Solving the law firm gender gap problem
For decades, studies have demonstrated that male partners at American law firms earn considerably more than their female counterparts. Even when the data are controlled for such variables as billable hours, seniority and law firm size, the gender gap persists. Yet, for years, women have comprised 40-50% of law school students in the US – which means this is not simply a pipeline issue; this is discrimination.
The Gender Equity Task Force of the American Bar Association (of which I am a member) was created to recommend ways to eliminate gender bias in the legal profession, with a particular focus on the disparity in compensation between male and female partners. In a report released this month, Closing the Gap: A Road Map for Achieving Gender Pay Equity in Law Firm
Partner Compensation, we detail how the roots of pay inequity run deep. The easy answer – that women earn less on a comparative basis because of the impact of their family responsibilities – is simply wrong. Women earn less because of unconscious bias and a complex interplay of factors in the compensation system.
The axiom that ‘compensation drives behaviour’ permeates the ways in which partners seek credit for generating business, a key factor in most law firms’ compensation systems. Often, that behaviour includes active efforts to avoid sharing credit. We propose recommendations that can be incorporated into any existing compensation system to eliminate the barriers to equal pay for female partners. Adopting these measures would not only help women, but would also result in a fairer and more transparent compensation process for all. We recommend that firms:
ENSURE DIVERSITY AMONG THE MEMBERS OF THE COMPENSATION COMMITTEE. Research shows
that having just one or two women on a decision-making body can lead to minority participants being marginalised. By contrast, studies show that companies with more women in key leadership roles and board positions outperform their competitors. DEVELOP SYSTEMS TO PROMOTE FAIR AND ACCURATE ALLOCATION OF CREDIT. It ’s impossible to provide fair compensation unless there are systems in place to discourage client hoarding, promote crossmarketing among practice groups, and incentivise partners to share credit fairly among those who help attract and retain clients. IMPLEMENT FORMAL CLIENT
SUCCESSION PROTOCOLS. When senior partners retire and pass on their client relationships to younger attorneys, female partners are frequently ignored in favour of their male colleagues. Client management in a sophisticated business should not be subject to individual lawyers’ decisions about client credit and succession. Clients should have a role in deciding which lawyers they will work with in the future. DEVELOP A PROCESS TO RESOLVE ALLOCATION DISPUTES PROMPTLY AND EQUITA
BLY. Research demonstrates that female partners are frequently excluded from credit allocation, and have even reported being bullied and intimidated. Firms should create a diverse oversight committee to review and resolve credit disputes, ensuring transparency and accountability.
TRAIN EVERYONE INVOLVED IN THE EVALUATION AND COMPENSATION PROCESS. Unconscious bias can skew our judgments of others. Training can help individual’s recognise their own biases and can ensure that
organisations put systems in place to help override the effects of these biases.
ENGAGE THE CLIENT IN GENDER
EQUITY. Clients have a tremendous opportunity to use their economic power to ensure that the team working for them is diverse and that credit is given where it is due. Law f irms should welcome their involvement as part of a client retention strategy that can also help close the gender gap . L aw firms will be better positioned to weather the difficult economic climate if they create a culture where economic growth and inclusive opportunities are linked through engaged leadership and transparent systems. And the equal opportunities women have long sought in the profession will finally become a reality.
Lauren Stiller Rikleen is the president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership and the executive-in-residence at the Boston College Center for Work & Family. The author of Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women’s Success in the Law and Success Strategies for Women Lawyers, she is currently writing a book about millennials in the workplace.
© 2013 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. © The New York Times 2013.