Women in Law

Women in Law

Private PracticeWorking in Legal

According to the Law Society, the mean and median gender pay gap decreased between men and women in 2022 in comparison to 2021. In fact, the gender pay gap in the legal sector is reportedly lower than the current UK median gender pay gap of 14.9% across all industries. Nevertheless, there is still a mean pay gap of 11.3% and a median gap of 4.7% in the legal sector. The major issues relate to pay, retention, and promotion of women lawyers. 


It is said that if we do nothing about closing the gender pay gap in the legal profession, it will take 86 years for women and men to achieve pay parity. Despite employers with 250 or more employees being required to report their gender pay gap data, the legal sector still seems to be a long way off from closing the void, especially within smaller firms.


In 2019-2020, the Government Equalities Office (GEO) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) suspended the pay gap reporting requirement. This meant that during this time, law firms were not required to provide gender pay gap information and therefore this data was not recorded. As a result, there has been a delay in addressing the issue of gender pay disparity. So, why is there such a difference in pay in the legal sector?


Why are women being paid less in law?


There were fewer females working in the legal sector in 2022 than there were in 2021 according to The Law Society. But regardless of this, women are being paid less than men generally and it has always been the case. There are two prominent reasons for this, which we will explain here. 


Fewer women reaching senior roles


The Law Society’s most recent report says that there are more women working in lower-paid roles than men, and more men are working in higher-paid roles than women within the legal profession.


Women make up over 60% of new entrants to the profession and have represented over half of all solicitors since 2017. However, a small number of women are reaching senior roles. President of the Law Society, Stephanie Boyce stated that in 2022 women made up 52% of practising solicitors and 63% of new entries, but women only represent 35% of partners in private practice law firms.


The main reason behind this is said to be unconscious bias. This is where people make judgments based on prior experience, beliefs, and assumptions. Law is a traditional sector in which many law firms were typically run by male partners, especially in high street or smaller firms. When firms recruit or promote individuals at partner level, it is likely that they look for certain qualities that are attributed to men such as assertiveness, strength, and authority. As such, the role of unconscious bias may play a part when firms are making decisions about certain candidates. 


Another obvious point is that women are more likely to take career breaks to go on maternity leave or reduce their hours to part-time to look after their children. This can prevent them from building up years of experience and progressing in their careers or delaying progression until later on. The Law Society noted that traditional career paths tend to be followed by men which means that fewer women fill senior roles. This in turn has an impact on women who see less senior role models which can hold them back from reaching their full potential.


Quantity over quality


The Law Society found that predominantly women were reported to be working part-time in 2022. In the legal sector, when firms are looking to recruit or promote individuals, they traditionally base the salary offer on the number of years of experience someone has as opposed to the level of knowledge or skills. This can disproportionately impact women, particularly those who take maternity leave and therefore have gaps in employment or who reduce their hours to part-time.  


What can law firms do to close the gender pay gap?


There are a number of things that law firms can do within their organisations to help close the gender pay gap other than actively reporting pay data. For starters, improving flexible working opportunities is a good way to help women who are juggling work and child commitments to allow them to continue progressing and developing in their careers. Shearman & Sterling launched an inaugural global women’s mentoring circle program to support the advancement of women in the firm. They also set up an Associate Leadership Academy to help people develop leadership and management skills to take on senior roles. 


In addition, being more transparent about pay reviews and bonus schemes will assist all employees in understanding how they can increase their pay and work towards targets. For example, Freeths are introducing gender targets for promotions so that all candidates that are shortlisted for promotion are reflective of the gender balance within the recruitment pool. 


Within the legal sector, some areas of law are undoubtedly more lucrative than others. It has been said that within law firms, men are given more complex cases or work in higher-paid areas which contribute to pushing the gap further. Law firms can ensure that work is distributed more fairly and that female employees are given equal opportunities to develop and learn about complex areas, so that they can build knowledge to work on complex cases. 


With this said, law firms should try to spot gaps in knowledge and provide sufficient training and development opportunities for all staff members. For instance, Freeths offer alternative routes into legal qualifications which combine paid employment with funded exams. Similarly, partners and managers should be trained on the role that unconscious bias can play when recruiting senior employees so that they are aware of any preconceived notions or biases that they may have when making decisions. More law firms could also update their recruitment policies to try and incorporate ways to hire more fairly, perhaps through gender-blind job application processes or by way of competency tests to identify individual skills.


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