DIVIDE: I'd like to be reporting that there's no gap in income, but unfortunately, I won't be able to do that, professor Joyce Sterling of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law said last week.
DIVIDE: I’d like to be reporting that there’s no gap in income, but unfortunately, I won’t be able to do that, professor Joyce Sterling of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law said last week. (Diego M. Radzinschi / NLJ)

Female lawyers make less than male lawyers. You might have already known this, but the numbers in a comprehensive, 12-year survey published last week expose the differences in stark detail.

Women at the largest firms make 66 percent of their male colleagues’ incomes, according to the latest results of the “After the J.D.” study, which tracked more than 5,000 lawyers across the United States who were admitted to the bar in 2000. That amounts to a $100,000 gap between the $191,000 median income for women and $290,000 for men at firms of more than 250 lawyers.

The divide wasn’t as great at medium-sized firms­ — but it was still there. At firms with between 100 and 250 lawyers, women made $170,000 compared to men’s $193,00.

Public interest law and solo ­practices were the only job settings where the median income for women, at $90,000 in public interest and $65,000 in solo, outpaced men, at $70,000 and $60,000, respectively.

“I’d like to be reporting that there’s no gap in income, but unfortunately, I won’t be able to do that,” said Joyce Sterling of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, who presented the research on April 24 at a panel at Arnold & Porter’s Washington office.

The study collected data from the participants three times since 2000, with the last survey in 2012. The study is funded by the American Bar Foundation, the National Association for Law Placement, NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education, and the National Science Foundation.

Sterling and Bryant Garth, a professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, have interviewed about 35 of the study participants to gain a better understanding of the situations behind the data. So far, the researchers have heard tales of struggle and success from the lawyers.

The most compelling case, they said, involved the career path of an Asian woman who worked for an American firm. “When we first met her, our bet was she was a star,” Sterling said.

When the researchers checked in with the woman a few years after she had passed the bar, she was billing more than 3,000 hours a year. Midcareer and a ­nonequity partner, the woman had worked with multiple witnesses and wrote briefs that became key to winning a multimillion-dollar case.

A few weeks later, the firm fired her.

Garth speculated that the woman was sacked because she had yet to take maternity leave. The firm said it was because she wasn’t a good enough writer. Now, the woman works as a prosecutor.

Garth shared another story of a woman who is now in-house ­counsel at a bank. The woman had worked at a Chicago law firm and was denied ­making partner by one vote. The woman told the researchers she had heard the partner voted against her because she wasn’t “nice enough looking,” Garth said.

But because the woman had been given so much work at the firm with little oversight, she had gained skills that helped her succeed in a corporate job.

LONGER ROAD TO PARTNERSHIP

Overall, the women in the study were less likely to make partner at private law firms more than a decade after they earned their degrees. Just above half women (52 percent) made partner, while more than two-thirds of men (69 percent) had. Of those women, they split almost equally between equity and nonequity partners. Men were twice as likely to be equity instead of nonequity partners.

The researchers hope to interview another 170 law school graduates for qualitative stories that flesh out the data.

The 2012 survey revealed other bad news as well as encouraging trends: • “Lawyers are not the miserable people we think they are,” said researcher Ronit Dinovitzer, a sociologist at the University of Toronto and an American Bar Foundation fellow. When the researchers asked the lawyers to rate their job satisfaction, more than 70 percent working in most practice sectors said they were moderately or highly satisfied with their decision to become lawyers. The only exceptions who were not as satisfied: lawyers no longer practicing law and those at medium-sized firms.

• Black and Hispanic lawyers carried mountains of debt for years after law school. About eight years into their careers, more than 15 percent of the black lawyers had $100,000 or more debt. The percentage with debt at that level dropped to 7 percent by 2012, compared with 5 percent of white lawyers. For Hispanic lawyers, their debt grew after the Great Recession. In 2012, more than 15 percent of Hispanic lawyers had debt of more than $100,000.

• A significant number of Asian lawyers left private practice from about 2008 to 2012. In 2000, almost one-third of the Asian lawyers worked at large law firms. By 2012, fewer than 10 percent were at similarly sized firms. The percentage of Asian lawyers who practice law at ­businesses more than doubled from 2000 to 2012.

Of all the data presented April 24, the divides between male and female lawyers received the loudest response.

“I think our culture has to change. This isn’t a problem of law,” Nell Newton, dean of the University of Notre Dame School of Law, said when asked to respond to the presentation. Newton said she hoped to look at the data more closely so she could avoid jumping to conclusions.

One researcher who worked on the study, Rebecca Sandefur of the University of Illinois College of Law, pointed out that the reasons for success that the team heard when interviewing lawyers were “things we would have called in the 1950s ‘particularistic.’ ” Then, she asked, is the profession no longer a meritocracy?

Contact Katelyn Polantz at kpolantz@alm.com.