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Surprise: The Highest Earners at Most Law Firms Are White Men

By Laura Temme, Esq. | Last updated on

The American Bar Association's latest survey on law firm hiring, compensation, leadership, and attrition found that white men still made up the vast majority of high earners at law firms in 2020. White male attorneys made up 71% of the top 10% compensation group, distantly followed by white female attorneys (who account for only 13%). Black attorneys represented less than 1% of the top earners, although the numbers were slightly better for those at small firms.

While firms are hiring more female, LGBTQ+, and non-white attorneys at the associate level, the study observed a decline in that representation at the partner level. The report also notes higher attrition rates among non-white attorneys.

Since the data is based on 2020 demographics, we don't know how the pandemic may have affected these numbers. Other surveys inform us that the pandemic profoundly affected female attorneys, especially women of color. A study released in 2021 found that one in four female attorneys have considered leaving the profession due to mental health concerns.

So what's a firm to do?

Continue Diversity Initiatives

Now is not the time to throw our hands in the air and say, "well obviously these initiatives don't work." It might feel like we've been talking about diversity forever, but change takes time — especially in a profession that hasn't always been quick to adapt. These numbers should invigorate, not discourage, diversity initiatives and highlight their importance.

Ensure Equal Pay for Equal Work

A perhaps less abstract solution is looking at the numbers. Conducting an audit of everyone's titles and pay can help determine if any gaps need addressing. Is anyone in need of a title adjustment based on the work they're currently doing? Are differences in pay attributable to reasonable factors, such as seniority?

Encourage Mentorship

This one's a bit of a no-brainer: Those at the top need to help the folks trying to climb the ladder. The legal profession is a competitive one, but it also relies heavily on mentorship. By making thoughtful choices about who they mentor, top earners can help even the playing field and ensure everyone has a fair shot at success. We're often drawn to people with whom we share similar experiences, but going outside of that circle can benefit everyone involved.

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