Women face discrimination in all fields, but the issue manifests itself differently from one industry to the next. In law, it’s most evident in the persistent gender pay gap; today’s female attorneys earn tens of thousands less per year than their male counterparts. Female attorneys are also less likely to feel satisfied with their earnings. Below, we highlight a few of the main reasons why the gender pay gap remains such a critical issue in law — and why the gap might be starting to close.

Why the Gender Gap Persists

Gender gap skeptics often claim that personal choice is primarily to blame for enduring differences in pay. Others believe that discrimination is the primary culprit. Results from Martindale-Avvo’s 2018 and 2019 Attorney Compensation Survey Report indicate that these and several other factors work together to keep compensation substantially lower for female attorneys. The following are among the most valid explanations:

Time Spent in the Field

Experience may play a minor, but notable role in today’s gender pay gap. Female attorneys have, on average, spent 16.3 years in law, compared to 22.7 years for male attorneys. Naturally, the more experience an attorney amasses, the higher pay he or she will command. On average, however, a male and female attorney who has practiced law for the same period of time will still see significant pay disparities.

Practice Area Selection

Some practice areas command far higher pay than others. Data from Martindale-Avvo underscores the extent to which attorneys who cater to businesses outearn those who focus primarily on consumers. In 2018, business-oriented attorneys earned an average annual $249,000, compared to $179,000 for consumer-driven attorneys. Female attorneys are more likely to work with consumers, resulting in reduced earning potential.

Discrimination

Experience and niche play a significant role in determining female pay, but ongoing discrimination cannot be discounted. Female attorneys tend to be penalized for the aggressive behavior that is so often prized in their male counterparts. Survey results from the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession also suggest that females are more frequently interrupted, mistaken for junior employees, or relegated to office work.

Good News: The Gender Gap May Be Closing

If there’s a silver lining to the legal industry’s alarming disparities, it’s that the pay gap appears to be closing, little by little. This is evidenced, in part, by changes in the aforementioned 2018 and 2019 Attorney Compensation Surveys. Referencing 2017 pay, the former survey revealed annual earnings of $220,000 for male attorneys, versus just $136,000 for their female counterparts. In 2018, however, male attorneys reported average annual earnings of $218,000, while a small, but notable increase allowed the average compensation for female attorneys to reach $139,000. Significant changes are still warranted, but the promise for a more equitable tomorrow persists.

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