The law is one of the most gender-biased of all UK professions, with female solicitors earning little more than half of what their male counterparts take home, according to a major new study of legal pay.
Despite growing numbers of women entering the profession, a "sticky floor" still prevents women from reaching senior positions as solicitors. The researchers conclude they are treated as "secondary workers", blaming a competitive, long-hours culture.
The analysis, by economists at the Cardiff Business School, paints a disturbing picture in which personal relationships are more important than levels of skill, with favoured males earning the "sponsorship" of senior figures in a firm.
With more women now taking legal training than men, female lawyers are seen as a major success story. Those such as Gareth Pierce and Cherie Blair have a high public profile.
Yet, on average, female solicitors earn only 56 per cent of what men earn, a difference of £26,093, which the economists describe as "an exceptional differential even by the standards of professional and managerial labour markets".
Three times as many men as women become highly paid partners in firms of solicitors, and even when they do get promoted, women earn less, says the analysis.
According to the Equal Opportunities Commission, the discrimination takes place across the legal profession - although barristers, who are self-employed, have more flexibility over working hours. An EOC spokesman described the shortage of women at the top end of the law, including the judiciary, as a serious problem.
The study, published this week in Labour Economics, concludes that: "Law is one of the top-paying professions and is one in which women have made a spectacular entrance in recent years. However, having achieved equality in entry, women are not achieving equality in terms of pay or promotion."
It analysed Law Society data to identify possible reasons for the gender differences, which include historical under-representation of women in the profession and discrimination.
The results show that only 20 per cent of women achieve partner level compared with 54 per cent of men. Female partners also earn less - 63 per cent of the annual salary of male partners, a difference of £28,195.
The researchers also found that women are more likely to specialise in lower-paid family casework and less in the more highly rewarded business and commercial legal work. Women are also less likely to work in London, where salaries tend to be higher.
"We find that a significant part of the pay-gap is due to women's limited access to partnership status and lower earnings growth once promoted," says the study. "What start as small differences later manifest themselves as substantial differences in earnings."
Dr Victoria Wass, one of the authors, said: "Favoured fee-earners are selected for the 'promotion track', which involves the best fee-earning work [and] the best clients. Selection ... is down to personal relationships, and senior partners [the majority of whom are male] tend to replicate their own characteristics.''
According to Joanna Wade, a partner with discrimination specialists Palmer Wade in London: "In our experience law firms are not progressive ... [Women] have found the profession to be very inflexible, particularly when it comes to child care."
A spokesperson from the Law Society said: "Our figures don't show such a high differential. But, given the number of women entering the profession and their success at law school, any pay differential is a matter for concern."
'We don't want to work silly hours'
Sarah Simcock, 27, is a barrister practising in central London. "I'd say that the glass ceiling still exists, but mainly because of the choices women themselves make. Getting to the most senior, highest-earning post, whether as a solicitor or a barrister or a judge, entails putting in very long hours and making sacrifices of your time - sacrifices most women choose not to make.
"The major problem for women practising law is that they earn less than men through wanting to have an element of flexibility - not wanting to work late, work weekends, or travel long distances at short notice because they may have family commitments. As a result, work will often go to a man who is prepared to do that.
"At the bar, although it is fairly equal in terms of numbers at a junior level, there are definitely more senior men in chambers than there are women. There are a certain number of drop-outs over the years because women leave to have families.
"With solicitors you find very few very highly paid, very hard-working senior partners who are female because many want to take a break to have kids and don't want to work every hour God sends. The people who are willing to work silly hours are usually men."
Jonathan ThompsonReuse content