75¢ on the Dollar is Not Okay: A Playbook to Achieve Equal Pay in Law Firms

Equal pay for lawyers in law firms. How many headlines have we read about women making less than men? I’ve lost count. It's old news. And, yet, it's still a huge problem. I’m tired of hearing about this. I’m even more tired of women making less than men. The reasons for this pay inequity are complex and often subtle, but it’s there, it’s real, and it needs to end. For those firms who want to do the right thing, but don’t know how to go about it, I offer this blog to you. (For those who don’t think this is a problem needing a solution, keep in mind that I am now a client – as are many women – and I will ask about your numbers. I encourage other in-house counsel to do the same.) This is not an easy problem to solve, but it can be solved … if those who can impact it want to change it.

A couple caveats (I’m a lawyer, after all). I am not an academic or expert who has studied this market from the standpoint of some economic model. My approach is practical, based on having been immersed in this system and this problem – and having seen what works and what does not – for 20 years. I've been in a small firm. I've been in a medium sized firm. I've been in a large firm. I've been an associate, a junior partner, a senior-ish partner, a practice group leader, co-founder of a diversity committee, co-founder of a firm – a wide variety of attorney roles in a firm. I've talked with associates and partners (women and men) in many other law firms. It is from this experience and these conversations that I offer some practical solutions.

Second caveat: I’m a woman. I have been personally affected by this issue and I want it solved for all of the female lawyers I know (and those I don’t) who work as hard as the men they practice with yet still see their compensation fall behind. Having talked with many women about this topic, I also know that they often don’t feel they can speak up on this topic. They worry about backlash, about being ostracized. They worry about losing their jobs or professional opportunities. They are often the sole breadwinner, with kids, who cannot afford to speak out. So, for those of you in law firm management who think you don’t have a problem because women don’t speak up about it, think again. And, make it right anyway.

Before we get to how to solve the problem, I have a suggestion for how we can motivate firms to solve it. Years and decades of the media drawing attention to this problem has not mobilized firm leadership to solve it. I bet pocketbooks would. What if - until there was equity in pay in any given firm - men were paid 75% of their usual salary and women were paid 25% more? Or, if that's not enough incentive, the highest paid man in a firm gets the highest paid woman's salary (and vice versa), the second highest paid man gets the second highest paid woman's salary (and vice versa), on down the ranks. I suspect we'd solve this problem faster...

So, now that firm leadership and partners are engaged, what can you do?

Step 1: Look at your data (if you don’t have it, collect it). What are your numbers? Without data, you don't know how far off you are and it is impossible to quantitatively measure progress. What data is important?

A. Demographics. Take a look at the demographic breakdown of your attorney ranks - men and women, underrepresented persons of color, LGBTQ attorneys, etc. Where are groups overrepresented or underrepresented? Where do you need to improve?

B. Pay. Then, look at what you pay people in each of these groups. How do those numbers look at all levels - associates, junior/non-equity/income partners, equity partners. Do you see men (or white men) disproportionately represented at the top of each group?

C. Leadership. Next, look at your committees and management or leadership teams. Who populates what committees? Who sits in leadership positions? Where are there gaps or disparities in comparison to your firm demographics?

Step 2: Evaluate Your Policies and Take Action if They Are Inadequate. How do the policies that govern the running of your firm impact inclusion? How do the attorneys in your firm get opportunities? Is it managed or is it "organic?" Does it depend on who you know, how much you speak up, or with whom you play golf? Are partners reviewed and compensated by how well they train, mentor, and sponsor all men and women? The following areas tend to result in a disparity in pay if not properly managed:

1. Who are you hiring?

Recruitment is the first step to ensure pay equity, by ensuring you are hiring a diverse work force. Are you hiring a representative number of women and other protected groups? If not, take a look at your pool of candidates.

Actions: Firm Leadership: Based on your demographic information, identify where your numbers are low and recruit in those spaces – particular law schools, or leveraging your attorneys’ networks.

2. Who is selected to pitch a client's work?

This is the first point of access to a client and can result in a 20-year long client relationship that benefits the attorneys who work on that pitch. A recent trend is to include a woman or person of color to give the impression of diversity. But pandering to clients by bringing a junior woman or person of color does not solve the problem. It's insulting to women and people of color. And it pays lip service to diversity. Having a truly diverse bench from which to draw is what makes the difference (see issue #1).

Actions: Practice group leaders (PGLs): have a defined process and manage this to ensure all attorneys get the opportunity to pitch for equivalent work.

3. Who gets assigned to a case or matter?

Some matters are more prestigious or profitable than others. Routinely getting stuck on bad cases can ruin an attorney's professional progress.

Actions: PGLs: manage this process to ensure the "good" assignments are equally distributed.

4. Who gets the assignments that result in growth and visibility, including client contact?

This generally is handled by the partner in charge of a matter - it's too micro a decision for PGLs to manage. But, partners need some accountability. Partners with free rein often hand out plum assignments based on who is top of mind, who happens to be in his office at that time, or his favorite attorneys rather than ensuring equity in assignments.

Actions: Partner Compensation Committees: develop and implement a process to review, measure, and compensate partners based on the inclusiveness of their matter-level decisions.

5. Who is placed in management or leadership roles?

Firms tend to be managed by attorneys. And, there are many tasks that need to be done - many of which are not fun or sexy. But, committee level work usually can be readily categorized into the prestigious committees (executive committees, management committees, compensation committees - those that affect firm strategy or finances) and the more administrative (less prestigious) committees (diversity committees, training committees, impact committees - those that are not directly - at least, visibly - contributing to the bottom line and are seen as "softer" work). The work of all of these committees contributes to the firm, but they are not valued the same. Often, women get unduly burdened with lower prestige committee work, serving on multiple committees, none of which helps their careers, and which takes their time away from building their practices (the things that advance their compensation) and gives them less visibility and prestige within the firm. Firms need to ensure that all committees have roughly equal numbers of men and women. If they don't, this reveals either a pipeline problem or an access problem.

Actions: Firm leadership: Manage committee assignments to ensure equal access and review annually. For less prestigious committees, give meaningful credit or compensation so those who participate in them are not penalized (or limit terms and rotate committee members). If you have the committees, they must be important. If they are important, ensure people get credit / compensation.

6. Who has access to key mentors and sponsors?

Good mentors and sponsors can pave an attorney’s path to partnership and beyond. Often, mentor assignments result from the luck of the draw or organically form from work relationships. But equal access to mentors and sponsors can be accomplished. Partner or senior associate mentors can be assigned to associates for 1 year periods, then rotated. By identifying the skills and experience an associate needs to develop to reach partnership with the talents and experience more senior attorneys have to offer, deliberate assignments can be made to help associates develop critical skills. Such a rotation has the added benefit of exposing senior attorneys to a more diverse group of attorneys. While sponsors often develop organically, they can be assigned as well. Sponsors need to know an attorney's work and talents, so if they are not familiar with her work, they need to get to know her and learn about her work from others.

Actions: PGLs: Create a rotating mentor/sponsor program and ensure the assignments are fair. Tie an attorney's success as a mentor or sponsor (through the success of those he or she mentors or sponsors) to his or her compensation to make mentorship and sponsorship a priority. Other mentorship tools include glassbreakers.co.

7. How are partnership decisions made?

If the above steps are taken, the partnership decision should be a data-filled comparison of qualified attorneys against identified criteria. Decisions should not be made based on who is on the committee or in the room when a candidate is considered. They should not be made by anecdotal evidence from one partner who just likes candidate A but not candidate B.

Actions: Partnership Committees: Create a system that ensures partnership decisions are based on data, and that attorneys had equal access to the opportunities that develop and showcase their abilities and potential as a partner.

8. Who inherits work when a partner retires or leaves the firm (assuming the work stays)?

This action alone can make a career. This should not be a casual decision. It should not be left to the retiring partner, to pass the work onto his "buddy." This is where the “birds of a feather” impact is greatest.

Actions: PGLs: Work with the retiring partner to ensure the work goes to appropriate persons, who will properly serve the clients.

9. Who gets billing credit, supervisory credit, origination credit? Follow-on question: which of these credits matter and how?

This is such a critical issue that has many facets of impact. The PGLs need insight into and tight control over each of these types of credit. Too many partnerships are the wild, wild West when it comes to deciding among partners who should get credit. Usually, credit has a direct impact on a partner's compensation, so there is incentive to obtain as much credit as possible. Senior partners have a decided advantage over younger partners who may be reticent to even ask for the credit because it creates a really uncomfortable conversation that potentially puts the junior partner on the wrong side of a senior partner (which can impact many other decisions). To the senior male partner who says, "if you can't stand up for yourself to ask for credit you're owed, how can you vigorously represent a client?" I direct you to all the research on women negotiating vigorously for others (like their clients) but less so for themselves, as well as the dysfunctional environment in law firms in which some senior male partners are virtually "untouchable." The casual approach to this disadvantages junior partners and, in particular, women and persons of color.

Actions: Firm Leadership: Create a policy for what credit matters and why/how. Communicate that policy officially to all attorneys (there is no reason for it to be a mystery) and ensure it is actually followed (not undermined by the “real” policy being passed down through oral tradition among men at the bar after work). PGLs: Participate in the assignment of credit. Revisit the assignment of credit periodically. Often, one attorney will bring in a client, but 3 years later, his second in command is managing all the work for that client, yet the credit never gets adjusted to recognize her effort. The contribution of the second in command needs to be recognized and compensated.

Step 3: Assess implicit biases that affect compensation. Bias in itself is not a bad thing – it’s necessary to help us move quickly based on information we have. We make biased decisions every day. But bias based on gender (or other protected groups) is not okay and can have a very negative impact. Here are a few ways gender bias can surface in a way that impacts compensation:

A. Work assignments. We need to acknowledge and head off the assumptions we make about men and women in the assignment of work. Men may want more than 2 weeks of paternity leave. Men may want better work-life integration. Women may not want to miss travel opportunities for work after having a child. Train your partners to ask and not assume.

B.  Performance reviews. How do our assumptions play into the language we use in performance reviews? How subjective are the reviews? What trends do you see? Are women being judged differently? Is different language used to describe them? Confident v. Aggressive. Go-getter v. Bossy. Collaborative v. Indecisive. Words matter, and women tend to be judged differently. This issue impacts advancement and compensation and is a key factor for income disparity.

C.  Training. Women are often seen as better trainers or educators. As a result, they can receive a disproportionate amount of training work (that usually is not recognized and does nothing to advance that attorney’s career). Training is critically important. But, if you find that women are being tapped more often than men, find a way to recognize and compensate that contribution (or even it out). If it is truly important, it deserves commensurate compensation.

D. Birds of a feather. Left to their own devices, senior attorneys will mentor, sponsor, train, and transfer work to those with whom they are most comfortable, or those who remind them of themselves. This is not a sustaining model for a diverse firm. Objective policies and processes with oversight need to be put in place to ensure the current makeup of the partnership does not sustain simply through “like tapping like.” Find ways to get all of your attorneys together to interact and get to know each other, and ensure they don’t just hang out with their buddies, but actually talk to someone in a different demographic. It can be awkward or uncomfortable for a senior male partner to invite a junior female attorney out for a drink – create “safe” opportunities to get to know each other than don’t require such invitations.

E.  Stop rewarding men behaving badly at the top. Those with a “book” can do what they want. Management hates to have to correct his bad behavior because they are always concerned he will take his marbles and go to another firm. Create a culture that doesn’t reward this kind of selfish behavior, and that doesn’t invite mistreatment of professionals who work with that partner.

Step 4: Action. Okay, you know your demographics, you’ve reviewed your policies, you’ve addressed harmful implicit biases – now what?

A.  Identify what is already in place. What are you already doing well and where do you have gaps?

B.  Create a plan. For those areas where you have gaps, put a plan in place (see actions above). You can’t build Rome in a day, so set short term and long term priorities – but set priorities. Ensure the plan sets SMART goals and that partners are held accountable (i.e., their compensation depends on advancing the plan).

C.  Message the plan. Tell partners and associates what you’re doing. You will likely gain loyalty from the female lawyers and lawyers of color in your firm and you will get questions from those who do not believe in the plan. Listen to them. Maybe they have helpful ideas. At worst, this gives you the opportunity to educate those who don’t appreciate the depth of the problem or the benefit of solving it to the whole firm.

D. Be transparent. Publish your associate and partner demographics, publish your committee numbers, publish your compensation variances (or, publish with pride your compensation equity). Show you're trying to solve this problem through action. Show you care about providing the highest quality work for your clients. Without women and persons of color in top positions, you can't produce top quality. It will never match that of diverse teams. And, you will attract top talent from other firms who are not taking action.

So, now you have a playbook. No excuses. It’s time to close the gap. Let's do this.