Why the gender pay gap in the legal profession is structural and what you can do about it
February 26, 2019 4:33 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

Why the gender pay gap in the legal profession is structural and what you can do about it


Ninety-six years after the first female lawyer was admitted to the bar, there are more female students than male students in the law faculties of German universities. At just under 45%, they have now also arrived in the legal profession (BRAK statistics 2018). Notaries and in-house lawyers are also recording growth (Kallenbach, BRAK Statistics, Anwaltsblatt 13.06.2017).

However, the gender pay gap in the German legal sector is by far the largest, at just under 30 %, not only within the sectors in Germany but also internationally.

Gender pay gap in Germany

Reason enough to make this the topic of a panel discussion at the annual congress of the German Bar Association in Mannheim in June 2018: The item on the agenda at lunchtime took place in a “broom closet” at the Mannheim Congress Center. Two rows of chairs for approx. 15 participants were planned, 4 speakers squeezed next to each other at the podium table. For comparison: At the same time, events took place in rooms for approx. 50-100 or even several hundred people in the entire Kongresshaus.

In fact, however, more than three times as many participants had gathered, even though there were no signs for them. Others stood outside and followed the discussion in the corridor with the door open. In addition to lawyers, there were representatives of professional associations, human resources managers and recruiting platforms for lawyers.

What was discussed about the gender paygap?

Now questions like these were discussed:

  • Is the gender pay gap in the legal sector really so high, i.e. “adjusted” – and does it take into account the fact that most female lawyers have lost time due to family time (temporary or part-time) and therefore rarely reach the turnover-based partnership?
  • Do women lawyers want to pay the price that a top lawyer pays for 80 hours – weeks with evening acquisition events?
  • Do female lawyers still sell themselves below value and write lower fee grades or work in the legal fields, which tend to be less well paid, with more commitment?

So far so good.

But do these discussions bring at all anything around the disadvantage of the female lawyers? The ones who led, the one already asked thousandfold and the others cannot hear about it any more.

The need is obvious: Not only because the pay gap actually exists, but also because it shows the keen interest in discussing it.

At CLP – Consulting for legal professionals, I have been dealing with law firm and career development issues for years. For some time now we have seen an increase in requests for coaching in preparation for the partnership. By women and men, mind you. A phenomenon -and a very interesting one for the legal sector: Why? Because this is obviously where the need lies ...

… to face the challenge of partnership with professional support, taking into account individual needs. This is radically new!

Personnel development programs are finally also being thought of holistically in the legal sector. Instead of the traditional patent or mentor model, where a partner is assigned an associate, whom he “takes under his wing” on the way to becoming a partner – without further content-related, conceptual or structural specifications and control mechanisms – programs are being established consisting of various modules such as personality development and performance training through to additional professional training in business management or communication science issues (such as legal coaching or mediation). However, these programmes are also designed as a whole because they are not only intended for women, only for young parents or only for career starters, but reach everyone in the firm – from the assistant to the associate to the partner. For difficult individual situations there are additional contact persons with whom an individual solution can be sought, e.g. the representative for “Diversity and Inclusion”.

Sounds like a dream of the future? Not really, because this is already part of the day-to-day business of human resources development in law firms. Not in all, but at least in those who have recognized that the employees are the greatest potential of the firm and not only the partners and A-clients (see also “Founding and Development of Law Firms” DeGruyter 2018).

The employees are the firm’s greatest potential, not its partners and A-clients.

What has caused this change of perspective?

On the one hand, the debate that has been going on for decades about female lawyers having equal access to the profession, to professional associations, to decision-making posts, to publications and (unfortunately lastly) to merit. Some things have already been achieved here: The abolition of freelance work and thus the security of maternity protection in employment for expectant mothers, the possibilities of reduction and minimum insurance in the pension scheme of lawyers for non or low-income women during the family break, the quota of the DAV for lecturers in further training courses, the DAV’s deliberately diverse board of directors, the recently awarded “Women of LegalTech” prize of the Zukunftskongress (Wolters Kluwer). After one year it had been claimed that “there are no women interested in it” – by the way, the standard phrase that had already denied women access to justice a hundred years ago.

“There are no women who are interested in it” is the standard phrase that was used a hundred years ago to deny women access to justice.

Much is owed to the Association of Women Lawyers and the Working Group of Women Lawyers of the German Bar Association (DAV), who are constantly committed to this cause.

This change of perspective has been brought about above all by the change in values and culture brought about by the generation change. And this is above all the merit of those who, as mothers and fathers, raised this generation in the awareness that all people are equal and have the same rights and therefore claim this for themselves as a matter of course. My three teenage girls look at me every time as if I told them about times long gone (“Grandma tells them about war again”) when I told them about my work and the injustices that happened to my lawyers in the real world.

We experience the dismantling of the “white silver back” as a natural ruler of power on a large scale in the MeToo debate and the “chaos” of the autocrats and egomaniacs Putin, Erdogan and Trump – which mercilessly holds up the mirror to this model and illuminates its dark sides. On a small scale, it has long since taken place in the parental homes and is already lived by at least one generation.

That is why, despite the outdated structures of the legal sector, female students are increasingly striving to enter the law faculties.

For this reason, more and more women are becoming involved in HR and personnel development and are introducing a new perspective on the suitability and qualification of potential junior staff as well as the compatibility of career and family.

This change is supported by the fact that the legal sector is being forced by competitive pressure and the pressure of digitalization to professionalize processes and structures; and is finally making friends with the idea that it no longer has to do everything itself. As a result, law firms are increasingly establishing corporate structures such as HR departments and responsibilities for marketing and communications or management and filling them with (non-legal) experts. These, in turn, bring the self-image of modern industries of “diversity and inclusion” or “equal money for equal work” to the legal sector.

Anyone who wants to promote women with programmes today discriminates against them because he assumes that they need development because of their gender.

It is important to tackle the taboo and to continue to bring the dark sides of the established structural model into the light, to discuss them and to develop new models and approaches.

Taboos support authoritarian power structures and prescribe standstill.

Anyone who treats the compatibility of family and career as a women’s issue sorts themselves into the departing generation.

Discussions about the “gender pay gap” as at the lawyers’ conference are therefore right and important, even if the discussion alone does not change anything.

But it contributes to the change in values and culture – and this will eliminate the gender pay gap as well as the structural discrimination of female lawyers in the legal sector.

In this sense, let’s talk.

Dr. Geertje Tutschka, CLP – Consulting for Legal Professionals