The glass ceiling in corporate legal departments is still thick, but it could be showing some cracks.
Women in general counsel positions made roughly $100,000 less than men in 2019, according to a recent report tracking median salaries by legal recruiting firm BarkerGilmore LLC., but the disparity all but disappeared in other high-ranking legal positions. The pay gap in mid-level, or management, and senior counsel positions has decreased since 2018, and women in mid-level counsel roles actually made slightly more than men in the same jobs last year, according to BarkerGilmore.
The new data shows a growing level of gender equality in the in-house counsel industry as more women have entered the field over the past few years, BarkerGilmore managing partner John Gilmore said.
“We’re seeing people leave the general counsel role who’ve been in that seat for a long time, a highly paid white male, and I’m seeing a woman get put into that place,” Gilmore said. “So I’m very optimistic that these numbers will change.”
But as some women fill those high-up positions, others may be getting stuck in lower-level jobs where they might make the same amount as male counterparts with less experience, said Eliza Stoker, the executive director of in-house counsel recruiting at legal recruiting company Major, Lindsey & Africa.
Nearly 2,000 in-house counsel lawyers across private and public companies of varying sizes responded to the survey between February and April. Respondents self-identified as general, management or senior counsel and reported their 2019 compensation, according to BarkerGilmore’s managing director of research and analytics Mary Rombaut.
Medians were used in the report’s charts and analyses, and approximately 35% of respondents identified as female. While the company has published similar compensation reports in the past, those focused on large, public companies and did not include private and small firms.
“I feel good about the progress that has been made,” said Stoker. “But we also know that there is still more work to be done, and that’s part of why these surveys are so important.”
Seat at Table
Between 2018 and 2019, the pay difference among lower ranking counsel positions shrank, according to BarkerGilmore’s annual reports. At the same time, the pay gap among male and female general counsel didn’t change.
Gilmore said the pay gap at the top of the in-house ladder likely exists because men in those roles have held the position for a longer time, have more responsibilities, and subsequently larger compensation packages.
“We’re in the stage where you have a lot of women that have not been in that seat for a long period of time,” Gilmore said of general counsel positions, “and their compensation is going to be less than some of these males that have been in those positions for a lot longer.”
But if the general counsel pay gap exists because women are newer to the top legal job at many companies, the time they spend toiling at other executive positions might explain why the pay gap is shrinking among management and senior counsel positions.
“If women are slower to get promoted, they’re going to put in more years at those lower level positions. And as their tenure in that role increases, they’re going to receive raises,” Stoker said, noting that comparing a woman with a 15 year tenure to a man in the same position with only three years of experience is comparing “apples to oranges.”
As a result, the pay gap at the management and senior counsel levels is likely to appear narrower than it really is, Stoker said.
Tough at the Top
While female general counsel face the largest pay gap across the in-house industry, women working at larger companies face even bigger pay differences than those at mid-sized and small firms.
According to the BarkerGilmore report, the median male general counsel made nearly 15% more than a woman in the same position across all companies. But when the data is focused on only large, public companies, the pay gap widens significantly.
“The larger the company gets, the bigger difference you see, which is a little bit of a punch to the gut for women,” Stoker said. “If you’re going to be a leader, you want to be at one of these enormous public companies with $10 billion in revenue and great branding. And apparently that’s where you’re still shut out from equal pay.”
An April report by Stoker’s company, Major, Lindsey & Africa, found that female general counsel at a public company with over $10 billion in revenue made nearly 34% less than men in that role. A similar BarkerGilmore report published last year in partnership with Chicago-based research company Equilar, Inc., that surveyed 500 of the largest public companies in the country by revenue found that female general counsel made 19% less than men in 2018.
Gilmore said he expected career length to account for the pay gap at large companies as well, again noting that many female general counsel are newer to the job.