Women lawyers and lawyers of color are not paid equally with White male attorneys, and the gap is not small.
Compensation for partners who are women is 44% lower than for men, according to 2020 data: $784,000 versus $1,130,000. Compensation for partners of color is 20% lower than their White counterparts: $869,000 versus $1,046,000. (At many firms, compensation for associates is lockstep, which controls gender-based salary differentials to some extent.)
Note that comparing women to men and White people to people of color likely understates both the gender gap and the race gap. That is because it lumps in men of color earning less with White men earning more, and lumps in White women earning less with White men earning more.
The more telling statistic would be to compare White men’s average compensation with that of every other group. When we did that for our 2018 study of the legal profession, only about one-third of White men said they were paid less than colleagues with similar qualifications and experience, as compared to over two-thirds of women of color, 60% of White women, and 44% of men of color.
The gender pay differential in-house is far smaller: $351,000 for men versus $340,000 for women. This $10,000 differential explodes to $50,000 in the gender pay gap of general counsel, however: $550,000 for men versus $502,000 for women. Most of this differential stemmed not from differences in base comp, but from differences in bonuses and comp from long-term incentive plans.
Pay Differentials Reflect Various Biases
These pay differentials reflect several different kinds of bias, starting with prove-it-again bias. Only about one-quarter of White men in our 2018 study, but two-thirds of women of color and about half of White women and men of color, reported having to prove themselves more to get the same level of respect and recognition as their colleagues.
Women and people of color were much more likely to report being held to higher standards and to have their contributions attributed to someone else than White men were—exactly the kind of prove-it-again dynamics that fuel lower bonuses.
The heavy reliance in many law firms on origination credit plays a role in the yawning gap between male and female law firm partners’ compensation. One study found that women partners earned less even when they originated similar levels of business than men, a classic prove-it-again pattern.
Another prove-it-again pattern is in-group favoritism. In-groups tend to be judged on potential, while out-groups typically need cash on the barrel: “The sky’s the limit for him and we’ve got to keep him happy or he’ll leave” versus “It’s true she had a great year this year, but who knows if that will continue?”
When profits fall, we hear persistent reports that women partners’ compensation takes an abrupt nosedive, while men are given more of a runway.
Origination Credit and High-Profile Assignments
In-group favoritism also fuels the bias stemming from origination credit. If origination credit is awarded informally, below the radar screen, predictably the rainmakers of tomorrow will be selected by the rainmakers of today.
The rainmakers of today, who are predominantly White men, will likely turn to people in their social networks. Like likes like, so they will turn chiefly to other White men.
Another in-group effect concerns who gets selected for high-profile deals. Of the top 100 mergers and acquisitions by dollar value between 2014 and 2020, women were designated as lead by-side counsel only 24 out of 243 times.
The same study found that women were only about 10.5% of lead counsel for buyers on larger M&A deals, despite the fact that 20% of equity partners at elite law firms are women.
This pattern is generalizable to other practice areas. The 2018 study found that 81% of White men, but only 53% of women of color reported equal opportunities for high-quality assignments, with White women and men of color in between, but closer to women of color than to White men.
A similar disparity emerged for who had equal access to business development opportunities. The old boys’ network provides an invisible escalator for White men and a built-in headwind for women and people of color.
Another powerful effect is “tightrope” bias, which stems from the fact that ambition and authoritativeness are more readily accepted from White men than from any other group. The good woman is seen as modest, self-effacing, and nice. A man must be reckoned with. He’s competitive, ambitious, direct, and assertive.
One result we hear again and again is that when women make partner, their male sponsors expect them to continue as a service partner to their sponsor’s clients, while “a man’s got his dignity,” so men are given the time and space they need to build their own client base.
We also frequently hear that, when women bring in business, male partners feel entitled to splitting origination credit, whereas when male partners bring in business somehow the same expectation evaporates—women are such good team players, after all, while a man needs to support his family.
God forbid women don’t get the message: They are seen as selfish prima donnas if they refuse to split credit, with some even threatened by male partners who say they will refuse to work with them in the future. Prior research by my team found that 32% of White women income partners and 36% of women partners of color reported having been intimidated, threatened, or bullied out of origination credit—more than 80% of women partners reported being denied their fair share of origination credit in the previous three years.
How Firms Can Create a Fair Compensation System
Our 2018 report details concrete steps law firms can take to ensure that their compensation system is not systematically disadvantaging women and people of color. Some highlights:
- Keep metrics to check for patterned differences between majority men, majority women, men of color, and women of color in terms of partner compensation. Also check to see whether parents are disadvantaged if they take parental leave.
- Establish clear, public rules governing granting and splitting of origination and other valuable forms of credit.
- Institute a low risk way partners can receive help in disputes over origination credit.
The report also details concrete steps all legal employers can take to level the playing field in terms of who gets access to career-enhancing assignments. It is clear they’re still sorely needed.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
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Joan C. Williams is the director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings Law and author of “Bias Interrupted: Creating Inclusion for Real and For Good.” In 2018, she co-authored an influential report, “You Can’t Change What You Can’t See: Interrupting Gender and Racial Bias in the Legal Profession.”
Raafiya Ali Khan, a policy and research fellow at the Center for WorkLife Law, contributed to this article.