May 15, 2023
As more attention shifts to diversity within the legal profession, more and more firms are publicly discussing their gender pay gaps. Let’s take a closer look.


The legal profession has not been a historically diverse profession. All UK companies with 250 employees or more are required to publish data on gender equality, and for a long time those publications by major UK law firms (alongside many other large UK businesses) made for pretty depressing reading.

In recent years, firms have begun to set tangible targets for increasing diversity, especially amongst more senior lawyers. While many aspects of equality (or even equity) are still not yet within reach, the data does seem to indicate that we are slowly (but surely) moving in the right direction. This is also true of the difference in pay between different genders. Although we recognise the importance of discussing genders beyond the binary male and female distinction, most reports coming out, unfortunately, maintain a two-gender system.

While it’s no secret that solicitor salaries are extremely high on the whole (averaging £50,000 per year – almost double the average UK salary of £26,000, and reaching well into six figures for NQ level at large City firms), it’s interesting to take a more nuanced look to how those salaries are distributed – especially at more senior levels.

The Statistics

The Law Society are now responsible for producing the overview report of the industry’s gender pay gap each year. Previously this was carried out by the SRA (Solicitors Regulatory Authority). Here are some highlights from the most recent report.

  • The mean gender pay gap has fallen to its lowest point in recent history (11.3%).
  • The median gender pay gap now stands at 4.7% – significantly lower than the UK average of 14.9% across all industries.
  • More female lawyers (89.3%) received a bonus in comparison with male lawyers (84.1%).
  • The number of women in the legal profession has declined slightly.
  • Women still tend to sit within the lower-paid roles in the industry more than men.

It’s also worth considering how gender pay gaps differ between firms. In particular, larger firms tend to have large pay gaps, especially at more senior levels (such as in the partnership level). Here’s the latest data available for the Magic Circle firms based on mean gender pay gaps – from best to worst:

In comparison to the banking industry these are relatively low gender pay gaps – in comparison to the big four consultancy firms, these gender pay gaps are very high. The Financial Times recently offered a detailed statistical comparison amongst comparable industries.

It’s worth remembering that mean and median gender pay gaps are very different things – for median gender pay gaps, Freshfields historically touched 0% last year. The way in which this data is presented is becoming increasingly important to scrutinise. 


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How to Increase Gender Diversity in Law Firms

A number of approaches are being taken to reduce the gender pay gap in the legal sector.

Start at the top

Women in the legal profession are often over-represented at lower-paid levels of the career ladder, for example with paralegals or personal assistants. While pay for trainees and associates is fixed regardless of gender due to the lockstep model, at partnership level the salaries are much more varied – this is the point at which female salaries tend to drop off. It’s at this level that we need to tackle the problem most.

Change attitudes

This also needs to start at the top – in a recent survey, 62% of employees felt that fixing the gender pay gap is not a priority for senior management at their firm. Industry leaders need to set their firms on the right path and instil an attitude of quality throughout their people.

Increase transparency

the more conversations people are willing to have about the gender pay gap, the closer we’re likely to come to fixing it. The legal industry is not known for its salary transparency at the highest levels, and bonuses complicate things even further. More open discussions, both in the office and in gender pay gap reports released to the public, are always beneficial in moving things in the right direction.

Performance over experience

Looking solely at years of experience, whilst sometimes indicative of a lawyer’s strengths via their track record of advising on deals, can also lead to greater gender pay gaps, as female lawyers will naturally often see their hours drop off during pregnancy, maternity leave and the part-time working hours that often follow. While the outdated attitude that you can be either a mother or a lawyer is mostly behind us, the salary differences often still reflect this.

Diversity amongst practice areas

Women are overrepresented in some practice areas such as family law, while men are overrepresented in others such as financial and banking. The more high-paying practice areas are the ones which tend to maintain a more male-dominated workforce – this is likely due to outdated attitudes, again.

Future Outlook

It’s clear on the whole that these statistics indicate a shift in the correct direction. However, more clearly needs to be done. The difference amongst more senior staff is particularly pronounced, and the way in which firms present their data are areas of particular concern (e.g. the difference between mean and median stats, which are often published alongside each other for the purposes of making some firms look better than others). It’s also important to nuance these discussions by looking at factors such as practice area and types of firm. With the right efforts made, for example by encouraging senior management attitudes to change and increasing transparency around salary discussions, the legal profession’s gender pay gap is likely to continue to decrease.


By Declan Peters


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