Top earners in Big Law are making more money than ever, but pay gaps between equity and non-equity partners, lateral and non-lateral partners, between men and women, and along racial lines have widened over the past decade, a new report shows.
Average partner compensation increased 38%, from $640,000 to $885,000, between 2010-18, according to a retrospective survey of partner compensation data compiled by Major, Lindsey & Africa. The retrospective draws on partner data collected every two years over the period.
But the money hasn’t been shared equally. Top-earning partner pay increased 46% over the past decade while the lowest levels of partner pay only grew 15%, according to the survey.
“It really started in earnest about 30 years ago when law firms started separating partners out between equity partners and non equity partners,” said Jeffrey Lowe, global practice leader of Major, Lindsey & Africa’s law firm practice. “Over time, the gap has just continued to widen.”
Lowe said it’s too early to know how the coronavirus pandemic will impact partner compensation trends in years to come. Many firms reduced partner draws in 2020 as part of austerity measures designed to weather the economic impact of the pandemic. But overall, Big Law firms have fared much better than expected.
The survey retrospective also showed widening gaps between lateral and non-lateral partners, and along gender and racial lines.
According to the MLA survey data, most lateral partners move because they feel dissatisfied with their old firms, and not because they want to make money. And yet, lateral partners have earned 20% to 30% more than their non-lateral counterparts.
While the legal industry gender pay gap has received more attention over the past decade, the MLA report shows that the partner gender pay gap actually widened from 24% to 35%. This is due in large part to the relatively low number of women among the ranks of equity partners, the majority of whom are white men.
Black partners have also seen their average compensation decline since 2010, according to the survey retrospective.
Lowe said female partners and non-white partners face structural limitations that can prevent them from generating the same amount of work or receiving the same origination credit that their white male peers do, leading to lower compensation.