When Major, Lindsey & Africa released its 2018 Partner Compensation Survey, showing that male partners earn 53 percent more than female partners at top U.S. law firms, well-deserved attention was placed on this persistent problem. Since the survey’s inception in 2010, male partners have consistently reported substantially higher average compensation than female partners. Because underlying factors causing this pay gap are complex, the search for solutions requires robust discussion and collaboration among everyone in the industry.

One voice with a special stake in the gender pay gap—and a special ability to help solve it—is that of the legal recruiting industry. Legal recruiters serve as intermediaries and trusted advisers between firms and candidates, and have a unique view of talent across the industry. By coaching highly qualified candidates to fully advocate for and market themselves while also assisting law firm clients in analyzing the value of a lawyer or group of lawyers’ practices, recruiters are in a unique position to help move the needle on closing the gap.

Indeed, because successful legal recruiters have a broad view of the industry, the work we do to help address pervasive issues like the gender pay gap starts as early as law school and extends throughout a lawyer’s career. Here’s how we can make a difference.

Law Students and Associates

Addressing this systemic problem must start early. Even at the first stages of a lawyer’s career, recruiters can help set the stage for a more financially rewarding future. As a helpful service, we periodically interact with law students who are hungry for industry insider information. Students have often not yet gained knowledge or perspective about the main factors that determine compensation: attorney originations and billing rates.

Our study found that female partners tend to disproportionately cluster in practice areas with lower billing rates, such as labor and employment, rather than more lucrative practice areas, such as subsets of corporate transactions and high-end litigation. When billing rates are aggregated, it’s not surprising to see lower-than-average originations and hourly rates for female partners. Recruiters can and should partner with career services professionals to help female law students make informed practice area decisions that consider the dominant compensation model in Big Law. Recruiters may also help facilitate mentorship pairings with female partners in lucrative practice areas.

Kirsten Keegan Vasquez Kirsten Keegan Vasquez

What about working associates? Matching candidate strengths with opportunities requires thoughtful resume assistance and firm-specific interview preparation. To address origination disparities, recruiters have an important role to play in coaching female associates on the importance of gaining and displaying successful business development skills and turning networking into business opportunities as early as possible. When female associates turn to us for advice, it’s our responsibility to deliberately identify firms that make investments in growing associates’ business development skills and give them opportunities to build their books of business. It’s crucial that female attorneys understand early in their careers the road they’re on and how to maximize their journey.

Partners

Recruiters can identify when we‘re representing highly valuable partner candidates who may have been previously underpaid. Recruiters can and must work with female partners to help them understand the full range of their impact, skills and marketability, as well as help them strongly articulate their individual value.

No one has a broader or clearer picture of the hiring and salary negotiating process than recruiters, which allows us to identify and help correct unconscious biases that come out while candidates are negotiating. Recruiters have the insight to tell women directly what other partners in comparable positions demand and receive in salary negotiations, as well as the experience to facilitate compensation negotiations between candidates and law firms such that the full range of concerns and opportunities is shared.

Recruiters are keenly familiar with their law firm clients’ unique needs. To make the match for nonequity partners, a detailed business plan is often appropriate. With a well-crafted and firm-specific business plan, a female attorney may receive a promotion rather than make a lateral move. In fact, recruiters often help create opportunities for women to move up the ladder, gaining more practice experience, the opportunity to originate business, a better title or greater compensation.

Through years of relationship-building, recruiters know which firms have strong women in leadership and practice groups. For women at all levels, strong female role models are important. For top-market lateral partners, these role models often directly assist with a new female attorney’s integration into the firm, including teaming on pitches and helping with marketing efforts. Recruiters with strong law firm relationships assist firms in crafting an interview process that includes meeting with and learning about the firm’s support and compensation system from these potential role models as early as possible.

Law Firms

When our law firm clients turn to us to fill leadership roles, we have a responsibility to actively source and submit strong female candidates. It’s up to us to highlight their full range of leadership skills, not just their book of business. According to the World Economic Forum, average representation of women in the workplace is higher at organizations with women in leadership roles, so adding women at the top trickles down across the organization. It also gives women at all levels strong female role models to learn from.

In order to hire women leaders, it’s essential to look outside of existing networks for candidates. We start too frequently with the people closest to our own networks—people who are often similar to ourselves in terms of gender, race and background. Recruiters can bring great women lawyers to the attention of law firms and legal departments. We also have a responsibility to actively market the candidates who show a commitment to supporting their female associates, partners and leaders.

We need to acknowledge our responsibility as recruiters and use our unique insight to help the industry we serve. By placing elite women at the top of the industry, introducing great female candidates to our clients, and working to close the gender gap at all levels, recruiters can make real change. Let’s make our efforts heard this month during Women’s History Month and far into the future.

Kirsten Keegan Vasquez is a partner and vice president of law firm recruiting and interim legal talent at Major, Lindsey & Africa. She uses her extensive experience to coach, manage and guide MLA’s candidate and client service professionals to deliver the highest quality representation in the legal search industry.