and qualification earned a typical salary of £42,000.

The findings further showed how a male solicitor earned an average salary of £70,000 – a whopping 19% more than the average salary of their female counterpart (£57,000.) This trend also continued through senior positions, with a 20% disparity in earnings between female and male equity partners of a law firm.

The underlying causes of the gender pay gap in the legal industry are numerous, but perhaps the most prevalent is the lack of women admitted into senior positions. Despite the fact that there are more women working in the legal industry than ever before, female legal professionals still only represent a 25% of partners in leading UK law firms and just under 19% in magic circle firms.

How can we close the gap?

The introduction of the Equality Act 2010 (Gender Pay Gap Information) Regulations 2017 is a step forward in the journey towards gender equality, and mandatory reporting should encourage firms to review their pay structure and take action to narrow the divide or face reputational damage. Law firms such as Shoosmiths and CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang have already been prompted to address the gender pay-gap following the publishing of employee pay figures, and it’s expected that many more will follow suit.

However, employers can’t be held entirely responsible for the issue. A change in attitude throughout the sector is critical in closing the gender pay-gap or at least improving the current landscape. In order to achieve this, gender equality must become a board-level concern within a firm, and active efforts must be made to raise awareness of gender bias and promote equal opportunities.

This isn’t a change that happens overnight: it is an ongoing process that involves a regular re-examination of the culture within a firm. With April 4th just two months away, we can only hope that new legislation will pave the way for a representative legal profession.