Although 60% of lawyers are women, the gender pay gap (the percentage difference between what a firm pays its male and female employees) for legal professionals is 17.6%, significantly above the UK average for all occupations. It is even higher for barristers and judges at 29% (the third highest on the Office for National Statistics list of occupations). Research published this week by the Bar Council indicates that pay discrimination starts right at the beginning of lawyers’ careers, increases with seniority and is not associated with caring responsibilities. And magic circle firms, whose lawyers are of course very well paid, are reporting mean gender pay gaps of over 50%, which are exacerbated by unequal bonuses.

Joanna Goodman

Joanna Goodman

Law Society president Nick Emmerson said: ‘The gender pay gap and its various causes remains one of the main issues facing women in the legal profession.’ But this is not an issue just for women – it is a challenge for the entire profession, whose ethos is fairness and justice. While mandatory pay gap reporting has been in place since 2017, year-on-year data shows very little improvement. At the current rate of change, it has been estimated that it will take 86 years to close the mean gender pay gap and 40.6 years to close the median.

The figures speak for themselves, despite firms using data analysis to explain away disappointing ratios, rather than doing something about them. While the power structures in big firms are predominantly male, pay and promotion strategies will always be skewed against women, keeping them in their place instead of giving them a place at the table.

The profession needs to change from within, for the sake of its own future. So rather than setting targets, launching initiatives, and promoting token female leaders, firms need to rebalance their power structures to give women more control over their careers and equal opportunity to progress.

The solution lies in a combination of succession and strategy. And it can be done. In just four years, Leamington firm Wright Hassall closed its gender pay gap and achieved gender equality in its leadership team.

As Dana Denis-Smith, founder of equality for women in law campaign group Next 100 Years, says: ‘Change will only happen if the people leading firms commit, and we all work together to make law a better, more equal place.’