Driving pay equality in the legal sector

Aoife Whitford, Diversity and Inclusion Champion at the Pay Index, talks about the need for better data to create meaningful improvement in pay equality, and invites firms to take a short survey to gauge the sector’s willingness to participate in a detailed survey of the legal sector’s gender, BAME, LGBTQ+, and disabled employee pay equality.

When my mentor Susan Freeman started her legal career, the workplace looked very different. It was majority male, with women overwhelmingly in support roles.

Today, as a partner at Mishcon de Reya, Susan is a legal property trailblazer, a culture-changer and one of London’s most networked leaders. Susan stands out, as she is, unfortunately, an exception.

Women still do not have equality in either role or pay within the legal sector, which can be demotivating and frustrating.

The latest Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) figures show that while women make up 49% of all lawyers in law firms, they are not reaching senior positions in equal numbers to men. This difference is most evident in large firms of greater than 50 partners, where just 29% of partners are female.

The gap gets even wider when we investigate pay. The Pay Index data shows that on average, males in the legal sector in the UK earn 23% more than their female counterparts across all roles (based on self-reported data by 249 respondents).

The overall UK figures – collated by the UK government via legally mandated gender pay gap reporting – tell a similar story.

The graph below shows the percentage of women in roles in each quartile in terms of pay, for the sector that includes most law firms, and for the UK market as a whole. The proportion of women falls from 73% in the lowest pay quartile to 53% in the highest.

The SRA also has more detailed reporting, which shows this inequality persists across other groups such as BAME and LGBTQ+ communities. For example, while 21% of solicitors are BAME, only 8% of partners in large firms are BAME. 

And yet, in the “post-woke” world, expectations around diversity and inclusion are high, and the business case for a culture of equality gets stronger every year.

The gap remains between what business leaders are prioritising and what employees, clients and partners are asking for. There are demands for improvements in equality for multiple groups beyond just gender.

But, as a previous law lecturer and someone close to the sector, I feel that progress is painfully slow.

Thinking beyond frameworks

As the management consultant Peter Drucker once said, “If you can’t measure it you can’t improve it”. There is a lack of detailed, industry-wide measurement capabilities, which leaves firms unable to create meaningful improvement frameworks.

The gender pay framework provided by the government is a legal requirement, but the reporting itself lacks so much detail it results in a superficial snapshot on gender pay and nothing on other diversity groups.

Furthermore, the government reports provide no direction on how to develop relevant diversity and inclusion strategies. 

With the time it takes firms to focus on pay equality and any associated improvements against a backdrop of limited information, direction and resource, it is no surprise that improvements to date have been tiny, if any.

An opportunity for firms or the price of entry for future business wins?

However, the future looks more promising.

We are seeing younger, more diverse and socially conscious businesses growing rapidly. This means firms will have to pay attention to evolving client expectations around genuine diversity and inclusion.

More and more of our professional services clients are using data to show their clients that they are addressing their equality gaps and using this information to attract talent who want to work in a more equal and inclusive organisation.

This is not an overnight fix, but by using data as a competitive advantage, organisations are creating a foundation for equal workplaces and improved business performance.

Tools such as the Pay Index are emerging to provide this widescale measurement and framework for improvement. The Pay Index is a technology platform that measures compensation across companies, industries, functions, geographies and gender to create a real-time tracker of pay equality.

We are keen to deliver an industry first: a detailed survey of the legal sector’s gender, BAME, LGBTQ+, and disabled employee pay equality.

Any company that participates would be free to use its data and information gathered to improve its own internal metrics and the findings will be made available to all members this summer. We encourage you and your organisation to be a part of this.

As a first step, we would like to gauge how useful this survey and subsequent findings would be to both the legal profession and individual solicitors.

By completing our short, two-minute survey about your firm’s willingness to participate and share data, you can help us take an important step towards addressing pay inequality in the legal sector.