Asked & Answered: Elizabeth Jolliffe discusses the gender pay difference

At big American law firms, there is a 44 percent difference in pay between female partners and their male colleagues, according to a survey of big-firm partners released recently by the legal search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa.

The survey queried 2,100 partners at law firms nationwide.

Elizabeth Jolliffe practiced law as a commercial litigator for nearly 20 years at Clark Hill PLC in Detroit. As a partner and litigator, she worked with a wide range of clients, from Fortune 500 companies to medium and small businesses.

Jolliffe started her own career guidance company in 2008. She also a frequent speaker and author of articles on business development, career management, networking, job searching and social media.

Jolliffe recently spoke with Steve Thorpe of the Legal News about the gender pay difference.

Thorpe: Two years ago, this same study found that the gender pay gap was 47 percent. That’s progress, but could it be faster? How big a mountain still needs to be climbed?

Jolliffe: As a senior female partner reminded me fifteen years ago, the legal profession traditionally moves at a glacial pace!

This is still true today, especially compared to other professional service industries like accounting. It has only been within the last ten years that larger Michigan firms started focusing on business development training and providing it earlier in lawyers’ careers.

This was a positive change and those results take time as well.

As for the size of the pay gap mountain, it is hard to say since the study did not compare compensation of men and women with the same size book or other objective value.

In addition, three times as many men as women responded, and two thirds of the respondents were equity partners.

Comparing compensation data for equity and non-equity partners by gender might be a more useful tool to identify where and how a firm might focus. 

Thorpe: This study looked at big firms. Do you think it’s as big a problem at medium and small firms?

Jolliffe: In medium and smaller firms, almost by definition there is a lot less anonymity.

Partners know each other and their practices better, or at least know more of their partners.

I’ve seen that it is harder for those firms to treat partners significantly differently without it being noticed and without consequences.

In my experience, it’s not unusual in such firms for partners who receive significantly different compensation for equivalent or nearly equivalent value to take their book to another firm or start their own firm.

 And I’ve seen that in these size firms where each partner’s origination and individual revenue is a larger percentage of the firm’s income than in very large firms, the firms more often understand they can’t treat people that way.

Thorpe: In addition to other biases, many respondents cited “cronyism” as a factor. Will the “Good Old Girl Network” be replacing the “Good Old Boy Network” any time soon?

How do you recommend clients navigate these waters?

Jolliffe: For certain there are “Good Old Girl Networks” in place now; and at least in Michigan the large firms are generally working hard to take
advantage of their women lawyers’ connections and opportunities.

For example, those firms run programs specifically for their women lawyers and/or female clients, and try to spotlight appropriate people for work instead of making mismatches.

A reality behind business development is that people do business with people they know, like and trust. I see repeatedly that when lawyers and potential clients have similar or shared experiences, interests and values, it is easier to connect, develop trust and deepen those relationships.
The same is true for relationships and networks within firms. Of course the commonalities can cross generations and genders. I work with my clients on strategically expanding their networks now, inside and outside of their firm. This includes developing referral sources and “sponsors” internally and externally, not just mentors.

Thorpe: The study suggests that the biggest reason for the gap is the amount of new business a partner brings in.

Why might there be a gender disparity there?

Jolliffe: I think it is important to note that the study did not compare apples to apples, like comparing the compensation of male and female partners with the same size book of business.

That said, it’s not news that business begets business. My women and men clients with a sizeable book of business have more experience and confidence to attract more business with the same issues.

Their client contacts make referrals, change jobs and send them more business. Their reputation grows, their success multiplies, their book expands.

My experience with very large firms is that new business typically comes in through connections with established clients and/or the firm’s or a star partner’s reputation in a practice area. If more male and senior partners are the practice group leaders and/or have the most valuable contacts within those clients, they are generally more often positioned to receive those origination opportunities.

Thorpe: Some observers have asked whether women are really bringing in less business or not getting as much credit for the business they do bring in.

What advice do you offer women to help insure that their contributions are recognized?

Jolliffe: Learn the rules of the game first!

If your firm has a written origination policy and a procedure for resolving conflicting interpretations, become familiar with it before you start making rain.

Learn the unwritten policies as well. Develop powerful sponsors and other allies within the firm.

Do this before you need them. As I recently counseled a client coming up for partnership, these people know how to work the system.

Project an executive presence and become comfortable with appropriate self-promotion including how you brought in the business or how your contribution was key. Watch and talk with others about how they get credit; if you get to choose who else is involved in landing the work, choose strategically; and don’t forget to stand up for yourself - ask for the credit.

Thorpe: What other strategies do you suggest to women attorneys to deal with these challenges?

Jolliffe: First, set goals. Decide what you want to accomplish and by when.

Second, since business development and career success within firms depends so much on strategic relationships, excel at them.

Third, become known, liked and trusted by your target market. Visibility and credibility are key.

This can be inside and outside of your firm depending on your goals.

And last, at least for this article, step up to big challenges or do something that scares you.

I know a number of younger women lawyers whose careers skyrocketed after they took on roles that they never anticipated at an early stage.
Whatever you do, start now.

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