Women Lawyers Fight for Your Equal Pay–And Their Own

LaurelBellows1Today is the day we take time to recognize all the amazing, accomplished, irreplaceable women around the globe. Women who have propelled us forward since International Women’s Day was first conceptualized more than 100 years ago. Women who have defied the odds and improved the world with their leadership skills, their hard work and their tenacity.

Yet today—more than 50 years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for equality for all and almost 50 years after the Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act were enacted—equality and justice elude women.

Despite years of talking and walking, gender bias persists. Equally educated women and men in the same occupations with similar work experience bring home very different paychecks. Women are significantly underrepresented in the political and business leadership of this country—and this world.

Women lawyers are not immune. Women partners in law firms earn substantially less than their male colleagues, even when they perform exactly the same work and make similar (or even greater) contributions to the administration of their law firms. And while women and men sit alongside each other in relatively equal numbers in American law schools, when it comes to climbing the ladder in their careers, women fall further and further behind. According to the latest survey (PDF) by the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL), the percentage of women equity partners (those who have ownership stakes in a firm and share in its profits and losses) at the nation’s 200 largest law firms has remained largely unchanged at 15 percent since NAWL began its survey in 2006. And when it comes to the top leadership posts in law firms (managing partners), the numbers dwindle even more: If I were to meet with 100 managing partners from the nation’s largest firms, chances are only four of them will be women.

Women of color face even greatest challenges—they make up a mere 2 percent of partners, according to a study (PDF) by NALP (the association for legal career professionals). Adding to the depressing news, the pipeline for women partners has become a complicated maze, and thus women are increasingly failing to see a path to success in the legal profession. According to NAWL’s survey, the percentage of women associates (employees with the prospect of becoming partners) in the typical firm has declined slightly during the past two years.

The American Bar Association (ABA), through its Gender Equity Task Force, is committed to finding solutions that will eliminate persistent gender inequities. Our Commission on Women in the Profession has long served as the national voice for women lawyers and is working to secure the full and equal participation of women in our organization, in the legal profession and in our justice system. Our task force has developed a compensation toolkit that will inspire a dialogue about the issue at law firms and bar associations across the country. This toolkit will be followed by extensive information on model compensation policies, as well as advice for women on how to negotiate for themselves and tactics for general counsel looking to eliminate the pay gap in their firms.

The ABA is focused on inequities experienced by women beyond the legal profession. We are proud to have supported the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and we are advocating for the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act to provide open and honest conversations about salary in the workplace. Whether inequities occur inside or outside the legal profession, persistently undervaluing women’s work diminishes their opportunities, shortchanges families and stunts our economy.

Please click here for a biography of Laurel G. Bellows, president of the American Bar Association.  

Photo of Laurel G. Bellows courtesy of ABA Now.


  1. This is a complicated issue. On the one hand, law certainly a good ol boys club — the looks I got at events for my area of the law as a young female lawyer and the lengths men went to ensure I felt unwanted. Women are punished for having children and frankly do not always make wise decisions about ensuring that they have children with someone committed to being an equal partner in raising them.

    On the other hand I think many women don’t make it because they don’t want to. They look around at the rates of alcoholism, depression, suicide, divorce. They look at what lousy parents many of the “successful” men are. They look at how uninteresting these people’s lives are – working 14 hour days, 7 days a week, with no breaks. They feel how negative and cynical these people have become. And they opt out.

  2. Thank you Laura and the ABA for your continuing efforts to find solutions to eliminate persistent gender inequities. Unfortunately, as you point out, women in law firms are not immune from these inequities. When I read the complaint in the class action lawsuit filed against the Greenberg Traurig law firm earlier this year, I was particularly struck by the following allegation:

    “at a nationwide shareholder meeting in September 2008, roughly a dozen of the Firm’s most highly accomplished female shareholders performed a song about male shareholders cheating them out of originations and decreasing their total compensation.”

    It would seem given the filing of the class action lawsuit, that Greenberg’s management team missed an opportunity to embrace the simmering conflict and engage in a constructive dialogue about the issues. For those interested, they can read a copy of the full complaint on my blog at

  3. Pauline C. Reich says:

    Thank you for advocating for equal pay in the US, however ABA is missing a new constituency- Americans working abroad.

    Also, Justice Sotomayor recently cited the fact that Japan has an equal rights amendment while the US does not. She was seriously misinformed… Due to lack enforcement of laws related to gender, women in Japan earn 50% of
    what men earn overall and non-Japanese women’s statistics are not disclosed.

  4. Over the past 93 years since the 19th amendment, women’s progress seems to sometimes take one step forward, 2 steps back. A perfect example of that was during WWII when no effort was spared to get women out of their homes and into overalls and take over the jobs left vacant by the men who had gone off to fight the war. Performing superbly in jobs traditionally held by men, women kept Americans war programs going at top speed. But by 1945 Uncle Sam was whistling a different tune and a massive campaign was launched to get Rosie the Riveter back to her home and housewife duties. Ads that once featured women engaged in war work now featured happy homemakers. For a look at some of these vintage ads and to see how Rosie the Riveter got her pink slip


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