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Guest Post: What to Do About the Wage Gap

Posted By HCBA President Paul Floyd, Monday, December 5, 2016

Periodically, in addition to the regular monthly updates to the President’s Blog, the HCBA will be publishing posts from other voices. The guest blogger for this month, Kendra Brodin, president elect of Minnesota Women Lawyers. She analyzes the recent national survey regarding pay disparity between male and female law partners.

-Paul Floyd, HCBA President

A recent New York Times article examined the striking pay gap between male and female law partners. The article, titled A 44% Pay Divide for Female and Male Law Partners, Survey Says dug into the compensation disparity between female and male partners.

Specifically, the article pointed out that, nationally, “Female partners earned an average of $659,000 annually compared with an average of $949,000 for male partners.” Overall, the survey of 2100 large-firm partners nationwide found that the average compensation for partners was up 22 percent over two years ago with a total average compensation of $877,000. Major, Lindsey & Africa, the legal search firm, has tracked gender pay differences for six years, and it found the pay gap even more pronounced two years ago when it was 47 percent.

While these compensation numbers are higher than what we would find here in Hennepin County given generally lower salaries in the Midwest as opposed to the east and west coasts, and the smaller number of large firms that would have been included in this survey, the finding itself is troubling and replicated throughout the country. The NYT article quotes Jeffrey A. Lowe, who heads Major, Lindsey’s law firm business, as saying, “We asked partners to pinpoint the factors underlying the pay differences, and the No. 1 factor was origination. We found that, predominantly, a partner’s compensation is tied to bringing in business to the law firm.”

There are several reasons this lag in pay may be occurring. In Minnesota and across the nation, the legal profession sometimes continues to be an “old boys’ network,” where male lawyers refer work to connections from law school and previous work experience.  Male lawyers may have more time to network after traditional work hours if they have a spouse or partner who manages the household, giving the male attorney the opportunity to make connections that lead to business. Additionally, female partners often take on or are given positions and roles within the firm that detract from their ability and opportunity to build and bill business, namely non-billable roles on recruiting or diversity committees, or other leadership opportunities that, while welcomed in many ways, undermine the time available for female attorneys to focus on building business.

Patricia Gillette, a JAMS mediator and recent keynote speaker at the Minnesota Women Lawyers Rosalie Wahl Lecture, suggested in a recent Law 360 article titled “Closing the GapWomen Fight Back Against the Law Firm Pay Divide,” that litigation over pay bias in the legal industry may increase. This will force firms to think harder about their pay practices and assess whether or not those practices are equitable.

“Some firms will be more open to taking a look at whether their compensation decisions make sense in the cold light of day,” Gillette said. “They will look at an attorney’s billables, receivables, hours and contributions to the firm and come up with an amount. The step firms often miss is once they’ve done that, they need to step back and look at all of the decisions they’ve made and do some kind of pay equity analysis.”

Like firms nationally, Minnesota law firms and lawyers can support their female attorneys and reduce the dramatic gender pay gap by monitoring the compensation of the attorneys in their firms and watch to make sure that female attorneys have the same opportunities to build business and take credit for bringing business into firms as their male counterparts. Firms could also start considering non-billable but critical service to the firm, such as leadership positions, mentoring, and contributions to key committees when considering compensation. Together, male and female attorneys can acknowledge this striking disparity and work together to create compensation structures that eradicate this disturbing divide.


Kendra Brodin is Manager of Business Development at Merchant & Gould, a premier national intellectual property law firm based in Minneapolis. She is also President-Elect of Minnesota Women Lawyers. 


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